Concealing Coins

Next Tuesday (26th April) I’m giving a talk on coins as contemporary deposits at the British Numismatic Society. This has obviously got me thinking about coins and about how, throughout history, they’ve not only been employed as deposits (e.g. in springs, wells, trees, etc.) but also as concealed deposits.

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They’ve been found having been secreted away in various domestic locations. In Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, coins dated to 1797 were found alongside a Christening spoon beneath the tile flooring of a house. In Abercarn, Caerphilly, a coin was found alongside a pair of child’s shoes that had been nailed to an attic beam. The Museum of Cambridge has a copper farthing in its collection which was found in the brickwork above the front door of the museum itself, a 17th century building.

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The custom of secreting away coins doesn’t belong solely to the modern era. Ralph Merrifield, in his 1987 book The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, catalogues several examples of Roman coins having been discovered in similar settings. For example, a handful of unofficial coins of the 3rd century were found buried at the foundation level of a building in Lime Street, London, while a single coin of Antoninus Pius was discovered in a pot buried beneath the floor of a building in Southwark. Merrifield believes that they were buried there for luck or as a substitute for a foundation sacrifice – a custom that’s not exclusive to domestic settings. Coins were also deposited in the mast-steps of ships, such as the coin of Domitian found in a Roman boat from Blackfriars, London (image below, from Merrifield 1987).

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Ó Súilleabháin, in his 1945 paper on ‘Foundation Sacrifices’ (The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 75 (1), 45-52), also lists coins as objects commonly found concealed in buildings. These aren’t, however, necessarily foundation ‘sacrifices’; as Ó Súilleabháin explains, the fact that coins have dates on them may suggest that they were concealed to provide information for future generations. A coin could be selected because it bears the date that a building was constructed or renovated, information that may be interesting or useful to future finders. This is the reason why coins are often included in modern-day time capsules, which I’ve written about in a previous post.

Obviously not all coins were concealed for the same reasons. Some may have been intended as foundation sacrifices; surrendering something of value to placate the spirits of the site on which a building is being erected. For others, the simple notion of lucky coins may have motivated their concealment; they were intended to bring luck into the house or maybe specifically, via some notion of sympathetic magic, to ensure financial stability. Or perhaps they were intended as time capsules, letting future generations know when a house was built or refurbished. However, I have a childhood memory that makes me believe there’s another option.

The kitchen in the house I grew up in had thin, faux-wooden panelling covering one wall. It was flimsy material and over time a crack appeared – small enough for my mother to not bother repairing it but just large enough for my sister and I to periodically shove pennies into. There had been no specific motivation behind our deposition of coins – no articulated notion of sacrifice, wish-making, or luck-granting – merely the satisfaction of watching them disappear as we slipped them through the crack, irretrievable, and hearing the little thud as they hit the bottom. We did this whenever we came across a spare penny and, over the years of our childhoods, I imagine that we accumulated quite a sizeable hoard – a hoard that has no doubt been discovered during the 20 or so years since we moved out.

What did the finders think when they tore down the panelling and discovered a cache of pennies secreted away? Seeing that they were all contemporary coinage, they probably will have guessed correctly: the inevitable idle detritus of a house with children. But what if the coins haven’t been discovered yet? What if they’re discovered in, say, 100 years’ time? Will the finders, separated from us by time, be tempted to read more ritual into it than was actually there? Will they jump to the conclusion of ‘foundation sacrifice’ or ‘time capsule’, over-interpreting the evidence?

I’m not arguing that coins were never concealed for specific purposes. As I said above, there were probably many different reasons for their concealment, both preternatural and practical, and of course accidental loss could account for some. But for others, something simpler – but no less interesting – may account for them: children’s playfulness.

 

 

 

Timber Markings in Suffolk

Take a look at any pre-20th-century wooden beam, doorway or fireplace, and chances are you’ll see some form of markings. Most of these markings will have served practical functions, carved by carpenters, hewers, or merchants. Others may simply have been carved by idle hands, not unlike many of the initials scratched into school desks today: markings essentially serving the inclination to declare ‘I was here’. But there is another body of markings which are believed to have fulfilled a different function: the apotropaic mark.

Apotropaic markings, believed to protect buildings from evil or misfortune, can be seen in a variety of buildings and in variety of symbols: compass-drawn circles; VVs; hearts; diamonds; grid patterns; x-forms; and burn marks. These have been extensively surveyed by Timothy Easton and Matthew Champion (e.g. in Timothy’s article in the Weald and Downland publication (p.22ff); on the Medieval Graffiti website; and in their chapters in Ronald Hutton’s excellent book Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain), and I’d refer anyone with an interest in these markings to their work. But here are just a few examples that I came across while in Suffolk, arguably one of the most ritually-marked counties in Britain.

The first stop on my tour of Suffolk timber markings was the ‘Laxfield Door’: a barn door from Michaelmas Barn, Laxfield, kindly showed to me by its owner Michael Cole.

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Again, this has been written about in detail by Timothy Easton (who very kindly referred me to it), but in brief it is a 19th-century barn door containing numerous compass-drawn circles, which Timothy describes as hexafoils. Why might these geometric patterns have been considered effective at warding off evil or misfortune? There’s no way of knowing. But clearly a lot of effort went into their making, so surely they must have served some function.

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I interviewed the door’s finder and owner, Michael, and will publish this online soon, but for now it’s interesting to note that the perceived efficacy of these timber markings continues today: Michael’s wife is reluctant to let the door leave their home in case it does actually work.

The second stop: another 19th-century barn door at a farmhouse close to Laxfield. This one, which currently acts as an internal bathroom door, is described by its owner as ‘the witchcraft door’, and consists of a cluster of integrated circles.

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Interestingly on the other side of the door there is some (probable later) graffiti: carved letters within frames. These look more akin to the graffiti we witness today: people leaving their marks by carving their initials.

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The third stop, just up the road: The Royal Oak, a 15th-century inn.

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Around the wooden fireplace are several markings, which an information panel outside describes as ‘witch marks…carved to keep witches away’. These markings are a little more ambiguous: two half-circles and two possible saltires. They may or may not have served any protective function but, looking at the fireplace, I spotted something else that has definite apotropaic origins. Can you see what I’m talking about?

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Concealed Shoes & Dried Rats in Norfolk

A few months ago Malcolm Gaskill wrote a post about a concealed shoe found in the chimneybreast of a house just outside Norwich. Laura Potts had come across the shoe when an electrician had been working in the fireplace; it’s currently safely tucked away in a biscuit tin, but Laura is looking for a glass case to display it in. She doesn’t consider herself superstitious about the shoe, but she’d like to keep it in the house close to where it was found. She also found two dried rats in the roof of a lean-to, but assuming that the pair found their way into the void themselves and then died – rather than having been deliberately concealed – she threw them away.

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I had the pleasure of visiting Laura last week to interview her about the finds, and wasn’t planning on writing a blog post about the meeting until the video of the interview was published online. But a coincidence has made me eager to write this up – because during my visit to Norfolk, I came across a near-identical set of finds.

I was contacted by a woman named Alison Norman who’d made a very similar discovery to Laura. Alison lives in a timber-framed farmhouse in Geldeston, roughly 20 miles south-east of Laura’s village, and about five years ago she had professional builders in to uncover the old fireplace. While doing this they discovered a shoe wrapped in a piece of paper on a little ledge just up the chimneybreast. It’s a small child’s shoe with a white button, and has been dated to roughly 1900 by June Swann, former Keeper of the Boot & Shoe Collection at Northampton Museum.

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The paper it was wrapped in contained no writing or adornment, but Alison kept it along with the shoe, and mounted them both in a box frame beside the fireplace in which they were originally found. In her own words, she did this because:

“…we felt that this best indicated the context in which they had been found and was a reflection of the superstition which may have led to the placement of the shoe.  We showed the shoe to a neighbour who was born in the village and he was quite upset that we had removed the shoe from the chimney ledge and suggested that it would be best to replace it.  He was very concerned when I suggested that I might take it to Gressenhall Museum for them to see and told me that removing it from the house would be very bad luck.  It is interesting that, although I don’t regard myself as superstitious in any way, I have never got round to making an appointment at the museum!”

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So again we have a shoe found up the chimney of a house in Norfolk, kept by a finder who doesn’t consider herself superstitious but who still wants her find on display close to where it was discovered. But this isn’t where the similarity ends. Alison also found a dried rat in the ceiling of their old dairy building and, like Laura, believes that it had died there rather than having been deliberately placed. Alison hasn’t thrown the rat away but it isn’t displayed alongside the shoe – her children “vetoed him being framed as too scary!”

So rats and shoes are both found in strange locations within buildings, but they’re interpreted differently. The shoes couldn’t have secreted themselves away in chimneybreasts, but the rats could have found their own way into roof voids and died there: so the shoe is viewed as a ritual deposit while the rat is an accidental concealment. The two are therefore treated differently. Laura disposed of her rats but keeps her shoe safely stored, while Alison keeps her rat stored out of sight but has her shoe on display.

We can’t use these examples to claim that the rats have been misinterpreted. This isn’t a big enough coincidence to prove that rats, like shoes, were deliberately concealed. But it does certainly tell us something about how concealed objects are viewed today by finders and anyone else who encounters them; how we’re intrigued by some items but repelled by others. Why some are photographed and proudly displayed – and others are disposed of or kept to one side. The records show a significantly higher proportion of concealed shoes than dried rats, but these examples make me wonder if there are actually a lot more animal remains found than get reported. This is why we’re asking people to report any item they find, no matter if it’s animal, vegetable, or mineral.