Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Christmas Related Artefacts

The Pitt Rivers Museum's English collections do not have many objects specifically related to Christmas. This is perhaps surprising as this season is perhaps the season most widely celebrated throughout England even today. Indeed English, European and North American Christmas traditions have now spread throughout the world, and can be seen as almost divorced from its purpoted religious connections to Christianity. Christmas Day, 25 December in the Anglican and Roman Catholic calendar, was supposed to be the day when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It has been a public holiday in the United Kingdom for a very long time, in the nineteenth century it was one of only two days on which workers had a statutory right to be absent under the Factory Act of 1833 (the other was Good Friday)[David please link Good Friday to the Good Friday part of the Easter object biography]. [Hutton, 1996:112]
Hutton makes the point that a midwinter festival had probably been celebrated in Britain from 'the dawn of history'. [1996:34] Christmas, in England, occurs at the darkest time of the year, when days are at their shortest. It is also during the cold winter, when food would have been more scarse and life (before the twentieth century) much harder for most people. As Hutton remarks, 'the Christmas season is the most important complex of festivals in the modern British year and contains by far the largest number of customary practices. [1996:112]

Gifts

1945.6.124 Desk presented to Miss S.U. Powys
Christmas time is a time for exchanging or giving presents to family and friends. Gifts are sometimes also given to employees, or employers or people to whom the person feels an obligation. The next object, which is Christmas-related, is an oddity, it is described as:
'A hideous [sic] fitted desk, 1 ft 2 inches x 10 inches x 9 inches, veneered with bird's eye maple and with brass ornaments, and an inscription on brass: "Presented to Miss S.U. Powys by the members of the Bournemouth Central Workers' Club, Christmas 1877". Tout à fait typique.'[1945.6.124]
It was donated by William Horace Boscawen Somerset in June 1945. It is not known why Bournemouth Central Workers Club felt it should give Miss Powell the desk at Christmas, or why the anonymous accession book recorder in 1945 should feel that the desk was so 'hideous', though there is a rather unattractive underlying note of snobbishness in the final sentence 'tout à fait typique' (loosely translated as 'entirely typical'). This object was not given to the Museum because it was a Christmas gift (indeed the motivation for giving it to the Museum or accepting it seems unclear as it was considered so 'hideous'). The museum has been unable to find out anything more about either Miss Powell or the Bournemouth Central Workers Club and would be grateful for any information on either.
Gift-giving, before the nineteenth century, had traditionally been associated with New Year rather than Christmas Day but during that century, the date gradually changed to Christmas Day, where it has remained. [Hutton, 1996:116] As Hutton points out, dislike of the perceived commercial nature of Christmas started early, 'George Bernard Shaw started an enduring myth in 1897 by declaring that 'Christmas is forced upon a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press'.' [1996:116]

This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.

Alison Petch, 

Researcher


Friday, 4 December 2015

Topping-out at the Pitt Rivers Museum

On 24 February 2006 Dr John Hood, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, donated a ceremonial trowel and tankard in presentation boxes to the Pitt Rivers Museum [PRM]. 

The topping out ceremony, John Hood receives his ceremonial trowel


These gifts had been given to him on 9 February 2006 during the topping-out ceremony for the new extension to the PRM. The photographs on this page show the extension being built, the ceremony itself and the subject of this biography, the ceremonial trowel. John Hood is wearing a brown coat in the photographs, and the bearded man is Michael O'Hanlon, director of the museum. Other men are representatives of the builders, Sir Robert McAlpine.

Topping-out ceremonies


Topping-out is a ceremony traditionally held when the last beam is placed at the top of a building, or these days, the last iron beam. The ceremony marks the overall completion of the building's structure (the building is not completed, or ready for transfer to the owners or clients, it is a stage during the building process). According to wikipedia, such ceremonies are common in England, Germany, Poland and the United States.
2006.78.1 Ceremonial trowel given to John Hood at the PRM topping-out ceremony
A tree or leafy branch is placed on the topmost beam, often with flags or streamers tied to it. A toast is usually drunk and sometimes the workmen are treated to a meal.' [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Topping_out]
According to Simpson and Roud [2000, see "building trade" in further reading list below for source]:
What passes for building trade lore nowadays are ‘official’ customs such as cutting the first turf, laying a foundation stone, and topping out. The latter has been particularly popular since the 1960s, and few major construction projects are completed without a gathering of company officials, local dignitaries, and newspaper photographers on top of the new building to perform some ceremony such as laying the last brick. This custom has some roots, as there are earlier references to the workers hoisting a bush, or a flag, to the roof of a completed building.
This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.

Alison Petch, 

Researcher



Monday, 16 November 2015

A Dorset Hag Stone

1884.56.3 is an object, described by a museum worker as a 'stone with natural perforation, found fixed on a nail to the cottage-door of Kimber, a carter in General Pitt Rivers' employment, to keep away witches'. This is particularly interesting as it must have been acquired between 1880, when Pitt Rivers first inherited the Rushmore estate, and 5 April 1881 when he sent the stone to South Kensington Museum (where his collection was then displayed).
PRM 1884.56.3


The documentation held at the Museum states:
Accession Book IV entry - 1884.56.1 - 100 Charms Magic etc. - Naturally perforated stone, nailed to a cottage door against witches by a carter Rushmore nr Salisbury
'Green book' entry - South Kensington Receipts, 5 April 1881 - Collection of objects as per list attached nos 293 to 639 540 Holed stone used for the purpose of keeping away witches Rushmore nr Salisbury

Detailed Amulet card catalogue entry - Amulets ) O. Inscribed P. Talismans in cases Q Uninscribed single R Collars, necklets, armlets, rings S-T Juju [sic] U-W Stone X. Dance Y. Unclassed. - Naturally perforated stones Gt Britain Description: Stone with natural perforation, found fixed on a nail to the cottage-door of Kimber, a carter in Gen'l Pitt Rivers' employment, to keep away witches. Dimensions 100 x 64 approx Locality: Rushmore nr Salisbury How Acquired: P.R. coll 540 / 12191
The original documentation does not mention the name of the carter and it is not clear where the information came from, it first appears in the Ettlinger account, she thanks the then curator of the Museum, Tom Penniman, for information so he may have given her the reference, it is irritating that it was not recorded where it was obtained, as that source might have more information about the artefact.

This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.

Alison Petch, 

Researcher

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Votive Rags from St Helen's Well, Thorp Arch near Boston Spa, West Yorkshire



Rag Strip 1884.140.331 .1
1884.140.331 is an example of the votive rags that were tied to a tree near a well. Oddly this item was not accessioned into the Pitt Rivers Museum collections until the 1990s though it had lain in the museum for over a hundred years by then.


The documentation the Museum has about these objects is as follows:
1884.140.331 Blue book entry - Idols and objects connected with religion Case 78 159 Fragments of rag used as votive offerings for the cure of diseases at St Helens Well Thorp Arch Yorkshire at the present time (2496)
Delivery Catalogue II entry - Religious emblems Votive rags on card 2496 13 Cases 225 226
Detailed Amulet card catalogue entry - Amulets D. Crop Fertility, E. Offerings to Gods etc F. Spirit Houses, Scares G. Sacred and Mem. food H. Relics and Mementos - Models of human body E3 Ex voto rags, pins etc Description: Votive rags from bushes at a holy well hung there by the country people who believe the water is good for eye diseases [insert] if [end insert] combined with an offering of this type to St Helen. They are often left by Roman Catholics being near Clifford where they are numerous Locality: St Helen's Well Thorp Church Yorks Collected by: Mrs Marianne Cooke 1869 How Acquired: PR coll 159 dd Mrs M. Cooke 1869 [sic]
This well was just off the Roman road, the Rudgate. This well was supposed to be devoted to St Helen. The site of the well is actually at Thorp Arch, outside Boston Spa near Wetherby in North Yorkshire. Ellen Ettlinger mentions the rags:

In pre-Christian days, when wells and trees were identified with spirits, offerings were deposited in their immediate neighbourhood to preserve the contact between the worshipper and the divinity. Since the spread of Christianity the real intention of this rite has been preserved only at those wells, where Christian Saints replaced the well spirit. 
This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.

Alison Petch, 

Researcher

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

A Fisherman’s ‘Lucky stone’ from Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Northumberland

PRM 1908.11.1


Introduction

At the front of the Sympathetic Magic display at the Pitt Rivers Museum, case 61a, is a perforated black limestone beach pebble with a string attached through the hole. [1908.11.1] The museum’s accession book states that this is a “Beach pebble of black limestone bored by pholas, hung behind a door in the cottage of William Twizel, fisherman, as a “lucky stone”.’ (Humble, 1908). Apparently several of these stones hung by various doors of the cottage. The stone comes from Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Northumberland, and was donated in 1908 by a Miss Humble, Alexander James Montgomerie Bell, and William Twizel (actually Twizzell) in 1908.
There is no mention of a William Twizel in the 1901 census. However, there several William Twizzells (various spellings) in Newbiggin, one being born in 1822 and who died a retired fisherman in 1913. The most likely donor is a William Twizzell who was born circa 1829/1830 and who died a retired fisherman in 1909.

The Donors

Miss Humble is described as a field collector but little else is known about her. Accession records in the PRM say she was a resident of Newbiggin. However, the name is fairly common in the north-east and it was not possible to identify her in either the 1891 or 1901 censuses (england.prm.ox.ac.uk/collector).

Much more is known about Alexander James Montgomerie Bell. Born in Edinburgh in 1846 he was an undergraduate at Balliol and matriculated as an Exhibitioner in 1864, gained his BA in 1869 and took his MA in 1871 (Oxford University Alumni 1500-1886). The obituary of Bell describes him as a career academic, teacher, antiquarian, and amateur archaeologist. He worked sometimes as a tutor and had more formal roles as a schoolmaster (Marlborough, Fettes) and college lecturer and examiner (St Johns, Worcester). Alexander Bell was also known for his work and research on the Wolvercote gravels and deposits near Oxford (Nature, 1920). He died in 1920 aged 74 and his artefact collection was sold to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Alexander Bell lived in 1891 with his wife Anna and children Archibald, Evelyn, Mary, and William at Rawlinson Road in Oxford. At this period he was engaged in private tutoring in classics, geography and geology (RG12a. 1166. 87.). The family was still there in 1901 when Alexander held a position of private tutor at a public school (RG13. 1381. 35.). Indeed, Alexander’s son Archibald Colquhoun Bell (born 1886), and who had a long naval career, also became a donor to the PRM around 1920 (england.prm.ox.ac.uk/collector).

The folklore of holed stones

The Newbiggin stone “…a pebble of black limestone, bored by a pholas, was hung behind the door of William Twizel’s cottage…” (Ettlinger, 1943). Such holed stones were “…evidently regarded as magical as early as the second millennium B.C., as shown by the excavations at Tell el Ajjul (ancient Gaza)…” (Murray, 1943). As such these stones were deliberately placed with three in a room and one in a grave.

The hole in the Newbiggin stone was made by a burrowing bivalve mollusc called Pholas dactylus. Also known as the ‘Common Piddock’ or ‘angelwing’ it is similar to a clam and bores into a range of soft rock sub-strata including chalk, peat, clay, and sandstone. This elliptical shaped boring bivalve, which can reach 12cm in length, is found at several sites along the east coasts of Northumbria and Yorkshire. It stays in its burrow for its entire eight-year life-span, it is recognised by its typical whitish colouration and is also known for its bio-luminescence.
This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.

Eric Edwards