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 (england.prm.ox.ac.uk/collector).

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 (england.prm.ox.ac.uk/collector).

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