Don’t you hate it when a favorite link goes dead? I woke untimely early this morning, figured I’d paddle around some old bookmarks and was bummed to find the Deliberately Concealed Garments Project has gone dead. Don’t follow the link, dipstick; it’s dead. [Edit, months later: Hey, it’s live again! check it out!] There is a cached Google version of their old links page, though, and putting that together with some deft Googling, I managed to piece together what I was looking for.
Deliberately Concealed Garments
The DCG Project was an attempt to catalogue the bits of clothing (and many, many shoes) that have been found hidden in the walls, hearths, windowsills, thresholds, chimneys and roofs of Great Britain. They turn up all the time when people go to fix up old buildings (of which there are still zillions in the UK). How often, no one knows — many builders and owners won’t report them, refuse to move them or quietly get rid of them.
Some assume they’ve found random bits of old junk and throw them out, but it’s clear from the arrangement and placement that these things were deliberately placed and significant. Some kind of protective folk magic, everyone assumes. The clothes are often bundled, almost always worn (but not, perhaps, past using). Nearly half the shoes belong to children. The placements tend to be at the openings of the house.
The oldest pieces found go back to the 1400s. The newest…there are recent reports of builders pestering people for a shoe and refusing to say why. Caches are found all over Britain, but also Northern Europe and former colonies.
There are scattered reports of clothing caches turning up in old homes in New England, too. I’ve Googled in vain for an article I read in the last couple of years about — I think I have this straight — a pair of trousers and a cigar that turned up on a high shelf in a Boston theater (church?) during renovations. There was a note in the pocket dated from the time of the last renovation (1870? 1914? I don’t remember). It said something like, “hello, future! Have a cigar!” That may have been some old plasterer’s spontaneous lark, but I know from experience that if you eschew formal religion a kind of rump paganism tries hard to take its place. Some of this stuff is instinctive to the monkeybrain.
We held onto a few obvious shreds of these old ways. We’re still tying shoes to the bumpers of newlyweds, for example.
Anyhow, archeologists and textiles researchers love this stuff. They often turn out to be the only surviving examples of the clothes of ordinary people.
Dead cats and skeletal horses
And then there are dried cats. Some of them are probably poor pussoes that ran into the walls chasing mice and got stuck. But some are posed in a hunting attitude and clearly were deliberately walled up where they are found. Warding off varmints? Distracting witches? Who knows.
One of my sources quaintly opined that they were faithful family pets preserved after a natural death. Ha! I’m guessing, not. Some people are not shy about offing pussycats today. (It’s not against the law in many places. Legally, a dog is property but a cat belongs only to himself. Which is about right). I doubt our ancestors were shy about a little kittycide, especially in aid of scaring the bad spirits away.
Horse skulls! Forty of them were found screwed to the underside of the floorboards in a pub at Staunton-on-Wye in Herefordshire (oddly, it’s not mentioned on their web site). Three were in the bell turret of a church in Northumberland (proving our forebears had no problem mixing Jesus and juju).
Cats and horses. Both were believed to be able to see things we can’t. That’s the best anyone can come up with.
Now, these are some creepy little bastards. A couple hundred of them have been found, usually buried under the hearthstone or threshold. No pretending these were left there by accident. They were usually small earthenware bottles. Inside, most commonly, iron pins bent into an L shape. Human hair. Urine. Sometimes a piece of cloth cut in the shape of a heart.
What is this all about? Who. The hell. Knows. Keeping witches away, mostly; they coincide with the era of witch trials. I note that a search on “witch bottles” turns up a bunch of hits on eBay, so our modern crop of pretend witches has latched onto the idea (what are they doing, exactly — warding themselves away?)
These kinds of artifacts frequently make their way to little local museums in the UK. England is stuffed with small town and county museums showing things taken out of local homes or turned up by the plow. I don’t know from magic, I tell you what, but all these old spells and charms sure have plenty of teh spooky left in them.