Monday, 20 April 2015

Witches' Ladder: the hidden history

1911.32.7 Witches ladder found in Wellington, Somerset
1911.32.7 Witches ladder found in Wellington, Somerset
When a string of feathers was found in a Somerset attic alongside four brooms, suspicions of witchcraft began to fly. This hint of rural magic and superstition captured the imagination of the Victorian folk-lore community, however not everyone was convinced.
Hanging in the "Magic and Witchcraft" case in the court of the Pitt Rivers Museum is a strange object from Wellington in Somerset. [Pitt Rivers Museum number: 1911.32.7] It is a one and a half meter long string with a loop at one end through which feathers have been inserted along its length. The label declares it to be a:
"Witches ladder made with cock's feathers. Said to have been used for getting away the milk from neighbour's cows and for causing people's deaths. From an attic in the house of an old woman (a witch?) who died in Wellington."
This information is based on a note sent to the museum with the object in 1911 when it was donated by Anna Tylor, the wife of the famous anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor. This stated:
"The "witches' ladder" came from here (Wellington). An old woman, said to be a witch, died, this was found in an attic, & sent to my Husband. It was described as made of "stag's" (cock's) feathers, & was thought to be used for getting away the milk from the neighbours' cows - nothing was said about flying or climbing up. There is a novel called "The Witch Ladder" by E. Tyler in which the ladder is coiled up in the roof to cause some one's death."
This brief explanation is a highly summarized, and largely inaccurate version of the sequence of events that surround the discovery of this curious object. Even based on this description however, the label has embroidered the facts by suggesting that the ladder may have been used for causing deaths, when Anna Tylor's note only suggests that the plot of novel used it in this way. The history of this object seems to point to the ways in which the stories about an object may grow, allowing folk-lore itself to become folk-lorised.

This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.
Chris Wingfield - Researcher

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Slug on a Thorn

Oxfordshire. Black slug [sic] impaled on a thorn, a cure for warts. Donated by Thomas James Carter 1898.71.1

Oxfordshire. Black slug [sic] impaled on a thorn, a cure for warts. Donated by Thomas James Carter 1898.71.1
In the depths of the south east corner of the Court of the Pitt Rivers Museum, a large glass topped case contains a curious mix of objects on the theme of Sympathetic Magic. Prominent in the case is a glass specimen jar filled with alcohol and containing a slug impaled on a thorn (1898.71.1). Originally black, but now bleached white by years of being immersed in formaldehyde or a similar solution of alcohol, the slug represents one in a long line of cures for warts. It was purchased by the Museum in July 1898 from Thomas James Carter of Oxford and is the Oxfordshire version of a cure used in several parts of the UK.
Cures for warts through the ages fall into several groups, with the slug example being considered a transference method. As the label on the jar in the Pitt Rivers says:
Charm for Warts, Oxfordshire. Go out alone & find a large black slug. Secretly rub the underside on the warts and impale the slug on the thorn. As the slug dies the warts will go. 
In other parts of the UK such as Berwickshire, Northumberland and Lancashire, the slug is replaced by a snail:
"Take a black snail, rub the warts with it, and then suspend it upon a thorn; as the snail melts away, so will the warts. This must be done nine nights successively, at the end of which time the wart will completely disappear. For, as the snails exposed to such cruel treatment, will gradually wither away, so it is believe the wart, being impregnated with its matter will slowly do the same" (Sternberg)
Other charms for warts using molluscs include piercing the mollusc with a pin as many times as your number of warts, rubbing the wart with the mollusc and killing the mollusc, and impaling a mollusc and blowing across the hand while pointing at a new moon.

This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.

Heather Richardson, Conservation Department

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Cataloguing Hildburgh’s amulets

W. L. Hildburgh. Image: V&A
Walter Leo Hildburgh was a prolific collector of amulets from all over the world. When he died in 1955, he left his collection to the Wellcome Museum, and from there it was transferred in 1985 - along with thousands of other amulets including those collected by Lovett and de Mortillet - to the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The Wellcome Collection in London is currently engaged in a major revamp, and their new Reading Room will have fresh display spaces, for which they want to loan a number of the amulets now in Pitt Rivers. Some of the Wellcome staff visited Oxford recently and made a selection from the Hildburgh, Lovett and de Mortillet collections. While Lovett and de Mortillet have been the subjects of recent documentation projects, much of the Hildburgh collection remains uncatalogued. It was my task therefore, over the course of a three-month project, to ensure that the documentation for the selected objects was up-to-date, and that a digital image was provided for each.

Amulet for animals
© Pitt Rivers Museum, 1985.53.409
I started by completing the documentation of the Japanese section of the collection, which had already been started by two of my colleagues. From 1900, Hildburgh began a prolonged tour of Japan, India and China. He had a keen interest in anthropology and folklore - particularly magic and superstition. Many of the Japanese amulets are papers, printed with inscriptions and sometimes pictures, which you can buy at Shinto shrines and Japanese Buddhist temples. They can be for protection from various aliments, good luck, or for averting a particular calamity. Animals don’t have to go without protection, either: this amulet, from Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, is for cows and horses.

Other amulets take the form of objects. They can be natural objects which are ascribed magic or amuletic properties, or they can be figures of deities or animals associated with good luck. One of these, the ‘maneki-neko’, the beckoning cat, is well-known outside Japan and can often be seen enticing customers to enter a Japanese restaurant. It does not bring luck exclusively to business owners, but to anyone who owns such a figurine. 

Maneki-neko and pig amulets
© Pitt Rivers Museum 1985.53.696 and 1985.50.154

Around 20 of Hildburgh’s Japanese amulets are going on display at the Wellcome Collection. To these are added some examples from Italy, Tunisia and Algeria. Amulets from these countries are often meant to be carried on the person for protection and double up as ornaments, e.g. pendants and brooches. This mother-of-pearl pig from Italy is a particularly pretty example. In his ‘Notes on Amulets’, Hildburgh writes that the pig stands for tranquility, an easy life and ‘all desired’.

Amulets are a particularly fascinating and pleasing subject. They are usually small, often beautiful, and come from all over the world, with interesting tales behind them. My project was only a very short one, and whilst I was able to complete the documentation of the Japanese section alone, much of Hildburgh’s collection awaits future projects to uncover the rest of its stories.

Elin Bornemann

Friday, 12 April 2013

Art exhibition on amulets and child loss

During the Small Blessings project we received a research visit from artist Marie Brett, who was in the development stage of a project looking at the sensitive subject of amulets as signifiers of pregnancy and infant loss. With support from Arts Council the artist worked with bereaved parents and three national hospitals in Ireland.

Marie also entered our amulet photo competition with this entry:

Now Marie's exhibition is ready. 'Amanesis' will be showing at the Waterford Central Library in Ireland until May 3rd.

Even after the official end of the Small Blessings amulet project, it's great to learn of these ripple effects and additional outcomes that it contributed to. It was a pleasure to meet Marie and we wish her every success with her exhibition and future projects.


Monday, 8 April 2013

'Charmed Life' exhibition at Winchester

This week is the last week you'll be able to see Charmed Life: the Solace of Objects, an exhibition featuring amulets from the Pitt Rivers' collections and curated by artist Felicity Powell. Hosted by the Winchester Discovery Centre, this is a second outing for the exhibition that originally ran at the Wellcome Collection in London last year.

Exhibition finishes on 14 April 2013, FREE entry.

Read this great article about the exhibition from the 'Come Step Back in Time' history blog.

Watch our video interview with Felicity Powell discussing her inspiration for, and approach to, the project.

Read our past blog entry about the deinstallation of the exhibition at Wellcome by Pitt Rivers staff - a process about to be repeated next week!