I wrote a blog-post in October about a phone call I’d had with a Cumbrian basket-maker called Phil Bradley, who’d found a number of concealed deposits in his farmhouse in Deanscales. Last week I was lucky enough to travel up to Cumbria to meet Phil (pictured below in front of his 18th-century farmhouse) and see some of his finds for myself. Watch the interview on Youtube here.
When Phil had been renovating his workshop space (a 17th-century labourer’s cottage next door), he discovered the skeletal remains of a cat under the hearthstone of this fireplace:
Mummified cats, first explored by Margaret Howard (1951) and later by Brian Hoggard (find his website here), are not as prevalent as shoes, for example, but are still relatively common, with many having been found bricked up in walls or sealed beneath floorboards and hearthstones, becoming dried or mummified over time through natural processes. Sometimes the cat’s accompanied by a rat or a mouse, equally mummified, and the theory goes that the cat was intended to scare off vermin of either the natural or supernatural kind. Granted, some cats may have been accidentally enclosed but many of their locations (e.g. sealed in an air-tight space beneath a hearthstone) as well as their quite deliberate placements (e.g. in a hunting pose) suggest that some at least were deliberately concealed. Phil’s cat was probably of the latter variety.
Before relaying the hearthstone, Phil returned the cat to where it was found because, as he said to me, it ‘seemed to be the right thing to do I think. It had been there for 200 years plus maybe…so it just seemed right to put this little skeleton back’. Likewise when Phil found a cache of fragmented objects, including a salt croc and a clay-pipe, within the wall beside the fireplace, these items were also re-concealed. ‘You don’t know what to do with them,’ Phil admitted. ‘It’s a broken glass but you can’t just stop it in the bin, can you? …We couldn’t.’
There’s one find that Phil hasn’t re-concealed yet: the fragmented foot and stem of a glass, which he found buried in the far corner of his “shed” (pictured below) – which is actually a possible medieval cottage.
Judging by the pontil mark underneath, this glass was probably made in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, and although it may not seem overtly apotropaic (i.e. supernaturally protective), there have been quite a number of cases of fragmented crockery found in concealed caches. For example a broken glass bottle neck was found with a shoe, concealed in the wall of a house in St. Nicholas, Glamorganshire, whilst a glass bottle actually containing a baby’s shoe was discovered in the roof of a building in Higham, Lancashire. Glass objects may have been concealed because reflective surfaces were believed to deflect the evil eye – which is why people hung “witch balls” (shiny glass baubles, such as this one here) in their windows. But why fragmented? Maybe there was some notion of sacrificing the object before depositing it – or maybe people didn’t want to conceal a perfectly good glass, and so they used a broken one instead. Waste not, want not.
Phil plans on re-concealing this glass, probably where it was originally found, and he’s considering making a personal deposit of his own. But he’s in a bit of a dilemma about what to conceal: ‘I don’t know whether to go in and break a mug we don’t like, but that doesn’t seem the right thing to do, getting something you want rid of. It’s almost got to be something of meaning or value. But I don’t want to do that because we’ve got nice pots…’ He wants his deposit to be ‘something of now’ so he’s toying with the idea of a 2016 coin – or maybe his iPad he jokingly adds. He likes the idea of leaving something for future occupants to find; ‘for the next lot of idiots who come along and wonder about these things and what got done in 2016’. He hadn’t made his mind up by the time I left, but he promises he’ll let us know once he makes a decision, so watch this space.