Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Magic Snakes and Potatoes

A couple of weeks ago, the project team walked the short distance up to No. 61 Banbury Road, home of the University’s Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology (ISCA). We went to attend a student lecture entitled ‘The Self-Management of Misfortune by the Use of Amulets and Charms'. The speaker was Eric Edwards, whose years as a former gallery attendant and library assistant at the Museum have endowed him with a passion for, and extensive knowledge of, its collections. 

59 and 61 Banbury Road
© Roger Templeman  

Eric talked about the ancient origins of amulets as far back as Paleolithic Germany more than 30,000 years ago. He pointed out that although concepts of folklore, religion, superstition and medicine were all useful when talking about amulets, the most important thing to understand is that they are believed to possess magical powers. That belief may be personal or cultural (or both), and is what transforms them from ordinary objects into amulets. They retain this power for as long as people believe in them and, in many cases, are only considered efficacious when held, touched or kept close to the body.

PRM 1985.51.840: Ammonite pendant in silver mount
Eric cited the social anthropologist Sir James George Frazer who, a century ago, attributed the magical powers of amulets to one of two principles: the laws of similarity and contagion. Amulets working under the law of similarity use ‘like-for-like’ to imitate cause and effect; for example, in places such as Cambridgeshire and Whitby ammonite fossils were believed to be dead, curled up snakes and were therefore worn as amulets to protect against adder bites. As such, they were often known as ‘adder beads’ and ‘snake stones’.

An amulet working under the law of contagion has once been in contact with another object or person, thereby establishing a magical link between the two. Obvious examples of this type are the many Christian reliquaries we are finding in the de Mortillet collection, their owners able to channel reassurance and protection from the tiny fragments of bone, hair or clothing derived from the saint or holy figure to whom they directed their prayers.

PRM 1908.11.1:
'Lucky stone', Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Northumberland
Eric went on to describe other idiosyncratic examples of British and Irish amulets. There were twigs of wormwood, fixed over doors to keep away 'bad fairies' in County Cork and the Newbiggin stone, one of the few items in the Museum from Northumberland. It is a piece of limestone that has been bored through naturally by a mollusc and was hung on the back of a door in the cottage of William Twizel, a fisherman, as a ‘lucky stone’. 

Finally, there was a potato charm belonging to Harry Hopkins, an innkeeper in Leighton Buzzard in the late 19th century. Mr Hopkins had carried the potato in his coat pocket along with three others for nine years as a cure for rheumatism and had remained free from the condition for all that time. Unfortunately, you won't be able to use those hash browns in your freezer to the same effect; for the charm to work, it was essential for the potato to have been stolen…


Thursday, 16 February 2012

A museum cataloguer’s ‘tool-kit’

One of the main aims of the ‘Small Blessings’ project is to accession, catalogue, physically number, label, document, and improve the storage for around five-thousand amulets. 

In the process of doing this, we cataloguers have a ‘tool-kit’ that we draw upon to go about the practicalities of our job on a day-to-day basis. This tool-kit consists of things such as rotary pens to physically number the objects and write labels. Where there is a large enough non-porous surface available, we use an acetone-based liquid (not unlike nail varnish) to apply a clear barrier before letting it dry and writing the number on top. This means we are not writing onto the object itself and allows the number to be removed or altered in the future. Due to the nature of amulets ‘small blessings’ that are designed to be worn close to the body it is sometimes very difficult to number them like this because they are too small!

In a cataloguer’s tool-kit you’ll also find string, a tape measure, a magnifying glass, scissors, and some charming nitrile purple gloves! We also use a digital camera to create a visual record of each object.

But this tool-kit also includes immaterial qualities such as an eye for detail, an ability to describe concisely what you are looking at, and an awareness of the different materials and processes that were involved in making such a wide variety of amulets: from Roman Catholic reliquaries, to pendants carved out of lava from Mount Vesuvius, to a wolf’s tooth worn to prevent convulsions. 

Images of religious figures printed on paper and
carried in a policeman's amulet satchel from Germany.

It is incredibly important to complete all the above stages involved in cataloguing an object collection. This will allow staff, researchers, and the public to locate these objects in the future and hopefully be inspired to find out more about a particular amulet or the collection as a whole.

Rosanna & Alice

Thursday, 9 February 2012

What's inside?

Over the next seven months the project team will be accessioning and documenting the objects inside these boxes. What will they find? 

The catalogue for this collection tells us that Adrien de Mortillet collected amulets from all around the world. There are amulets from Algeria, Bolivia and China, and from Egypt, India and Japan. Many of the amulets are from cities in Russia – Kiev and Moscow, Italy – Naples, Rome and Verona, and France – Paris, Toulouse and Tours. 

The catalogue also tells us that many of the objects are religious amulets. There are reliquaries (containers for relics connected with saints or other religious figures), rosaries (prayer beads), and ex-votos (votive offerings to saints or divinities). There are also many hamsas (the hand of Fatima) and fish (a traditional symbol of Christianity). 

Apart from these religious amulets there are also many folkloric amulets in the collection, including acorns, clovers and horseshoes. 

The variety of these objects is also reflected in the materials from which they are made. There are amulets made from stone, coral and pearl, from bronze, silver and gold, and from teeth, bone and skin.