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Caring for our Collections - Grain Arks and Witch’s Marks

Collections Care Assistant Amy Davies explains the work that goes into conserving a medieval grain ark and how it can give us clues about the superstitious society in which Shakespeare lived.

Amy Davies

Conserving the Grain Ark

This oak grain ark that is on display in Shakespeare's Birthplace has recently been conserved by the Collections Care team. The earliest part of it likely dates from the 14th century, but has had some parts replaced in the 16th and 17th century. It would have been used to store wheat flour which was used to make bread. It was important to securely store flour in order to keep it from getting damp and to protect it from vermin.

The grain ark, on display at Shakespeare's Birthplace.
The Grain Ark in Shakespeare's Birthplace

One of the responsibilities of the team is to carefully manage the conservation of our precious artefacts whilst still allowing visitors to engage with them. Many of our artefacts, including the grain ark, are on open display to facilitate this and they help us to present our historic interiors to reflect how they would have been in Shakespeare’s day. Despite regular collections care, including monitoring the humidity within the Trust’s properties and dusting using natural hair brushes, the grain ark required some in-depth dust removal. Dust can be damaging to artefacts if left for long periods of time. It attracts moisture to the surface of the object which creates a damp microclimate. This in turn attracts pests such as woodworm or deathwatch beetle which can cause irreversible damage to wooden artefacts.

In order to conserve the grain ark, the first step was to remove as much loose dust as possible by using a natural hair brush. In this case we used hog’s hair brushes because the ark’s rough surface required sturdy bristles that could get into all the nooks and crannies. We used a museum vacuum to suck up all of the dust while we brushed the object. Museum vacuums are specialist vacuums which allow the user to control the amount of suction required. This ensured that we completely removed the dust from the artefact instead of redistributing it. To remove the ingrained dust and dirt deposits we then used cotton wool swabs dipped in a diluted conservation grade soap, called Vulpex. Vulpex attacks and emulsifies dirt, fats, oils and unwanted waxes but is non-corrosive to surfaces. We then carefully removed any residue with clean water and removed excess water, which could in turn damage the surface. Once thoroughly dry, we assessed whether the ark required a coat of clear micro-crystalline wax. This gentle wax does not stain or discolour the artefact, but ensures that the surface is protected from future exposure to dust and moisture. In this case the ark didn’t require a further coat of wax, so the existing layer of wax is simply buffed up and the ark is now finished!

Now that the grain ark has been carefully conserved it can remain on display in Shakespeare’s Birthplace for all of our visitors to enjoy.

A conservator working on the Grain Ark with a cotton wool swab dipped in Vulpex.
In-depth dust removal

Witch’s Marks

This grain ark has an interesting mark on the lid consisting of a number of concentric circles. It may be an apotropaic mark, commonly known as a witch’s mark, which was used in order to protect the contents of the ark from interference from demons, witches and other evil spirits. In Shakespeare’s day people were very superstitious and believed that forces of evil such as these existed. Simply being a good Christian was not necessarily enough to protect oneself, so many superstitions were utilised to ward off evil spirits that were thought to be intent on causing harm. For this purpose it was common to carve apotropaic marks into pieces of furniture or onto the wooden beams of buildings themselves. Historic England’s Nick Molyneux explores witch markings in old buildings in this blog post.

This is not the only apotropaic mark that the Trust has within its collection. There is another grain ark at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage which may also have a couple of superstitious marks on it. It has a mark which could be interpreted as an “M”, “V V” or perhaps “AM” for Ave Maria- all of which could be in reference to Mary, the Virgin of Virgins. This ark also has a burn mark on it which looks to have been deliberately made on the surface using a candle or taper. Some experts like Molyneux are sceptical, but one theory is that people did this to protect the item from fire, and similar marks can also be found on some of the beams above the fireplaces in Shakespeare’s Birthplace.

It is interesting that both these grain arks have these mysterious marks, but as Molyneux points out there would have been a desire to protect vital commodities from evil interference. The flour that these grain arks once contained certainly qualifies, especially in a period when many suffered through hard times.

Close-up of four V-shaped marks carved into the dark wood on the side of the grain ark.
Witch's Marks on the Grain Ark at Anne Hathaway's Cottage

Caring for Your own Treasures at Home

If you have stable, unpainted and unvarnished wooden furniture at home, and simple dusting doesn't remove the dust or ingrained dirt, you could use a similar wet cleaning method to the one we used. Mix a solution of 25% methylated spirits, 25% distilled vinegar and 50% water, then use cotton wool swabs to gently lift away dust and dirt in problem areas. Always consult a specialist if you are unsure how to approach this method.

Worried about woodworm? The best way to prevent woodworm is by regular dusting, as this removes food sources but also any unhatched eggs from the surface of the wood.

Upholstered furniture or any other delicate textiles can be gently vacuumed on a low-suction setting with the nozzle held a few centimeters away from the surface. If the textile is stable enough, use a soft-bristled brush to further lift any dirt from the surface. To prevent moths from munching holes, regularly disturb fabrics as this will discourage them from laying eggs.

Tarnish can be removed from copper and brass items by using gentle abrasive pastes that can be found in most DIY stores. These pastes remove the surface layer of the metal so should not be overused. Apply a layer of clear micro-crystalline wax to the surface which will slow the rate of corrosion meaning your metal items will stay shiny for longer!

More information about the conservation work we undertake at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust can be found on Shakespedia and our blog pages.

To explore more items in our museum collection visit