Research Background: First Steps on the Sinister Trail

This post outlines the background of my research, in order to elucidate potential approaches to this project. I’ve been interested in folklore – particularly ‘folk magic’, since a small child, avidly devouring my grandmother’s books (and later what the public library had to offer) on past superstitions and witchcraft within my home county of Derbyshire, and the surrounding Midland regions. I continue to pursue this interest by delving into old texts as I encounter them in the process of my research (see previous blog posts, here and here).

But what really excited my attention were the numerous material remains of ritual practices that I encountered when undertaking formal archaeological studies (back in the 1990s), and (thanks to the tuition of the departmental anthropologist) how such practices might variously be interpreted. I found those practices conducted in conjunction with or outside (at times, perhaps in contestation of) dominant religious institutions of special interest, and my research into ritual and religion has since concentrated on this area of study.

crickley long mound

Neolithic monument (the ‘Long Mound’) at Crickley Hill, Gloc., which received ritual deposits in the Roman and Medieval period; a 19th century object was placed in the nearby Roman period monument (te ‘Short Mound’) that imitated the Long Mound.[i]

This has included examinations of the ‘re-use’ and ‘imitation’ of prehistoric monuments in later periods, carried out as part of my postgraduate research into Roman and early medieval Britain. More recently, I’ve extended attention to postmedieval activity at monuments, in consideration of antiquarianism and ‘heritage tourism’ in the 17th – 19th centuries (although this work is on a back burner for now while I await a large dataset that I’m sure will be of use).[ii] I found ‘everyday’ ritual particularly interesting – especially practices potentially enacted for the protection of home, family, and community – and was able to consider this topic in detail during my PhD studies.[iii] At this stage, it must be noted that a false dichotomy is often presumed to exist between day-to-day and ‘ritual’ behaviour. However, such differentiations more likely reflect modern Western beliefs – whereby ‘ritual’ is perhaps more equated with weekly and seasonal communal ceremonies – than historic mentalities.

While some patterns of behaviour appear to clearly represent practices that the modern observer might define as ‘ordinary’ – routines of daily life, including subsistence activities, manufacturing, and exchange,[iv] for instance – others are less easily interpreted,[v] their ‘strangeness’ today provoking their classification as ‘extraordinary’, ‘special’, and therefore impenetrable. But these deposits, rather than being ignored as seemingly unfathomable to the modern mind, should instead alert the archaeologist of the need to look beyond modern Western notions ‘practical’ behaviour.

Comparative studies of contexts over time and space reveal repetition of what seems likely to be the deliberate selection and frequently careful placement of a restricted range of material. Although such ‘special’ deposits commonly incorporate ‘mundane’ material, this seems ‘out-of-place’ – though may be close to where it might be expected to be found. Animal bones and teeth (and sometimes human remains), particular clothing, and certain pottery (amongst other matter), are often deposited in specific locations, most typically around doorways (particularly on, above, or under thresholds); hearths; and sometimes under walls and roofs.[vi] But the distinction of ‘out-of-place’ may be in our eyes only. Such activities might well represent a juxtaposition of this and other domains, integrating what we see as behaviour belonging to ‘everyday’ life, with that of the ‘supernatural’; indeed, we must question whether such supernatural: natural distinctions were appropriate for the cultures and societies we investigate. It is quite possible that those who performed the practices seen as ‘special’ or ‘weird’ today, perceived these acts as just another stage in the various processes of what we define as ‘everyday’ activities.

The regularity of these practices has led to the interpretation of some as ‘foundation’ and ‘termination’ deposits (depending on their position at the bottom or top of a feature, respectively): placed at the beginning or end (or a new phase) of site use.[vii] Some, and other seemingly ‘weird’ practices, have been suggested as representing forms of apotropaism – attempts to fend off evil forces; and / or propitiation – attempts to gain the favour of ‘supernatural beings’ that might enhance the fortunes or otherwise intercede on behalf of the living, or to appease such ‘spirits’ that have been offended.[viii]

Although it is certain folly to assume wholesale continuity of ritual beliefs and behaviours across long periods of time and wide geographical space,[ix] there are evident parallels between some of these 1st – 7th century practices, and those that occur in later periods – seemingly pointing towards concerns that cut across apparent temporal and spatial boundaries. (And we must always remember that ‘periods’, ‘cultures’ and ‘eras’ are largely categories devised in retrospect for historical analysis.)

In examining material over the longue durée,[x] and in conjunction with written sources, during my doctoral research, it was possible to consider long-term continuities, alongside short-term behaviours. The intensification of potentially propitiatory and apotropaic ritual practices at times of turmoil and crisis, as evident from this approach, is perhaps not unexpected. In following my more recent research interest in the post-medieval period (for my studies, from the late 16th century onwards) my encounters of comparable behaviour during particularly turbulent times in the Early Modern era should perhaps be no more astounding.

The notion of crisis and cultural flux can be applied to the Early Modern era, as much as to the times of transitions to and from Roman control, and my current chronological focus for studies of ritual practices – the early – mid 17th century – was no less a time of major upheaval in Britain. I am compelled to repeat that in making comparisons between the Early Modern period, and particular episodes in the 1st – 7th centuries, I am certainly not suggesting simple continuities or revivals of previous practices. Ways of ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’ are intrinsically linked to (and structured by) what has gone before: the causes of concerns surrounding spiritual malevolence in postmedieval society closely relate to the 16th century Reformation, and the political structures of the following century.[xi] It is therefore fairly safe to say that, however close the practices appear in form, the anxieties and hopes that they represent will have been accorded different social and cultural dimensions (and to a large extent, ‘meanings’), according to the diverse circumstances in which they were held.[xii] Nevertheless, the similarities are interesting, and provoke questions that require analysis.

In my current situation, it is not possible to conduct a study of the same depth and scope as that I undertook for doctoral research.[xiii] But I’m able to dedicate time now and then to the topic, applying the theoretical underpinnings that informed my research on earlier periods, investigating local Early Modern contexts.[xiv] My more recent work on postmedieval housing;[xv] gender, violence and abuse;[xvi] and death and burial;[xvii] has provided opportunities to examine potentially ritual material. Until recently, there was little published archaeological work on this subject, but I’ve found that the burgeoning academic attention of recent years correlates with my own interests and approaches.[xviii]

The next post will outline recent and current research carried out through MM.


[i] For Crickley Hill, Glouc.: a summary is available here; an article specifically on ritual practices (‘Telling tales? Myth, memory, and Crickley Hill’) is available here.

[ii] For my work on the Roman and Early Medieval periods, see e.g. bibliographic details here; my PhD thesis (Ethnic, Social and Cultural Identity in Roman to Post-Roman Southwest Britain) and an article on identity during the late pre-Roman to post-Roman periods (‘Cives and Saxones: the expression of Ethnicity in southwest Britain in the Early Middle Ages’), are here and here.

[iii] For my work on everyday ritual at Crickley, see e.g. here.

[iv] For example, the manufacturing features that I examined might be denoted as such by the presence of crucible sherds, copper alloy ‘dross’, iron slag, or parts of stone pewter moulds. Occupation deposits were often associated with building features – walls, floor surfaces, and hearths, etc. – and commonly comprised fragments of burnt animal bone, broken pottery to which food and soot sometimes adhered, and very occasionally included coins, and items of ‘personal ornaments’ and dress, that is, dress and hair pins, brooches, and lace tags. The trading sites that I encountered were generally in coastal locations, incorporated temporary habitation or shelters, had large amounts of particular materials, such as amphorae, which might appear unused, and sometimes weights and measures were found in association. Examples of these different site types for the 4th – 6th centuries are included within my thesis, op. cit. (note ii); also see, e.g., Christopher Snyder An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons, AD 400-600, 1998 (Strud: Sutton Publishing Ltd); Ken Dark, Britain and the End of the Roman Empire, 2002 (Stroud :The History Press); and Simon Esmonde Cleary, Ending Of Roman Britain, 1991 (Abbingdon: Routledge).

[v] As general examples of apparently deliberately placed and selected material, layers might include animals and birds (that from the analysis of occupation deposits appear to be excluded from contemporaneous diet), such as carrion birds, cats, and dogs – which may be arranged in unnatural positions. Partial human remains might occur, such as pieces of skull – which might have smoothed surfaces, indicative of wear. Complete (or near-complete) vessels (sometimes including animal bones, or, e.g. nuts), and in some periods, shoes – perhaps indicating economic investment, by forfeiture of commodities. For specific examples, see my thesis, op. cit. (note ii); although now dated, a good introduction to the range of deposits that stand out as ‘different’ to those usually associated with everyday practices is Ann Woodward’s Shrines and Sacrifice, 1992 (London : Batsford). As well as the content of such deposits, the absence of particular material is important, bearing in mind that middens (rubbish tips) usually include the range of finds noted above (note iv) found within occupation deposits.

[vi] My thesis bibliography (op. cit., note ii) refers to numerous works that record and study such practices.

[vii] In considering ritualised practices, archaeological studies often make use of the term ‘structured’ deposits, thus attending to processes of deposition, as well patterning in place, assemblage composition, and associations between these factors. For recent discussion of structured deposits, see e.g. Duncan Garrow 2012 ‘Odd deposits and average practice. A critical history of the concept of structured deposition’, Archaeological Dialogues Vol. 19, Iss. 2 (Dec.) 2012, pp. 85 115; and the response by Julian Thomas ‘Some Deposits Are More Structured Than Others’, pp. 124-127.

[viii] A wide range of literature on these topics exist – for the earlier periods discussed here, Miranda Green has authored numerous popular and accessible texts.

[ix] For my own work on this subject, see ‘Telling tales?’, op. cit. (note i).

[x] I was often fortunate to be able to dedicate many, many, hours to study above those expected of me as a part-time student. This allowed me to consider a large dataset derived from a wide geographical area (southwest Britain: Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire, Dorset, Gloucestershire; with comparisons across Britain, and Western and Northern Europe), over a long period of time (3rd century BC, for some areas, 2nd for many –  AD 7th century). While I (very gratefully) received a fee bursary for eight years, I effectively studied for eleven years, due to nearly three years leave of absence, during which time I was able to continue some studies at a lower, and less pressured, pace (hence my massive 3-volume thesis!).

[xi] Regarding attitudes surrounding witchcraft and other supernatural malefic forces in the Early Modern period, see e.g. Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, 1991 (London: Penguin).

[xii] I refer the reader again to ‘Telling tales?’ (op. cit.: note i), which discusses relationships between folklore, place, memory, and the transmission of knowledge over long periods of time.

[xiii] Op. cit. (note ii).

[xiv] For information on the theoretical frameworks that inform my research, see the work cited in notes i-iii. A general bibliography of my work is available via, here.

[xv] I primarily investigate housing through a project that I direct: Living in the Past Community Archaeology Project (‘LIPCAP’).

[xvi] This topic is examined through the ‘Past Sense Project’ (‘PSP’), which I co-direct.

[xvii] This work is conducted independently, in preparation for subsequent teaching and publication. Some of the burial grounds that I’ve visited over the last few years can be seen here.

[xviii] The standard text on this topic has long been Ralph Merrifield’s 1987 The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic (New York: New Amsterdam Books), although the bibliography has expanded in recent years, particularly with the publication Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain, ed. Ronald Hutton, 2016 (London: Palgrave Macmillan). Relevant articles within this text include Timothy Easton ‘Apotropaic Symbols and Other Measures’, pp. 39-67, especially pp. 56-9; Matthew Champion ‘Magic on the Walls’, pp. 15-38; Brian Hoggard, ‘Witch Bottles: Their Contents, Contexts and Uses’, pp. 99-105; ‘Concealed Animals’, pp. 106-17; June Swann, ‘Shoes Concealed in Buildings ‘, pp. 118-30; Dinah Eastrop ‘Garments Concealed within Buildings: Following the Evidence’, pp. 131-46;  Timothy Easton ‘Spiritual Middens’, pp. 147-63. Also see June Swann, ‘Shoes Concealed in Buildings, Costume no.30, 1996, p.56-69, re-published here; Matthew Champion’s blog, here, and the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey; Dinah Eastop’s study of concealed garments; Brian Hoggard’s study of apotropaic material; Ceri Houlbrook’s website on concealed objects, here; and Dinah Eastrop’s website on concealed garments. In developing the MM project, I shall be guided by this previous and ongoing work. Due to my limitations and commitments, my own work on the topic has been far more occasional, and less systematic, than this work, which this project seeks to rectify.


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