Due to the nature of our work as heritage consultants, we are often invited into the hidden nooks and crannies of historic buildings. Just last week we were clambering up a ladder into the loft of a seventeenth-century house. While studying the roof structure, we noticed some carpenters’ marks on several of the beams!
Carpenters’ marks were used in the medieval and post-medieval period. Their purpose was to indicate the order in which a timber frame structure should be assembled. These markings most often take the form of Roman numerals, which were scored into the wood with a race knife (a type of carpentry knife with a u-shaped end). They are often confused with witches’ marks, which have an apotropaic purpose.
You can sometimes tell the age of the building depending on how the carpenters carved the number four and nine. During the medieval period, four was typically rendered as iiii and nine as viiii. Our modern convention of writing four as IV and nine as IX was only adopted in the sixteenth-century and even then it took a long time for it to become universally accepted.
Carpenters’ marks can be found on a wide array of buildings and furniture across Britain. They can aid in the interpretation of a structure and its development, which is an important aspect of building recording.
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