Tuesday, 19 May 2015

French Connection: Amulet loan to Marseille

The Pitt Rivers Museum often loans objects to other museums, both in the UK and abroad. During transit, installation and removal, a member of Pitt Rivers Museum staff is present making sure the objects are looked after. The Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM) in Marseille has a temporary exhibition entitled Lieux Saints Partagés ('Shared Sacred Sites'). Staff from MuCEM came to the PRM to select candidates objects in summer 2014 and earlier this month I couriered the loan of 14 amulets to Marseille.

MuCEM © Pitt Rivers Museum

The amulets were checked and prepared by Kate Jackson, Conservator at the PRM. Kate took photographs and recorded the condition of the objects before their journey, then mounts were made to keep the fragile object secure in transit as they were packed into a small carry case. I flew to Marseille and the carry case was secured in the aeroplane seat next to me.

The amulets being checked and then installed in the display case. © Pitt Rivers Museum

At MuCEM the other objects and art works of the exhibition were also being installed - objects exploring the nature of holy sites of shared significance among different religions around the Mediterranean.

The loaned amulets derive from Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, made in continental Europe, north Africa and the near East. They are all part of a large collection made by Adrien de Mortillet, which was the focus of our recent Small Blessings project.

Twelve of the Pitt Rivers amulets were put in a display case together. The other two were displayed in a case with other objects from the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem. These two circular tablets are made of white clay. One side is impressed with a geometric motif, the other side shows a feint figure of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus.

Milk Grotto tablets, Palestine. PRM 1985.52.938 © Pitt Rivers Museum

According to legend, Mary was nursing baby Jesus in the grotto when a drop of milk spilled onto the ground and turned it white. This miracle led to the belief that dust and clay from the grotto, which is made of limestone, can enhance fertility and improve a motherʼs milk. Although tablets of clay like these ones are no longer sold, the Franciscans who oversee the shrine still prepare small packets of limestone powder to give in return for a small donation. They instruct that both husband and wife should drink the powder mixed with milk or water for nine days, and recite the prayer for the Third Joyful Mystery of the Rosary which recalls the birth of Jesus, known as the Nativity.

Milk Grotto display © Pitt Rivers Museum

MuCEM was built for 2013 when Marseille was European Capital of Culture. Marseille is a historic port city and a modern meeting place for Mediterranean cultures which makes it an entirely appropriate place for an exhibition such as this. The exhibition is on until 31 August 2015.

MuCEM and Fort Saint-Jean. © Pitt Rivers Museum

Madeleine Ding
Curatorial Assistant and Volunteers Officer

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Tylor's Onion: a curious case of bewitched onions from Somerset

1917.53.776 Onion stuck with pins, used in sympathetic magic
1917.53.776 Onion stuck with pins, used in sympathetic magic
Rockwell Green graveyard overlooking Barley Mow pub, where Tylor is buried
Rockwell Green graveyard overlooking Barley Mow pub, where Tylor is buried
Tylor's Grave in Rockwell Green
Tylor's Grave in Rockwell Green
An onion is preserved in the Pitt Rivers Museum, where it has been since it was donated in 1917. [Pitt Rivers Museum number:1917.53.776] It is no ordinary onion though - attached to a label with a name on it, pricked with pins and secured on an iron wire for hanging, it is exhibited as an example of sympathetic magic - doing harm to someone by harming something that is like them. This long period of exhibition only accounts for two-thirds of the time since the onion was discovered in 1872. In the forty five years before the onion came to the museum, it had a colourful history in which the anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor features strongly. In a strange twist of fate, though the onion has been in Oxford since Tylor's death, Tylor himself was buried in Rockwell Green where the onion was discovered, in a grave that overlooks the pub where the onion was found.


At the international Folk-lore Congress at London in 1891 (footnote 1) , Tylor exhibited a number of "Charms and Amulets" including an "Onion stuck with pins, bearing on a label the name of John Milton, a shoemaker in Rockwell Green." The story of the onion's discovery in Rockwell Green as given by Tylor in 1891 is as follows:
"In a low cottage ale-house there, certain men were sitting round the fire of logs on the hearth, during the open hours of a Sunday afternoon, drinking, when there was a gust of wind; something rustled and rattled in the wide old chimney, and a number of objects rolled into the room. The men who were there knew perfectly what they were, caught them up, and carried them off. I became possessed of four of them, but three have disappeared mysteriously. One which has gone had on it the name of a brother magistrate of mine, whom the wizard, who was the alehouse-keeper, held in particular hatred as being a strong advocate of temperance, and therefore likely to interfere with his malpractices, and whom apparently he designed to get rid of by stabbing and roasting an onion representing him. My friend, apparently, was never the worse, but when next year his wife had an attack of the fever, there was shaking of heads among the wise." 
From a letter written by Tylor at the time (footnote 2) of the discovery to his uncle we can fill out a few more of the details. The discovery seems to have taken place on 14 April 1872, and the pub in question was the Barley Mow in Rockwell Green, just outside Wellington in Somerset [image of pub and pub sign] . Tylor also mentions the bits of iron wire that were pushed through the onions to hang them up in the smoke, and these can still be seen in the surviving example.

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

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