Scholars have been trying to shed light on the concealed object for decades. Few literary sources have been identified which explain why people concealed objects in the material fabric of their houses (under floorboards, within walls, up chimneys, etc.) so we’re still left with more questions than answers. Most researchers believe that a lot of concealed objects were meant to be protective: they were hidden away in the vulnerable areas of a house to prevent evil forces from entering. But other reasons might have motivated the concealers. Perhaps some objects were hidden away out of sentimentality; perhaps they were intended as some sort of time capsule; or maybe they were concealed simply for the amusement of the concealer. Of course, it’s also perfectly possible that some of the objects weren’t deliberately concealed at all, but were accidentally lost there.
No website could do justice to the many theories surrounding the custom of concealment – so we won’t try! The Concealed Revealed is, after all, more concerned with the finders of these objects than the concealers themselves. We will, however, point you in the direction of the best places to turn if you want more detailed considerations into the motivations of the original concealers. So here is a brief review of scholarship so far:
The most recent and comprehensive overview of concealed deposits is Ronald Hutton’s 2015 edited volume Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery, and Witchcraft in Christian Britain. This contains papers from many of the experts listed below, so is well worth the investment.
Ronald Hutton’s 2015 edited volume
Archaeologist Ralph Merrifield was one of the first scholars to consider the custom of concealment. His seminal book, The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, published in 1987, is a great place to start for anyone wanting a broad overview of the practice.
Ralph Merrifield’s ‘Archaeology of Ritual and Magic’
Another useful place to start is the website of Brian Hoggard, Apotropaios. Hoggard has been gathering data about concealed objects, from witch-bottles to ritual horse skulls, since 1999, and has a vast database of finds.
June Swann, former Keeper of the Boot and Shoe Collection at Northampton Museum, was the first to recognise shoes as a major category of concealed objects back in the 1950s. Noticing a pattern in the finds being donated to her department – a range of men’s, women’s, and children’s footwear, dating primarily to the 18th and 19th centuries, discovered in unusual locations within buildings – Swann instigated the Index of Concealed Shoes. This began its life in 1969 as a catalogue of 129 concealed shoes and currently stands at close to 2000.
Other scholarship on concealed objects includes several insightful papers on concealed garments by Dinah Eastop, along with the Deliberately Concealed Garments Project. Timothy Easton has looked at ‘spiritual middens’, a subcategory of concealed objects denoting hoard-like collections of items accumulated/concealed over time, while Owen Davies has focused on historical literary evidence behind the production of domestic magical artefacts. Work on the concealment of bottles – often referred to as “witch-bottles” – is being conducted by Annie Thwaite at the University of Cambridge. And for a little self-promotion, Ceri Houlbrook’s paper, ‘Ritual, Recycling and Recontextualisation’, focuses on two North Yorkshire case-studies of concealed shoes.
However, concealed objects certainly aren’t exclusive to the British Isles. A lot of work has been conducted on Scandinavian finds; most recently, Hukantaival’s doctoral work on concealment in Finland. There have also been explorations into how the custom migrated to the US and Australia in the research theses of M. Chris Manning and Ian Evans respectively (take a look at Evans’ website here).
Other useful and interesting sources are listed here:
Davies, O. 2015. The Material Culture of Post-Medieval Domestic Magic in Europe: Evidence, Comparisons and Interpretations. In Blamberger, G. and Boschung, D. (eds.) The Materiality of Magic. Wilhelm Fink, Paderborn: 379-418.
Davies, O. & Easton, T. 2015. Cunning-Folk and the Production of Magical Artefacts. In Hutton, R. (ed.) 2015. Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain. Palgrave Macmillan: 209-231.
Easton, T. 2014. Four Spiritual Middens in Mid Suffolk, England, ca. 1650-1850. Historical Archaeology 48 (3), 10-34.
Easton, T. 2015. Spiritual Middens. In Hutton, R. (ed.) 2015. Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain. Palgrave Macmillan: 147-163.
Eastop, D. 2001. Garments deliberately concealed in buildings. In Wallis, R. J. & Lymer, K. (eds.) New Approaches to the Archaeology of Art, Religion and Folklore. British Archaeological Reports, International Series 936, Oxford: 79-83.
Eastop, D. 2006. Outside In: Making sense of the deliberate concealment of garments within buildings. Textile 4 (3), 238-55.
Eastop, D. 2007. Material Culture in Action: Conserving garments deliberately concealed within buildings. Anais do Museu Paulista: Historia e Cultura Material 15 (1), 187-204.
Eastop, D. 2015. Garments Concealed within Buildings: Following the evidence. In Hutton, R. (ed.) 2015. Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain. Palgrave Macmillan: 131-146.
Evans, I. J. 2010. Touching Magic: Deliberately concealed objects in old Australian houses and buildings. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Newcastle, Australia.
Evans, I. J., Manning, M. C. & Davies, O. 2015. The Wider Picture: Parallel evidence in America and Australia. In Hutton, R. (ed.) 2015. Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain. Palgrave Macmillan: 232-254.
Hoggard, B. 2004. The Archaeology of Counter-Witchcraft and Popular Magic. In Davies, O. & de Blecourt, W. (eds.) Beyond the Witch Trials: Witchcraft and magic in Enlightenment Europe. Manchester University Press, Manchester: 167-186.
Hoggard, B. 2015. Witch Bottles: Their contents, contexts, and uses. In Hutton, R. (ed.) 2015. Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain. Palgrave Macmillan: 91-105.
Hoggard, B. 2015. Concealed Animals. In Hutton, R. (ed.) 2015. Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain. Palgrave Macmillan: 106-117.
Houlbrook, C. 2012. Ritual, Recycling and Recontextualisation: Putting the concealed shoe in context. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 23, 99-112.
Howard, M. M. 1951. Dried Cats. Man 51, 149-151.
Hukantaival, S. Forthcoming. ‘…For a witch cannot cross such a threshold!’ – Building concealment traditions in Finland c. 1200–1950. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Turku, Finland.
Hutton, R. (ed.) 2015. Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain. Palgrave Macmillan.
Manning, M. C. 2012. Homemade Magic: Concealed deposits in architectural contexts in the Eastern United States. Unpublished Masters thesis, Bell State University, US.
Merrifield, R. 1987. The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. Batsford, London.
Swann, J. 1996. Shoes Concealed in Buildings. Costume 30, 56-96.
Swann, J. 2015. Shoes Concealed in Buildings. In Hutton, R. (ed.) 2015. Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain. Palgrave Macmillan: 118-130.