Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Christmas Related Artefacts

The Pitt Rivers Museum's English collections do not have many objects specifically related to Christmas. This is perhaps surprising as this season is perhaps the season most widely celebrated throughout England even today. Indeed English, European and North American Christmas traditions have now spread throughout the world, and can be seen as almost divorced from its purpoted religious connections to Christianity. Christmas Day, 25 December in the Anglican and Roman Catholic calendar, was supposed to be the day when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It has been a public holiday in the United Kingdom for a very long time, in the nineteenth century it was one of only two days on which workers had a statutory right to be absent under the Factory Act of 1833 (the other was Good Friday)[David please link Good Friday to the Good Friday part of the Easter object biography]. [Hutton, 1996:112]
Hutton makes the point that a midwinter festival had probably been celebrated in Britain from 'the dawn of history'. [1996:34] Christmas, in England, occurs at the darkest time of the year, when days are at their shortest. It is also during the cold winter, when food would have been more scarse and life (before the twentieth century) much harder for most people. As Hutton remarks, 'the Christmas season is the most important complex of festivals in the modern British year and contains by far the largest number of customary practices. [1996:112]


1945.6.124 Desk presented to Miss S.U. Powys
Christmas time is a time for exchanging or giving presents to family and friends. Gifts are sometimes also given to employees, or employers or people to whom the person feels an obligation. The next object, which is Christmas-related, is an oddity, it is described as:
'A hideous [sic] fitted desk, 1 ft 2 inches x 10 inches x 9 inches, veneered with bird's eye maple and with brass ornaments, and an inscription on brass: "Presented to Miss S.U. Powys by the members of the Bournemouth Central Workers' Club, Christmas 1877". Tout à fait typique.'[1945.6.124]
It was donated by William Horace Boscawen Somerset in June 1945. It is not known why Bournemouth Central Workers Club felt it should give Miss Powell the desk at Christmas, or why the anonymous accession book recorder in 1945 should feel that the desk was so 'hideous', though there is a rather unattractive underlying note of snobbishness in the final sentence 'tout à fait typique' (loosely translated as 'entirely typical'). This object was not given to the Museum because it was a Christmas gift (indeed the motivation for giving it to the Museum or accepting it seems unclear as it was considered so 'hideous'). The museum has been unable to find out anything more about either Miss Powell or the Bournemouth Central Workers Club and would be grateful for any information on either.
Gift-giving, before the nineteenth century, had traditionally been associated with New Year rather than Christmas Day but during that century, the date gradually changed to Christmas Day, where it has remained. [Hutton, 1996:116] As Hutton points out, dislike of the perceived commercial nature of Christmas started early, 'George Bernard Shaw started an enduring myth in 1897 by declaring that 'Christmas is forced upon a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press'.' [1996:116]

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

Alison Petch, 


Friday, 4 December 2015

Topping-out at the Pitt Rivers Museum

On 24 February 2006 Dr John Hood, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, donated a ceremonial trowel and tankard in presentation boxes to the Pitt Rivers Museum [PRM]. 

The topping out ceremony, John Hood receives his ceremonial trowel

These gifts had been given to him on 9 February 2006 during the topping-out ceremony for the new extension to the PRM. The photographs on this page show the extension being built, the ceremony itself and the subject of this biography, the ceremonial trowel. John Hood is wearing a brown coat in the photographs, and the bearded man is Michael O'Hanlon, director of the museum. Other men are representatives of the builders, Sir Robert McAlpine.

Topping-out ceremonies

Topping-out is a ceremony traditionally held when the last beam is placed at the top of a building, or these days, the last iron beam. The ceremony marks the overall completion of the building's structure (the building is not completed, or ready for transfer to the owners or clients, it is a stage during the building process). According to wikipedia, such ceremonies are common in England, Germany, Poland and the United States.
2006.78.1 Ceremonial trowel given to John Hood at the PRM topping-out ceremony
A tree or leafy branch is placed on the topmost beam, often with flags or streamers tied to it. A toast is usually drunk and sometimes the workmen are treated to a meal.' []
According to Simpson and Roud [2000, see "building trade" in further reading list below for source]:
What passes for building trade lore nowadays are ‘official’ customs such as cutting the first turf, laying a foundation stone, and topping out. The latter has been particularly popular since the 1960s, and few major construction projects are completed without a gathering of company officials, local dignitaries, and newspaper photographers on top of the new building to perform some ceremony such as laying the last brick. This custom has some roots, as there are earlier references to the workers hoisting a bush, or a flag, to the roof of a completed building.
This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.

Alison Petch, 


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

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Caul: A Sailor's Charm

1917.14.33 Rolling pin from Sunderland, said at one time to contain a caul.
1917.14.33 Rolling pin from Sunderland, said at one time to contain a caul.
"My mother groaned, my father wept,
Into the dangerous world I leapt;
Helpless, naked, piping loud,
Like a fiend hid in a cloud"
Extract from the poem Infant Sorrow by William Blake.
Birth is a fraught and dangerous time and objects associated with it often take on deeply symbolic meanings. No object could be more imbued with superstitious potential than a piece of birth-associated human tissue. The Pitt Rivers Museum has several such objects including an object described as a 'Glass rolling-pin, painted and dated 1855; said to have contained a child's caul as a sailor's charm, Sunderland' [1917.14.33] which is described in our public web-based catalogue as a "food accessory, amulet and human body part". For me this object encapsulates the diversity and complexity of the Museum's English Collections. The object is located in a drawer in the Museum Court, amongst other amulets and charms, and takes the form of a hollow smoky-glass rolling pin painted with a picture of a ship in full sail. I have been fortunate enough to closely examine the rolling pin and it is painted with a ship in dark brown with light tan sails on a green sea and associated green floral designs plus what may have been an image of an anchor. Now badly worn, the paintwork on the rolling pin includes the phrase "a gift from Sunderland 1855" (or 1856).
It is thought to have once contained a child's caul but is now open at one end and clearly hollow and empty - however the association with a child's caul remains and it is that which I explore herein.

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

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Searching for the Main Spring: the Tylors, the Freemans and the Divining Rods

1893.61.1 'V' shaped divining rod for finding water, made from hazel twig.

1893.61.1 'V' shaped divining rod for finding water, made from hazel twig.

1915.33.1 Donated by Rev C. V. Goddard, said to be broken in the twisting motion of water divining. Wiltshire.
1915.33.1 Donated by Rev C. V. Goddard, said to be broken in the twisting motion of water divining. Wiltshire.
In the Pitt Rivers Museum there are a two water divining rods, donated by the anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor in 1893. Each is cut at the junction of two twigs forming a V shape. They are stated to have been made by a professional water-finder in about 1880 near Wells in Somerset.
In an article on Malay Divining Rods published in 1902, Tylor records what he states was his only experience "of the methods of the English water-finder." He states that it was some 20 years ago at Somerleaze, the home of Professor E.A. Freeman the Historian. He says that they invited a well-known and successful dowser in the Mendip district to come and demonstrate how he used his forked hazel divining rod. He was, Tylor states "a straightforward man, thoroughly believing in his craft and undeniably a successful well-sinker."
In his trials the diviner emphasised the difference between surface springs and "main springs" which would give a permanent supply of water. Tylor says that it was not a serious trial and that it would not have been difficult to find suitable places near Wells in any case. They then asked the diviner if he could find treasure. Tylor's watch, a large old-fashioned gold repeater was hidden in the house under rugs, and he states that the rod sipped not far from where the watch lay. The diviner said that when he had found it, he had felt by the rod that he was over "a good main-spring."

Continue reading

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

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