Following on from part one we continue to look at superstition and objects associated with warding off evil in Surrey.
Throughout archaeological or building work we regularly find hidden objects such as single shoes and sealed bottles containing personal items, other sorts of dead animals, broken and bent pins and nails, and even hair clippings and textiles, as well as strange markings and carvings. Collectively they’re known as “Apotropaic” features – ones which keep out or ward off evil.
We don’t fully understand the significance of all of these, particularly since many aren’t overtly religious or biblical in nature. They tended not to be written about, with their origins in folklore and knowledge of their efficacy being passed from one generation to another, and they exist primarily as physical items rather than being described in detail in the historical record, which means some of the objects’ meanings are now lost to us. Shoes are common: they’re interesting as they’re always worn and never new so it is supposed that they somehow carry the “essence” of the depositor and therefore more supernatural power, and shoes themselves can still be thought to be of considerable symbolic or ritual significance in a number of cultures across the world, even today. Sealed bottles containing votive offerings of things like pins, herbs, nail and hair clippings and urine (yes you read that right) can also be explained as acting as a barrier when placed in a certain location, with whatever magic encased within unable to dissipate so therefore of perpetual power. These are also relatively common and known as “Witch Bottles”, as keeping those particular miscreants out was their primary function. Hide one up the chimney or under a door threshold (where these objects are most commonly found) and a witch couldn’t get into your house that way. They are also relatively late in date, appearing from around the seventeenth century onwards.
Bent and broken pins and nails sometimes appear in these bottles, but can also be found in other contexts and are a little harder for us to explain. This phenomenon appears to be related to another aspect of activity which we commonly find on sites of magical significance, where objects are “ritually killed” or rendered unfit for purpose, prior to being deposited. Many finds of weapons from rivers are thought to be ritual offerings, and a majority of these will be broken, bent or damaged – obviously deliberately so – prior to deposition. The same can be said of bent pilgrims’ badges and coins that are common finds in such contexts, and it’s a tradition that is recorded across Britain and Europe from the Bronze Age right through to the post-medieval period. It is posited that some of the weapons might be damaged in ceremonies or funerals, but there must also be some significance to the metal itself having been bent, or the practice wouldn’t extend to smaller objects such as coins and pins. There might also be some significance in the type of metal as well – Iron is known to have been a material once considered to have magical qualities for example, in the same way as is salt – but this doesn’t explain the bent coins. It’s simply something we don’t fully understand. Similarly obscure, recent studies of peculiar burn marks on certain timbers in historic buildings is suggesting burning tapers were specifically placed there – possibly to ward off evil spirits. Our own County Historic Buildings’ Officer has been recording instances of these burn marks within certain Surrey historic properties for some time.
They were likely part of a widespread domestic ritual designed to keep witches out, but we don’t fully understand how this practice was supposed to actually “work” and there are no known mentions of it in the historical record. Later on, taper burns seem to have fulfilled a more practical form of protection, possibly against fire or explosion. Corn flour dust is highly combustible when suspended in air for example, and some 19th century mills have burn marks, as does the HMS Victory where they are visible along the gunpowder locker even though naked flames were forbidden on naval ships. However if this was the case, this practice is similarly unrecorded, and the more practical application of burning tapers in these examples doesn’t explain the earlier instances.
Superstition is all around us, it is deep-seated and ancient and we all practice it in some form or another, whether we’re conscious of it or not. How many people reading this article will refuse to walk under a ladder, or perhaps threw salt over their left shoulder the last time they spilled some? Most of us might not actually fear that a witch might be creeping down the chimney in our sleep anytime soon, or feel the need for a dead cat in the floorboards to ward off verminous supernatural intruders, but other practices persist and they’re all part of the same wider cultural tradition. Our desiccated cat in Staines is a small find, made on a large and in archaeological terms a fairly modern and unspectacular site, but it is a find which sheds light on how our understanding and perception of the world was different even in relatively recent times, and one which contributes to our understanding of ourselves. Its discovery (amongst the other information obtained from the recording work) also demonstrates the value in considering the need for archaeological recording of even relatively recent buildings.
All the examples of UK and European countermagical finds and features referenced in this article: Witch Bottles, votive shoes, taper burn marks and ritually killed objects, have been found and recorded in Surrey.