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The Archaeology of Folk Magic

By Brian Hoggard
Originally published at Beltane 1999

In this article I hope to draw to the readers' attention to a little known field of study known as the archaeology of folk magic. This is intimately related to what most people call witchcraft and involves the physical remains related to practices undertaken by the 'white' witch to protect people's property from 'black' witches and also practices which lay-folk undertook by themselves for the same reason. There is a bias of material in my collection to the 16th and 17th centuries, this is because this is the focus of my PhD and also because it is when there was the most fear about witchcraft - hence more archaeology relating to protection. Where material is not dated assume that it comes from these two centuries. Before beginning with a description of the finds and theories about them, it is important that I set the context for the topic.

Historians are getting better at writing about witchcraft. About thirty years ago there was still a tendency amongst them to use exclamation marks when talking about the horrors of torture and to dismiss the belief in witchcraft as primitive heretical superstition or as over-enthusiastic religious faith. A classic and highly respectable work entitled The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology written by Robbins in 1959 has some of these hallmarks.1 While they were correct by our modern standards to be horrified by the tortures that occurred they did not attempt to compare the 'witch-craze' to Stalin's purges or the holocaust or other comparable situations. Now we have books like Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas2 which details the practices of the village cunning-men and wise-women (the 'white' witches who were really slightly grey) and Early Modern European Witchcraft - Centres and Peripheries edited by Ankarloo and Henningsen3 which collects together major articles which deal, among other things, with spirit flight and Icelandic witchcraft. There is no doubt that historians are getting closer to understanding the role that witchcraft served in the village community better now than they ever have before. Tanya Luhrman did an historical and anthropological study of modern witchcraft called Persuasions of the Witch's Craft 4 which involved becoming initiated into several covens and writing about her findings in an historical-comparative style. Diane Purkiss in The Witch in History 5 has clearly shown the problems that are encountered when dealing with the historical claims of Wicca, some of which are clearly slightly suspect. For example there was no such thing as 'the burning times' in England because all witches here were hung by the neck. She does, however, acknowledge the validity of it as a religion alternative to mainstream Christianity other religions. Other authors such as Norman Cohn in Europe's Inner Demons 6 have demonstrated that many of the fears generated in the period of witch-persecution were created by the ruling elite. For example it was during the period of mass executions that the belief in witches riding broomsticks evolved and also when notions of a witches sabbath which parodied Christian church ritual came in to being. Eamon Duffy in The Stripping of the Altars 7 has demonstrated how Christian beliefs, which in many cases were very basic and superficial, were combined with folk beliefs very easily in pre-Reformation parishes. Here supernatural belief and a kind of polytheism through worship of the saints existed hand in hand with mainstream Christianity. This is the type of situation which Anton Wessels in Europe - Was it Ever Really Christian? 8 describes as broadly 'pagan-animist' in nature, not Christian at all. Books worth having whatever your preferred theories about the witch in history are those which reprint court records and other documents relating to witchcraft. The best and most widely available one of these is Barbera Rosen's Witchcraft in England 1558-1618 9 which, as a prelude, has probably the best and most concise introduction to the study of witchcraft in existence. Another similar work, though sadly out of print, is Peter Haining's The Witchcraft Papers - Contemporary Records of the Witchcraft Hysteria in Essex 1560-1700.10 There are many excellent books that contribute sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, to the witchcraft debate and these are but a few of the more important ones - many of which can be ordered at your local bookshop. These books all indicate the steps forward that have been made by historians in recent years to clarify the nature of witchcraft as it really happened in England - instead of the 'Winnie the Witch' cartoons, fairytales and Hollywood images of the witch that most of us have inherited from our childhood, not to mention all the other images and expectations of the witch generated by the apparently vast numbers of third degree witches who you can meet down the local pub. READ-up on the history before you join-up if you possibly can!

An area of witchcraft which hasn't been looked at very much at all is the archaeology of witchcraft. It is this which is the focus of this article. There has been work by some authors on this topic but they have tended to attempt to make the evidence fit their theories rather than let the evidence create new theories. The only person to have written a serious book on this is Ralph Merrifield whose Archaeology of Ritual and Magic 11 covers periods from the Neolithic to the nineteenth century - therefore he spends only a chapter, albeit a very good one, on the archaeology relating specifically to witchcraft. Many people have written interesting academic articles on the archaeology of folk magic which you will find listed in the references but Merrifield's is the only book worth getting hold of. The type of finds that most often occur tell us more about what people did to protect themselves against black witchcraft than what witches actually did. But the way in which people protected themselves against witchcraft seems to suggest the survival of much older belief system or practice which does (I think) tell us quite a lot about the nature of witchcraft and its origins. The finds covered by Merrifield in his book range from mummified cats (dried) to witch-bottles and all of them seem to have something to do with preventing the evil witch or demon from entering the home and causing harm. I shall detail the practices with examples and describe the way in which each was supposed to work.

Concealed Shoes

The most common folk magic find by far relating to the protection of the home is that of concealing shoes in buildings. The Concealed Shoes Index at Northampton Museum receives an average of one find a month but curators there believe that hundreds of finds every year are simply thrown out by builders.12 By February 1998 the index recorded over 1100 examples primarily from Britain, but with some from as far away as Canada. The date range for these finds is interesting and appears to be proportionally related to surviving buildings from the periods concerned, until the twentieth century when the practice appears to have gone into serious decline. For instance, pre 1600's there are around fifty examples, 1600-1699 around 200, 1700-1799 approximately 270, 1800-1899 around 500 and 1900+ (when the records appear to decline) around fifty13 - but this latter may be because people either keep their concealed shoes secret or they have not had a reason to examine their chimneys yet. These shoes are usually found concealed in chimneys, either on a ledge a little way up the chimney or in purpose built cavities behind the hearth into which items can be deposited from above. These have been termed 'spiritual middens'.14 Other places have included in walls, under floorboards, in window frames and in staircases. Nearly all of the shoes discovered in this context are well worn, half of those found belonged to children and only very rarely are pairs found. Shoes were expensive items and were repaired again and again until they could not be worn any longer. As a result of this the shoe was a unique item, perfectly fitting only the wearer at the end of use. Various theories have been put forward to explain why shoes were concealed in chimneys.

One suggestion is that they were a fertility symbol. For example, Roy Palmer in his book The Folklore of Hereford and Worcester cites a very recent case from Broadwas-on-Teme where in 1960 a midwife refused to allow a young woman to remove her shoes until her child was born.15 Merrifield, discussing shoes, noted the old rhyme, 'there was an old woman who lived in a shoe. . .' as being further evidence of the connection between shoes and fertility. He also quotes a case from Lancashire where it was apparently not unusual for women wishing to conceive to wear the shoes of those who had just given birth in the hope of 'catching' something of the wearer. Another slightly more bizarre account is a method once used by young ladies to invoke dreams of their future partners. They were said to pin their garters to a wall and arrange their shoes in the form of a 'T' and sing a short rhyme.17 Just how successful this was I don't know but it reaffirms the link between shoes and fertility yet again.

When shoes are found beneath bedroom floors the above appears to be a likely explanation, but in other locations the following explanation seems more likely. Denise Dixon-Smith, who was Assistant Keeper of the Boot and Shoe Collection 1986-1990 states that, "One reason for hiding shoes in chimneys and around doors may have been because they were 'openings' where evil spirits could enter the home, and the shoe - as a good luck symbol - should warn them off."18 She was not the first person to suggest this however. Merrifield in his book suggests that an unofficial Saint named John Schorn was partly responsible for the custom. Schorn was alleged to have performed the remarkable feat of casting the devil into a boot which Merrifield says may have led to shoes being seen as some kind of spirit-trap - this would explain the locations in which they are found.19 Supporting evidence of the protective associations of shoes comes from Reginald Scot who mentioned that spitting on shoes was a way to protect against witchcraft.20 A few shoes found have been vigorously slashed suggesting black witchcraft, not a spirit trap at all.

The lack of writings from contemporary accounts about this apparently very common practice has baffled many people, but it is probable that secrecy was an important part of the folk magic protection. After all, you wouldn't want to risk letting a witch know how to avoid or switch off your spiritual burglar alarm would you? It is probable that the shoes were a kind of bait which 'contained' enough of the human to lure the witch into a dead-end in the chimney and have her trapped forever - witches were reputed to be unable to travel backwards. It is fortunate that June Swann began the Concealed Shoe Index at Northampton21 for it has reaffirmed the importance of many of the other finds which are found in associated contexts and has generated a substantial revival of interest in this type of find.


Another concealed object often found, although nowhere near as often as concealed shoes, is that of witch-bottles. In some literature these are known as 'bellarmines' because the first kind of bottles used for this purpose were stoneware bottles with a face stuck on to them which people believed was a portrait of a man named Cardinal Bellarmine who persecuted Protestants. This theory has now been shown by M R Holmes to be untrue as some bottles pre-date the Cardinal by some time.22 The basic facts about witch-bottles are quite amazing. The effort that went into placing them was quite substantial compared to that of shoes, which were merely thrown down a hole or perched on an existing ledge. Many of the earliest bottles have been found inverted beneath doorsteps and hearths. They are not exclusively inverted but this seems to have been an important part of the practice in some areas. The most common components of the contents of a witch-bottle are pins and urine. Joseph Blagrave's Astrological Practice of Physick published in 1671 describes putting urine into a bottle with pins to 'stop the urine' of the witch.23 Although this clearly describes the placing of urine into the bottles, examinations of the bottles are not always conclusive. Most of those tested have reacted positively for phosphates and carbonate,24 an indicator of the presence of urine, but further examination has sometimes proved that these substances occurred in the bottle through the presence of other matter.25 Some examples have a felt heart shaped piece of material within them which has been stuck with pins.26 A common feature is that many of the pins have been bent before being placed into the bottle.

The aim of these bottles seems to have been, once again, to serve as a spirit trap. The placing of the bottles at doorways and chimneys seems to affirm this.27 Other interesting facts are that the bending of the pins ritually 'kills' them which means they exist in the 'otherworld' where the witch travels - which is why you can't see them. The urine is a way of making the bottle 'contain' the person again in a similar way as worn shoes contain the person. Sticking pins into a heart soaked with your urine would seem to be a way of fooling the witch into thinking that your heart is in the bottle, so when the witch detects you they plunge into the bottle to grab your heart and get stuck inside it and impaled on the prickly pins. One bottle has been found on a parish boundary, suggesting perhaps the fear in one village of a witch in the next.

An unusual example of a witch-bottle was found in Wales. It was a pot which was found with the name 'Nanny Roberts' written on the bottom suggesting either black witchcraft against a particular person or the name of the witch-owner - the pot had the bones of a frog and its dried skin which was pierced by some forty pins.28 Some bottles have been found with certain plant and insect remains and various body hairs. All suggestive of a spell or concoction of some kind. The use of 'bellarmines' as witch-bottles gradually degraded into using ordinary glass bottles,29 many of which are now coming to light.30

Mummified Cats

A not so common find-type is that of mummified cats, although the correct term is 'dried cats'.31 These are often found concealed in walls but sometimes roofs as well. In some cases the cats have been positioned, indicating that they were already dead at the time of concealment.32 One sad case is of a kitten which had been pinned down and had its belly cut. There is also a case where a mummified puppy has been found.33 Sometimes mummified rats are found with the cats, suggesting a symbolic placing of the creatures, possibly to indicate the cat's function on a spiritual plane. Some writers have commented that the likelihood is that cats are placed in such situations to act as vermin scaring devices.34 This, however, is unlikely because the locations are often in impractical places such as the roof. When cats are found beneath floorboards there is always the possibility that they crawled there to die, but this does not rule out some kind of foundation sacrifice, which is another of the main suggestions.35

This idea of foundation sacrifice seems relatively sensible but you still have to ask why? Is it in the honour of some god or goddess for which there is no obvious evidence? A preferable and more reasonable explanation is that it was hoped that some of the qualities attributed to the cat in life would continue in the afterlife. Cats are reputed to be able to see ghosts and spirits easier than humans can36 and it is possible that it was their job to catch vermin of a more spiritual kind, perhaps the witch's familiar. George Gifford, writing in 1593, complained of witch's familiars running around outside.37 If he'd had a cat concealed in his walls, a witch-bottle beneath his doorstep and some shoes up his chimney he'd have had less to worry about.

Concealed Horse Skulls

These unusual additions to a house aren't very common in England although there are some examples. They are more numerous in Wales and Ireland. In a small church at Elsdon in Northumberland National Park three horse skulls were found in the small belfry.38 This indicates that they were placed there to serve a similar function to that of the bells, ie, to ward off evil spirits. As Ecgbert's (Archbishop of York) Pontifical from the eighth century has it, "Wherever this bell sounds, let the power of enemies retire, so also the shadow of phantoms .... .and every spirit of the storm winds".39 Another horse skull has been discovered during excavation at the deserted medieval village of Yatesbury in Wiltshire.40 In a pub called the Portway in Herefordshire over forty horse skulls were discovered screwed to the underside of the floor.41 The explanation given for this was that it improved the sound of the fiddle when it was played. This explanation seems to have been a later folklore, rather than the true explanation of the practice as many locations in which horse skulls have been found do not improve the acoustics at all.42 Horses, like cats, have been credited with the ability to see ghosts and other evil spirits43 and as they serve humans in life, perhaps it was expected that they would serve humans in death too.

Other House Protections

Other ways that the house could be protected were by written charms and curses. The Museum of Welsh Life at St. Fagan's, Cardiff has a good collection of these but the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth has probably the best collection. Charms have been found in England too. A famous one from Dymock in Gloucestershire was found with the name Sarah Ellis scrawled backwards on it.44 A charm has been found in a roof in Ludlow.45 These were drawn-up by local cunning-men and wise-women (white witches) to protect the house or barn from evil in a similar way to the other measures mentioned above. It is probable that the more difficult the method of house protection, the more effective was deemed the method. Therefore written curses and charms are probably at the top of the effectiveness list. They are usually a mixture of Latin phrases taken from pre-Reformation services and astrological symbols.46 All the charms are similar in terms of this mix of biblical and astrological literature indicating the way that differing philosophies were harnessed towards one common goal in an era of poor literacy and confusion about religion47 - this is the period that Wessels described as 'pagan-animist'. The Christian God was one of many influences the cunning-man or wise-woman could draw upon to make a charm work. Saints Peter and Paul were the favourites for divination for instance.48

Various symbols have been engraved on to wooden beams and sometimes drawn into plaster work on ceilings. The most common of these is the 'daisywheel'.49 It is a compass-drawn circle with petals within it and it appears on buildings and on furniture within buildings throughout Britain. It appears to have been a general protection against ill-fortune or was deemed a good luck symbol.

There are many different forms of house protection that were used, these are just the most important ones. During the course of my PhD I have come across many regional variations and many rather intricate and bizarre methods of warding off the evil of the 'black' witch. In all of them there is the implicit belief that the witch can travel through the air and that they can be easily confused by dead-ends or complex patterns. The belief that witches could fly seems to have been shared by all sectors of the population at different times judging by the high status houses which have yielded 'protections' such as these. This could be evidence of a very old cultural belief in the out-of-body experience similar to that which the Friulian benandanti of Northern Italy believed.50 More research is ongoing to discover more about the many ways that people protected their homes against the 'evil' witch.


1. Robbins, Rossell Hope, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, 1959, The Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd, London.

2. Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1971, Penguin, London.

3. Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft - Centres and Peripheries, 1998 reprint (1st ed 1990), Clarendon Press, Oxford.

4. Lurhman, Tanya, Persuasions of the Witch's Craft - Ritual Magic and Witchcraft in Present-Day England, 1989, Basil Blackwell Ltd, Oxford.

5. Purkiss, Diane, The Witch in History - Early Modern and Twentieth Century Representations, 1996, Routledge, London.

6. Cohn, Norman, Europe's Inner Demons - The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom, 1993 revised edition, Pimlico, London.

7. Duffy, Eamon, The Stripping of the Altars - Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, 1992, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

8. Wessels, Anton, Europe - Was it Ever Really Christian?, 1994, SCM Press LTD, London.

9. Rosen, Barbera (ed), Witchcraft in England 1558-1618, 1991 paperback edition (1st ed 1969), The University of Massachusetts Press, Amhurst.

10. Haining, Peter (ed), The Witchcraft Papers - Contemporary Records of the Witchcraft Hysteria in Essex 1560-1700, 1st ed 1974, Robert Hale and Co, London.

11. Merrifield, Ralph, The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, 1987, BCA, London.

12. Mackay, Andrew, 'Northampton Museums Concealed Shoe Index', Northampton Museum, 16th April 1991.

13. Pitt, Fiona, 'Builders, Bakers and Madhouses: Some Recent Information from the Concealed Shoe Index', a report on a talk she gave at the Archaeological Leather Group AGM in September 1997 contained in an article, 'Hidden Shoes and Concealed Beliefs', Archaeological Leather Group Newsletter, February 1998, p5.

14. Easton, Timothy, 'Spiritual Middens', in Oliver, Paul (ed), Encyclopaedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World, 1995.

15. Palmer, Roy, The Folklore of Hereford and Worcester, 1992, Logaston Press, Herefordshire, p87.

16. Merrifield, op cit, p134.

17. Radford, E and M A, edited and revised by Hole, Christina, The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, 1961, Helicon edition 1980, p169.

18. Dixon-Smith, Denise, extract from 'Concealed Shoes', Archaeological Leather Group Newsletter, no 6, Spring 1990.

19. Merrifield, op cit, p134.

20. Radford, op cit, p319.

21. She began the field of study with her article, 'Shoes Concealed in Buildings', Journal of Northampton Art Gallery and Museum, 6th Dec 1969, pp8-21 and has recently reworked her material and brought it up-to-date with, 'Shoes Concealed in Buildings', Costume Society Journal, no 30, 1996, pp56-69.

22. Holmes, M R, 'The So-Called 'Bellarmine' Mask on Imported Rhenish Stoneware', Antiquaries Journal, XXXI, 1950, pp173-179.

23. Blagrave, quoted in Merrifield, Ralph, 'The Use of Bellarmines as Witch-Bottles', Guildhall Miscellany, no 3, Feb 1954. This is the standard work on bellarmines even though it is rather old now.

24. The first study to do this methodically was, Smedley, Owles and Paulsen, 'More Suffolk Witch-Bottles', Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, vol XXX, 1964-66.

25. A great study of the contents of a witch-bottle found in Reigate has recently been undertaken by Dr Allan Massey of Loughborough University Chemistry Department. His study demonstrated that urine had not been present in the bottle.

26. Merrifield, 'The Use of. . .', op cit.

27. Numerous examples from around Britain reaffirm the manner of concealment but Norfolk Archaeology Service holds the greatest number. Their sample alone affirms that these are the most usual places to find them.

28. Gruffydd, Eirlys, 'A Buckley Pot Used In Witchcraft', Buckley, 6, 1981, p42.

29. The paper by Holmes, op cit, is the only one to properly deal with this devolution.

30. Many witch-bottles of plain glass type have been recorded on my find database, most recently one was discovered in an ingle-nook fireplace in a cottage in Herefordshire.

31. Sheehan, John, 'A Seventeenth Century Dried Cat from Ennis Friary, Co. Clare', North Munster Antiquarian Journal, vol XXXII, 1990, pp64-69. This is the most authoritative and up-to-date survey of 'dried cats' in general as well as the site specific study.

32. Howard, Margaret M, 'Dried Cats', Man, no 252, Nov 1951, pp149-151.

33. Kittens are fairly rare finds but I have at least two on my database - there is only one puppy - there is also a mummified starling, found with a cat and rat - one place has a hare.

34. Howard, op cit, this is the theory that she advocates most of all.

35. Sheehan, op cit, quotes Ó Súilleabháin, S, 'Foundation Sacrifices', Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 75, pp45-52.

36. See, for example, Oldfield-Howey, M, The Cat in Magic, 1993 edition, Bracken Books, London and another excellent source is Opie and Tatum (eds), A Dictionary of Superstitions, 1989, OUP.

37. Haining, op cit, pp76-110.

38. The Story of Reelesdale, 1986, published by the National Park.

39. Quoted in Robbins, op cit, p512.

40. This is another find on my database, soon to be written-up.

41. Merrifield, The Archaeology. . ., p123..

42. Ó Súilleabháin, op cit, this article was a survey of people who knew of examples of horse skulls and the local explanation for how they got there.

43. Again, see Opie and Tatem (eds), op cit.

44. Chris Morris, Gloucestershire Folk Lore, 1988, Gloucester Folk Museum, p4.

45. I have details of this and many others on my database.

46. Duffy, op cit, Thomas, op cit, and Merrifield, op cit, have demonstrated this.

47. For the importance and extreme popularity of astrology in its social context, see Curry, Patrick, Astrology in Early Modern England, 1989, Princeton Univeristy Press, New Jersey.

48. Thomas, op cit, in particular is good for this subject.

49. For more information from the pioneer of this subject see, Easton Timothy, 'Ritual Marks on Historic Timber', Weald and Downland Open Air Museum Magazine, Spring 1999, pp22-30.

50. Ginzburg, Carlo, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 1983 edition, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.