Monday, 16 November 2015

A Dorset Hag Stone

1884.56.3 is an object, described by a museum worker as a 'stone with natural perforation, found fixed on a nail to the cottage-door of Kimber, a carter in General Pitt Rivers' employment, to keep away witches'. This is particularly interesting as it must have been acquired between 1880, when Pitt Rivers first inherited the Rushmore estate, and 5 April 1881 when he sent the stone to South Kensington Museum (where his collection was then displayed).
PRM 1884.56.3

The documentation held at the Museum states:
Accession Book IV entry - 1884.56.1 - 100 Charms Magic etc. - Naturally perforated stone, nailed to a cottage door against witches by a carter Rushmore nr Salisbury
'Green book' entry - South Kensington Receipts, 5 April 1881 - Collection of objects as per list attached nos 293 to 639 540 Holed stone used for the purpose of keeping away witches Rushmore nr Salisbury

Detailed Amulet card catalogue entry - Amulets ) O. Inscribed P. Talismans in cases Q Uninscribed single R Collars, necklets, armlets, rings S-T Juju [sic] U-W Stone X. Dance Y. Unclassed. - Naturally perforated stones Gt Britain Description: Stone with natural perforation, found fixed on a nail to the cottage-door of Kimber, a carter in Gen'l Pitt Rivers' employment, to keep away witches. Dimensions 100 x 64 approx Locality: Rushmore nr Salisbury How Acquired: P.R. coll 540 / 12191
The original documentation does not mention the name of the carter and it is not clear where the information came from, it first appears in the Ettlinger account, she thanks the then curator of the Museum, Tom Penniman, for information so he may have given her the reference, it is irritating that it was not recorded where it was obtained, as that source might have more information about the artefact.

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

Alison Petch, 


Thursday, 10 September 2015

Votive Rags from St Helen's Well, Thorp Arch near Boston Spa, West Yorkshire

Rag Strip 1884.140.331 .1
1884.140.331 is an example of the votive rags that were tied to a tree near a well. Oddly this item was not accessioned into the Pitt Rivers Museum collections until the 1990s though it had lain in the museum for over a hundred years by then.

The documentation the Museum has about these objects is as follows:
1884.140.331 Blue book entry - Idols and objects connected with religion Case 78 159 Fragments of rag used as votive offerings for the cure of diseases at St Helens Well Thorp Arch Yorkshire at the present time (2496)
Delivery Catalogue II entry - Religious emblems Votive rags on card 2496 13 Cases 225 226
Detailed Amulet card catalogue entry - Amulets D. Crop Fertility, E. Offerings to Gods etc F. Spirit Houses, Scares G. Sacred and Mem. food H. Relics and Mementos - Models of human body E3 Ex voto rags, pins etc Description: Votive rags from bushes at a holy well hung there by the country people who believe the water is good for eye diseases [insert] if [end insert] combined with an offering of this type to St Helen. They are often left by Roman Catholics being near Clifford where they are numerous Locality: St Helen's Well Thorp Church Yorks Collected by: Mrs Marianne Cooke 1869 How Acquired: PR coll 159 dd Mrs M. Cooke 1869 [sic]
This well was just off the Roman road, the Rudgate. This well was supposed to be devoted to St Helen. The site of the well is actually at Thorp Arch, outside Boston Spa near Wetherby in North Yorkshire. Ellen Ettlinger mentions the rags:

In pre-Christian days, when wells and trees were identified with spirits, offerings were deposited in their immediate neighbourhood to preserve the contact between the worshipper and the divinity. Since the spread of Christianity the real intention of this rite has been preserved only at those wells, where Christian Saints replaced the well spirit. 
This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.

Alison Petch, 


Tuesday, 18 August 2015

A Fisherman’s ‘Lucky stone’ from Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Northumberland

PRM 1908.11.1


At the front of the Sympathetic Magic display at the Pitt Rivers Museum, case 61a, is a perforated black limestone beach pebble with a string attached through the hole. [1908.11.1] The museum’s accession book states that this is a “Beach pebble of black limestone bored by pholas, hung behind a door in the cottage of William Twizel, fisherman, as a “lucky stone”.’ (Humble, 1908). Apparently several of these stones hung by various doors of the cottage. The stone comes from Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Northumberland, and was donated in 1908 by a Miss Humble, Alexander James Montgomerie Bell, and William Twizel (actually Twizzell) in 1908.
There is no mention of a William Twizel in the 1901 census. However, there several William Twizzells (various spellings) in Newbiggin, one being born in 1822 and who died a retired fisherman in 1913. The most likely donor is a William Twizzell who was born circa 1829/1830 and who died a retired fisherman in 1909.

The Donors

Miss Humble is described as a field collector but little else is known about her. Accession records in the PRM say she was a resident of Newbiggin. However, the name is fairly common in the north-east and it was not possible to identify her in either the 1891 or 1901 censuses (

Much more is known about Alexander James Montgomerie Bell. Born in Edinburgh in 1846 he was an undergraduate at Balliol and matriculated as an Exhibitioner in 1864, gained his BA in 1869 and took his MA in 1871 (Oxford University Alumni 1500-1886). The obituary of Bell describes him as a career academic, teacher, antiquarian, and amateur archaeologist. He worked sometimes as a tutor and had more formal roles as a schoolmaster (Marlborough, Fettes) and college lecturer and examiner (St Johns, Worcester). Alexander Bell was also known for his work and research on the Wolvercote gravels and deposits near Oxford (Nature, 1920). He died in 1920 aged 74 and his artefact collection was sold to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Alexander Bell lived in 1891 with his wife Anna and children Archibald, Evelyn, Mary, and William at Rawlinson Road in Oxford. At this period he was engaged in private tutoring in classics, geography and geology (RG12a. 1166. 87.). The family was still there in 1901 when Alexander held a position of private tutor at a public school (RG13. 1381. 35.). Indeed, Alexander’s son Archibald Colquhoun Bell (born 1886), and who had a long naval career, also became a donor to the PRM around 1920 (

The folklore of holed stones

The Newbiggin stone “…a pebble of black limestone, bored by a pholas, was hung behind the door of William Twizel’s cottage…” (Ettlinger, 1943). Such holed stones were “…evidently regarded as magical as early as the second millennium B.C., as shown by the excavations at Tell el Ajjul (ancient Gaza)…” (Murray, 1943). As such these stones were deliberately placed with three in a room and one in a grave.

The hole in the Newbiggin stone was made by a burrowing bivalve mollusc called Pholas dactylus. Also known as the ‘Common Piddock’ or ‘angelwing’ it is similar to a clam and bores into a range of soft rock sub-strata including chalk, peat, clay, and sandstone. This elliptical shaped boring bivalve, which can reach 12cm in length, is found at several sites along the east coasts of Northumbria and Yorkshire. It stays in its burrow for its entire eight-year life-span, it is recognised by its typical whitish colouration and is also known for its bio-luminescence.
This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.

Eric Edwards

Friday, 7 August 2015

A Loop of Rowan Tree: amulets against witchcraft

A Loop of Rowan Tree - 1893.18.1
On February 28, 1893, three loops of rowan tree were donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum by Rev. Canon John Christopher Atkinson, from Danby Parsonage, Grosmont, York. (Accession Nos. 1893.18.1-3) These are now on display in Case 31.A - Magic, Witchcraft and Trial by Ordeal, located in the Court of the Museum. The records describe the rowan loops as amulets against witchcraft, but they also appear to have been prophylactic against ghosts, fairies, spirits, and the Evil Eye. All three loops are of different size, one of them measuring 70 mm at its maximum length (1893.18.1). Their provenance is stated alternatively as "England, North Yorkshire, Grosmont [Esk Valley]" and "England, North Yorkshire, Grosmont, Castleton."

Rowan trees

The European rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) has long been associated with magic and protection against enchantment and evil beings in Europe. [10]
This tradition allegedly goes back at least to Greek mythology. We are told that Hebe, the goddess of youth, in a moment of carelessness lost her magical chalice to the demons. Having thus been deprived of their source of rejuvenating ambrosia, the gods decided to send an eagle to recuperate the cup. In the fight that stood between eagle and demons, some of the eagle's feathers fell to the earth together with a few drops of blood. There they became rowan trees. The feathers took the shape of leaves; the drops of blood that of the rowan's red berries. [7]
In Norse mythology, the first woman (Embla) is said to have been made from rowan tree. The rowan also figures in the Æsir story of Thor's journey to the Underworld, in which Thor, after having fallen into a rapid river, is rescued by a rowan tree that bends over and helps him back onto the shore. [7]
Some of the rowan tree's magic and protective qualities may stem from the fact that there is a small five-pointed star, or pentagram, opposite the stalk of each berry; pentagrams have long been considered symbols of protection. The berries' red colour is also claimed to be the best protective colour against enchantment. Linguists say that the name 'rowan' might derive from the Old Norse raun or rogn, which could have its roots in the proto-Germanic *raudnian, 'getting red'. However, druids would use both the berries and the bark of the rowan tree for dyeing the garments that they wore at lunar ceremonies black. [7] [10]
This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.

Sandra Modh,
Harris Manchester College

Saturday, 25 July 2015

The Whit-Horn

1895.21.1 Whit-horn of willowbark, primitive oboe
1895.21.1 Whit-horn of willowbark, primitive oboe
In the first half of the nineteenth century it was traditional for the Oxfordshire villages of Hailey, Crawley and Witney to celebrate Whit Monday with a hunt at Wychwood Forest. Whit-horns were made of softened willow bark in the weeks leading up to the celebrations, and played at dawn to wake the village for the hunt.
Formed from strips of willow bark wound into a funnel, the horns were secured with hawthorn or blackthorn spines, the whole measuring around 18" in length and 4" across the bell. Bark was inserted into the narrow end to form a reed, with the mouthpiece pinched together around it, hence Henry Balfour, the first Curator of the Pitt Rivers Collection, described the entire as a 'primitive oboe'.
Describing the traditions surrounding the Whit hunt in Oxfordshire, Balfour wrote,
In accordance with an old charter, certain villages in Oxfordshire were allowed on Whit-Monday to kill a stag in the forest preserves [and feast on their prey. Prior to this, young people] were busy preparing rude instruments of music (or rather of noise), with which to call the villagers to the hunt... they ran round the villages waking people up with the sound of their "whit-horns," as they were called. [1896:221]
The whit-horns in the Pitt Rivers collection (1895.21.1, 1903.130.22.1 and 1903.130.22.2) were donated by Henry Balfour, but were collected by Thomas Carter. They were made in the 1890s - half a century after the last Whit hunt (at the enclosure of the forests). Their maker was an anonymous local man, who had made similar instruments for the hunt in his youth. Percy Manning, a contemporary and probably acquaintance of Balfour's, also collected a whit-horn, which was made for him by John Fisher in 1895. It is likely that he shared his contacts with Balfour and that Balfour's instruments were made by the same man.

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