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