The art of reading witness marks is a rare phenomenon these days. Here’s what this ancient skill is all about

Words by Yvonne Jacob

My ancestral home in Dehradun has a lot of vintage items, well, including my grandfather. Okay, jokes part. My grandfather has all sorts of things that he has kept safely and in pristine condition. There’s an old radio and a typewriter too, that he still uses to send us letters. Among the many things he has, there is also an old cuckoo clock. As a child, I was most fascinated by this clock and the little bird that kept coming out every hour, making these not bird-like sounds.

We had gone to Doon to celebrate Christmas and I remember one morning that the clock was opened up for repairing. There was something I noticed on the inside of the clock, it looked like someone had scribbled on it with something sharp. Back then, all I thought was that one of my cousins was lucky enough to wreck the clock before me. However, I grew up and now the clock sits in one of the rooms at home. The cuckoo too sits inside now and doesn’t make a sound.

It was only until a few months back that I came across this series on Netflix, The Haunting of Hill House, and I saw something that rang a loud bell in my head. A particular episode had an old clock that a man was repairing, and he spoke about ‘witness marks’ – something that he used to fix the clock. I quickly googled this new term that I had learnt about and realised what those scribbles inside the clock meant.

When an antique clock breaks, one that’s over 200 or even 300 years old, fixing it can be one tedious puzzle. Especially if the clock was handmade by someone. Now that person didn’t leave any manual behind to tell what work has been done on the clock. A clock has hundreds of intricate pieces and they all need to work together to function. There’s no way to tell what all has been worked on. There’s also no way to tell if the repairs have been done well or if any original part has been replaced.

That’s where ‘witness marks’ come into the picture. A witness mark could be a tiny dent, a hole that once held a screw or scratch-like marks on the insides. These are actual impressions, outlines or discolourations left behind inside a clock that indicate the absence of a piece that may have been there once. They are like clues left behind by the clockmaker to understand what was in his mind when he first created it.

Only a person who knows how to read these little dents or witness marks, can understand how to fix an antique clock. Although, there are very few people left in this world who rely on this practise to repair these clocks. Nowadays, clocks and watches are digital and much more modern and fixing them is no biggie. But the olden times definitely have their charm.

I’ve heard that fixing an old clock can be a difficult job. You don’t know if what you’re doing is working or not, and you have all these marks that you don’t know how to read exactly. At every moment you wonder if you’re getting it right or if you’re simply wasting your time. I don’t think we would come across a person who knows how to fix our cuckoo clock now. But if you’ve got an antique clock lying at home, open it up and see if you can spot any marks. It may not get repaired but you’ll surely discover a thing or two about the life of your clock.