As Halloween approaches, we once again delve into the database for all things spooky. But where did this link with ghosts and ghouls come from?

The word Halloween or Hallowe’en dates to about 1745, but the practice of observing All Hallow’s Eve dates back much farther, to early Christianity and beyond. In Christianity, major feasts had vigils that began the night before and All Hallow’s Eve was part of a three-day season called Allhallowtide (comprising All Hallow’s Eve, All Hallow’s Day and All Souls Day). Allhallowtide is a time for honouring the saints and praying for the recently departed souls who have yet to reach Heaven.

Finds on the theme of death: ((left to right) A Post-medieval jetton depicting death with an hourglass, LON-9CACA2 (Portable Antiquities Scheme); a Post-medieval momento mori ring, GLO-927C54 (Bristol City Council); a Post-medieval spoon terminal depicting a skeletal figure, SUR-BCF9D2, (Surrey County Council). All License CC-BY.

The feast of All Hallow’s on its current date in the Western Church may be traced to Pope Gregory IV (827-844), who officially switched the date to the 1st November in AD 835. The choice of date is interesting  and there are several suggestions as to why this date was picked, one of which is that its the same date as Samhain. Samhain was the first and most important of the four quarter days in the medieval Gaelic calendar – the four dates in each year on which servants were hired, school terms started and rents were due. They occurred close to the two solstices and two equinoxes. Samhain was celebrated on the 31st October-1st November in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. A similar festival was held at the same time of year by the Brittonic Celts, called Calan Gaeaf in Wales, Kalan Gwav in Cornwall and Kalan Goañv in Brittany; a name meaning “first day of winter”.

Samhain/Calan Gaeaf marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. Like Beltane/Calan Mai (the May Day/spring equinox festival), it was seen as a liminal time (from the Latin for threshold), when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld was thinner, and the spirits or fairies were out and about. In Welsh it is an Ysbrydnos, or “spirit night”. These spirits were both feared and respected and so offerings of food and drink, or portions of the harvested crops were left out to appease them. The souls of the dead were also said to revisit their homes seeking hospitality so places were set at the dinner table and by the fire for them. The belief that the souls of the dead return home one night a year is a very ancient one and is found in cultures all over the world.

The household festivities included rituals and games that we would recognise in today’s Hallowe’en activities. Apple bobbing and nut-roasting were used to divine the future, and special bonfires were lit both for divination and protection. From at least the 16th century the festival included mumming or guising – dressing in costume and going from house to house reciting verse or song in exchange for food. If a household donated food it could expect good fortune, while not doing so would bring misfortune. By the 18th century, this had developed into playing pranks and pranksters began to use hollowed out turnips, often carved with grotesque faces, as lanterns.

A Post-medieval bag seal used by seed growers to trade and identify their goods. This one is for turnips and you can just about see a picture of a turnip on the right. Carved and hollowed-out turnips were associated with Halloween long before the pumpin. Record ID is BERK-34C29A2 (Oxfordshire County Council, license: CC-BY-SA).

In England, rather than pranking, people practiced the Christian custom of souling on Halloween: going from door to door collecting soul cakes in exchange for prayers for the dead. They too carried lanterns made from hollowed out turnips. Meanwhile, fires were used to guide returning souls to their family homes and deflect demons from haunting the living.

Later, the spirits and souls of the dead were joined in the Halloween pantheon by other monsters as works of literature popularised vampires, werewolves and the like. Think Frankenstein and Dracula. Thus the modern imagery of Hallowe’en, with its themes of death, malevolence and mythical monsters, comes from many sources – some ancient, others less so. Whichever traditions you decide to practice, we wish you a Happy Halloween!

For some more “spooky” finds, check out the blog posts below:

Devilish Discoveries and Frightening Finds
Spooky Stashes
PAS 15 – Halloween Finds

Death and Memory

Just in time for Hallowe’en, a new selection of Treasure cases relating to death and memory has gone on display at the British Museum. Ranging from spooky skulls to more personal mementos, these objects have been selected to explore the ways people have thought about death and the relationships between the living and the dead.

Image of a gold ring in a display case. The bezel of the ring is facing the viewer. The bezel is decorated with the image of a grinning skull.
A memento mori ring found in Suffolk and currently on display in Room 2 at The British Museum. Copyright: Ian Richardson, License: CC-BY.

The Treasure Team have a case in Gallery 2 (Collecting the World), which we use to showcase the variety of objects which go through the Treasure process.

The current display was inspired by the Death, Memory, Meaning Trail which has just been launched at the British Museum. The museum trail reinterprets 11 prehistoric grave goods to examine humble objects which gained new significance through their inclusion in inhumations or cremations and explores issues of identity and relationships between the living and the dead.

For the Treasure display case we worked with Jennifer Wexler of the British Museum to select a number of objects relating to death and memory.

A small middle Bronze Age hoard from Somerset

The hoard (DOR-813231) consists of a palstave axehead, a rivet and a rapier blade, which has been carefully bent to form a figure of 8 shape. Bending the metal in this way would have required skilled control of force and temperature.

Image of a lightly-corroded rapier blade. The blade has been folded into three so that it resembles a squashed letter Z.
A bent rapier blade of the Middle Bronze Age period. Copyright: Trustees of The British Museum, License: CC-BY.

At this time worked metal was often deposited in natural places. Was this rapier symbolically “killed” as an act of mourning?

Memento Mori rings from Suffolk

Memento mori rings were used to remind the wearer of the inevitability of death and often included imagery of skeletons and hourglasses. This example (SF-FFB26D) has a scroll motif and the inscription + LEARNE To DIE. It still has some traces of the original black enamel. 

An image showing 8 different views of a gold ring so that you can see the relief decoration on the outside and inscribed lettering on the inside.
A gold memento mori ring with the inscription + LEARNE To DIE on the inside of the band. Copyright: Suffolk County Council, License: CC-BY.

This evocative example (SF-9977A7) shows a grinning skull, with the inscription RES/PIC/E FI/NEM (RESPICE FINEM) which can be translated as “think to the end”. Much of the enamel remains on the bezel and the shoulders.

An image showing 4 views of a gold ring. The topmost view shows the front of the bezel, which is decorated with a grinning skull. Beneath it are 3 views showing the top of the ring and either side.
A gold memento mori ring depicting a grinning skull (SF-9977A7). Copyright: Suffolk County Council, License: CC-BY.

The ring has just been acquired by Felixstowe Museum, but they have generously allowed us to display it until it is collected.

Mourning rings from Oxfordshire

Mourning rings used some of the same imagery as memento mori rings, but were used to commemorate individuals. They often include the initials, date of death or age of the deceased and were commissioned to be distributed to friends and family. Some examples also include short verses and they can be a touching and personal reminder of individual mourning.

This elaborate example (OXON-9A2E11) has gold wire sewn beneath the glass or rock crystal setting. The bezel is cracked and the text is difficult to read, but may be initials or a year of death.

An image showing 5 views of a gold ring. The topmost view shows the front of the bezel, which is set with a rock crystal. Beneath it are 4 views showing the top and bottom of the ring and either side.
A gold and rock crystal mourning ring found in Oxfordshire (OXON-9A2E11). Copyright: Oxfordshire County Council, License: CC-BY.

This example (BERK-7B2937) is a little bent, but the skull motif on the outside of the band can still be seen. Inside, the inscription reads “JP Arm ob June 29 1688” and commemorates an individual with the initials JP, who died 29th June 1688. The abbreviation Arm indicates that they had the right to bear arms. Inscriptions such as these provide us with the briefest of biographies of individuals and show that they were not forgotten.

An image showing 5 views of a gold ring so that you can see the relief decoration on the outside of the band and the inscription on the inside of the band.
A gold mourning ring from the 17th century (BERK-7B2937). Copyright: Oxfordshire County Council, License: CC-BY.

These objects will be on display until December (subject to temporary removal for Treasure processes).

For more details on the Death, memory, meaning: Grave Goods: Stories for the Afterlife trail, see: https://www.britishmuseum.org/visiting/planning_your_visit/object_trails/death,_memory,_meaning.aspx

PAS 15 – Halloween Finds

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:

Image of seven archaeological finds related to Halloween.
A selection of finds 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.

Spooky Stashes

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 odd collection of items was found hidden in the floor socket of a partition wall of a house in Shropshire. The shape of the clay pipe bowl dates the assemblage to the 17th century.


This sun dial, dated to 1652, was found buried in the rammed earth floor of a thatched house in Suffolk.


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.


Fabric mask found hidden in a wall.

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.

Devilish Discoveries and Frightening Finds

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.




Post-medieval witch bottle with contents

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.



Post-medieval child's clog

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.




Gold ring with skull image

Seal matrix depicting a skeleton

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.




Fossilised oyster shell

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.