This year marks 15 years of the Portable Antiquities Scheme as a national scheme. Throughout the year we’ll be celebrating finds from each county – a find a day for the whole year! Here are the finds we’ve chosen on the theme of Halloween:
Post-medieval seal matrix (DENO-D3E954): A silver memento mori seal matrix depicting a skeleton.
Post-medieval pipe tamper (DENO-0C6CC4): A copper alloy pipe tamper inthe shape of a devil.
Fossil oyster shell (SWYOR-96E960): A fossilised oyster shell known as a Devil’s Toenail.
Post-medieval token (LON-F2C9F6): A copper alloy farthing trade token dating to 1657, picturing a skull.
Post-medieval knife handle (LVPL-BD94F3): A copper alloy knife handle with the inscription ‘Make you bleed’.
Post-medieval bottle (LIN-49FC12): A glass bottle and contents that may form a “witch bottle” (a countermagical object).
Post-medieval shoe (LANCUM-76D192): A leather child’s shoe found within a wall, probably placed there to ward off evil spirits.
It’s Halloween so it’s time to delve into the Database to see what spooky finds dwell within. This year we thought we’d focus on ‘spooky stashes’. These are items that have been deliberately hidden away, often to ward off evil forces. This practice was prevalent in the 16th and 17th centuries, with items typically being incorporated into the structure of houses – usually in a floor or wall. Here are 5 examples of concealed caches from the PAS database (click on the links to see the full database record):
This shoe and assorted items, including pebbles and clay pipe stems, was found concealed in the cob-wall above a doorway in a house in Topsham, Devon. The practice of concealing shoes within the structure of a house was widespread in the 16th and 17th centuries when it was believed they could ward off evil spirits and bad luck.
In the case of this shoe, found within the wall of a 17th century Lancashire house, the concealment probably relates to a Lancashire folk tradition where a child’s shoe was hidden to prevent the child being swapped for a fairy child.
Perhaps the strangest item on the database, this velvet ‘visard’ mask was found concealed within the wall of a 16th century stone building in Northamptonshire. It is thought that the original use was either to shield a gentlewoman’s face from the sun at a time when a tan was highly unfashionable in high society, or to ward off would-be attackers should a lady be out and about alone. The mask’s concealment in a wall is more unusual – whilst the practice of hiding things was quite commonplace, this is the only known example of a mask being used in this way. In hiding it away, the original owner has ensured its preservation as these masks rarely survive otherwise.
In the spirit of Halloween (pun intended), we’ve delved into the database for some of our more ‘spooky’ finds. From superstitious shoes to ghoulish jewellery, we’ve pulled together six of our best supernatural-themed items for your eerie enjoyment. Read on… if you dare!
Tampers like this one have a flat end for tamping down tobacco in the bowl of the pipe. It could also be used for crushing the ash to make relighting easier. This little devil has a fearsome pair of horns and is holding his leg across the knee in the style of the Lincoln Imp.
Witch bottles were prevalent across England from the 17th century, especially in East Anglia where superstition and belief in witches was strong. These bottles were supposed to protect against evil spirits and spells directed at the supposed victim. The bottles contained items like hair, nail clippings, pins, needles and sometimes even the urine of the intended victim. It was then often buried in a fireplace, under the floor or plastered into the wall, its power remaining active for as long as it remained hidden. Early witch bottles were of the Bellarmine jug type whereas later examples like this were glass.
This child’s clog was discovered hidden within the fabric of a wall. Much like the witch bottles, the practice of placing a shoe within the structure of a house was once widespread, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is thought they were either to ward off evil spirits or to deflect curses. Given the fact that this one is a child’s shoe, it most likely relates to a Lancashire tradition of hiding the shoes to prevent the child being swapped for a fairy child.
These objects, with their skeletal imagery, are both examples of memento mori. In Christian tradition, these were used to emphasise the emptiness and fleetingness of earthly pleasures, and as reminder to focus one’s thoughts on the prospect of the afterlife. Small, portable items such as these two examples were often carried by individuals as a reminder of their own mortality. With its skeleton and hourglass symbol, the seal matrix really emphasises the message of death and passing time.
The common name for these extinct oysters is “Devil’s toenails”. This wonderfully graphic name is due to their gnarled, curved shape and people once believed they were made as the Devil clipped his toenails. There used to be a common belief that carrying one of these fossils could prevent rheumatism so they often crop up in archaeological contexts.