Who you gonna call…


I’ve tended to shy away from ghosts within my landscape/folklore/archaeology research (with the obvious exception of the ‘haunting’ of Jacob Seley, which can be found here). This is not through lack of interest, more due to the fact that it is a pretty emotive subject.
Unlike tales of pixies, giants, and demons, the belief in ghosts (or lack of it) is not something that can always be approached objectivity, and in many cases belief, or the need to believe, in the existence of ghosts are tied up in personal experiences of loss and bereavement. By questioning validity takes away the needed link to a love one. Equally, by following up on stories could reflect back to a real person and/or tragic event.
Though the collection and mapping of folkloric stories across the South West of England I came across a number of visual places in the landscape held stories relating to ghostly occurrences (and I’m not referring to ‘sightings’ of famous and historical figures), but I’ve always been avoided further analysis of them. I think the reason comes from a personal observation of the danger of forgetting the people in the stories told (and I’m changing/omitting the names and location deliberately in this next paragraph).

A number of years ago there was an investigation of a haunting of a house next to a relative of mine.
Their new neighbours were experiencing supposedly ghostly interactions with the former occupant of the house who had passed away about 6 months before.
They described in detail the appearance and mannerisms, and suggested the activities were strongest in particular locations that reflected the habits of the person when alive.
A team of investigators arrived, and subsequently published the account in a book on regional ghost stories.

Consequently, and perhaps inevitably, despite changing the name, the details listed relating to the location and suggested haunter were such that a family member of the ‘ghost’ ended up finding out and recognising their loved one. Obviously, to find a relative is supposed to be haunting your childhood home is not something I think anyone wishes to know.

So, as I think a semiconscious result of this, I’ve deliberately avoided working in this area, and edged around the ghost stories in my database. That is until recently. Maybe my reputation as “the girl who talks about fairies” means that I appear more approachable, but I have been asked to undertake archaeological and landscape investigations a number of supposedly haunted buildings or places.

I’ve not been asked to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts, let me make that clear, nor am I undertaking any ‘ghost hunting’ of my own (I’ll leave that to those with the specialism and the fancy equipment!). But through documentary and map evidence, and clues in the landscape I have tried to piece together the background to a location, and suggest a reason for the story to occur and be tied in a place. In one case I was asked to research the siting of a school, and from a landscape perspective overlaying the modern building on to old maps, and discussing what is now a built up area before the urban spread, was fascinating. For another, I actually had a name to work with, and finding reference to it in the archives in the right place did come as a bit of a suprise!

That said, it could be argued it merely a straightforward piece of landscape research; being pragmatic by nature, it’s certainly the best way to approach it, and how I conducted it. But I’m conscious of the ethical issues relating to something that could uncover real people, and real tragedies, misremembered and the context lost and forgotten. After all, as Prof. Tolkien wrote “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth…”

I’m continuing to look into the stories as a little distration from my normal day job and research, but fully aware of the veritable minefield of issues that come from it. Maybe I’m being over cautious, but I’m probably going to stick with pixies and petrification myths in the long term. After all, the likelihood of upsetting someone by investing fairy activities is much less likely than that of a tale of hauntings.


Messenger from the other side

This morning, at an hour way too early to be up and about on a Sunday, I was pootling around and saw this lovely lady sitting watching me.

I love blackbirds; one use to sing in the eave next to my window as child, and mum put my hair from my brush in the garden from which they made their nest in our clematis in spring.

A blackbird nest near to your house brings good fortune, but I’ve subsequently found out that my mother’s act of kindness was endangering me to bad luck and headaches for the period the nest with the hair was in use, but I luckily escaped that fate!

Like magpies, seeing two (male) blackbirds is deemed lucky, and in some traditions dreaming of a flying one is said to indicate good fortune.
That said, much folklore tells that dreaming of blackbirds can bring misfortune for many weeks.

Blackbirds are also associated with Yggdrasil, or the mythical world tree, and are able to interact with other realms.
They are often said to be able to bring messages to our world from the dead.

Interestingly, in Ireland during the nineteenth century the shrill song of blackbirds was supposed to be the souls of those in purgatory; the singing at dawn foretelling forthcoming rain.

Personally I prefer the idea of the messenger role, although I’m not sure what message she had for me…

The Green Man is coming…

This striking picture appeared in the Queen’s Building Gallery at the University of Exeter about a month ago.

I’ve passed it a number of times over the last few weeks, but finally stopped to look properly.


The Green Man image is a potent one, although appearing frequently on ecclesiastical buildings as bosses or stone carvings, it’s association with fertility, birth, renewal, and the coming of spring is decidedly ‘pagan’.
Often the Green Man is seen as a Tom Bombadil (from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) type character, tied to the environment and controlling the seasons.

So why has he suddenly appeared?

Well, it seems he’s coming to Exeter….

I’ll keep you posted…

“Eternal remembrance” – landscapes and memories of the victims of Stalin

I’ve already slipped badly in my 52 posts challenge, so I have some serious catching up to do… Anyway, the article on the BBC website regarding the new plaques to mark Stalin’s victims caught my attention yesterday.

I think it’s impossible not to be moved,  or see the incredible significance of the memorials for the victims of the Starlin era, particularly those placed by the families of those executed at Kommunarka. Equally, I can see why those living in the houses marked by the simple metal plaques are also concerned by what is essentially enshrining their homes to those who lost their lives, but also that they feel it is too “depressing” and “gloomy”, especially to explain to their children.

The act of commemoration, remembrance, and marking of the darker parts of our history is always emotive and fraught with conflict, and I’ll leave that discussion for those better placed than I. However, as a researcher of landscapes what struck me was not only the role of the natural environment in the making of these memorials, but also the temporary nature of them. There is an official memorial at Kommunarka – a cross and stone placed by the Orthodox Church who now control the land – but nothing of the individual ‘shines’ placed in the forest is permanent; the photos tied to trees will fade, disintegrate, and be blown away,  the plastic flowers will fall apart. But what remains is the significance of this place, beyond the last surviving memory – what those responsible for the plaques call the “gathering together” of people to remember and, perhaps most importantly, to learn. In time the personal memories will become stories told, a more distant and removed narrative that reflects the collective loss, but rooted to these places long after the photos have blown away.

There is an evolution of Kommunarka from summer house of Gennrich Yagoda (Stalin’s secret police chief), to a place where thousands lost their lives, to make-shift memorial. These acts tie the individual stories of those involved, both those who were the instigators of the purge, and those who fell victim of it, intrinsically to the place.

Once upon a time…..?

Folklore, and the age and origins of stories, has been very much in the public eye today. Look across twitter, news sites, and other social media you’ll see repeated the fascinating article relating to the research findings of Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani relating to the origins of 275 Indo-European fairy tales (if you missed it a summary can be seen here, and the full paper from Royal Society Open Science journal).

The paper is an interesting one, and I would love a chance to discuss it with the authors. I have (more crudely without the use of the Bayesian analysis) seen elements of what they describe as “deep signatures”, indeed last spring I presented at two conferences an example of where stories have evolved and could be ‘regressed’ back (although nothing like the 6,000 years estimated in the Da Silva and Tehrani paper). I think to most lovers of stories the findings of this paper would come as no surprise. Although as a nervy archaeologist I have to admit that I would be hesitant to assign such an early date with confidence, it is not at all inconceivable and I certainly have no doubt of long endurance of key folk motifs and the strength of oral traditions to convey ideas across multiple generations.

But what more could this tell us? The basic driving fears, concerns, and desires present with our ancestors are played out in the stories created, the monster in the dark, the wicked witch. But why where they used in the first place? Is it just a good story, or something more?

My own research interests relating to folklore have really been more than just the stories themselves, but why certain stories survive, and why some are more readily altered and changed, and for what reason; more importantly in what cultural and social environments does this change occur.

I have seen evidence of the use of stories to undermined the validity of certain classes of people by altering stories that have a long antecedence to reflect the political concerns of the time. Folklore coupled with visual archaeological moments acting as a mechanism to convert to new religious teaching (think in the same way as stained glass within a church tells a story).

The voices of the past are echoing out through these stories, and using other sources, be that archaeological, environmental, or historical I believe we can start to tease out far more than just stories of devils and witches, but start to see the perceptions and motivations of those in the past, and bring into focus the storytellers.

Feeling Hag-gard…

I am not feeling at my best at the moment, in fact far from it. So as part of my attempt at rest and recuperation a walk to breathe in the restorative air of Devon’s coastline was in order.

There is something about the whole of the Jurassic Coastline that is amazing, not simply the natural beauty, but also the realisation of the sheer depth of time, and how we are small part of millions of years of activity.DSC_0120[1]

Sidmouth – the location for my walk – is the gateway to the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, and archaeologically there are signs its long history all over town (indeed a previous walk took in some of the town’s features). The start of today’s walk was Connaught Gardens played a strategic defensive position, the evidence of which can still be seen in the gardens still.

The gardens themselves were a fortification, and a lime kiln, and the evidence for the kiln can still be seen at Jacob’s Ladder (and I can really recommend the cake at the cafe….)


The stormy weather of recent weeks has really played havoc with the coastline, and it took me a while tyo realise that I was standing on top of the promenade’s railings and that the stones had completely covered them!


I also love the graffiti on the cliff. I obviously don’t condone the damage of a World Heritage Site, but I love to see the care taken by people to preserve their presence.

DSC_0135[1]Back on the beach I started to pick up Hag stones, natural perforated stones which have numerous folkloric meanings and associations. Also known as Odin/ adder/ fairies/ holey/Hex stones they are said to have amazing and magical properties.

DSC_0142[1]Hag stones are particularly prevalent in the folk history of the South West of England, and were used to ward off evil spirits, influence by the dead, and witchcraft. In Dorset fishermen used the stones to protect against witches or spirits from boarding the boat. On Dartmoor they were known as Hex stones, and placed on window sills to protect the house.

Hag stones were worn around the neck to ward of the evil eye and spirits, but also illnesses such as plague and whooping cough, and actually thought to be able to cure a whole range of diseases. They were also used as treatment for snake bites. The stones were also able to prevent pixies, fairies and witches from interfering with livestock, in particular effecting the milk of cattle. If hung over a bed or round a bed post, it would stop Succubus or other such nightmares harming the occupant while they slept.

Moreover it is often said that if you look through the hole of a Hag stone you can see fae creatures such as fairies and pixies, or malevolence that had concealed itself from view.


Maybe I should start wearing one, I might gain some benefit from its protective and magical nature!

The Changling Wassail

Very occasionally the activities of my Changling – little un – and my love of folklore collide. Today is one such day.

I get very little out of them usually, partly because they’re six, partly due to their condition, but usually it comes in the most surprising ways. Today, at bedtime, they drew a picture of what happened in forest school – a wassail!

Held on the 12th Night (what was celebrated in SW of England traditionally on the 17th January) and named after Old Norse ves heil and the Old English was hál: ‘be you healthy’, communities would gather around the trees to ensure a good apple crop.

Toast drenched in cider was hung in the tree, and in more recent times I’ve heard stories of the crowd taking pot shots at the toast with shotguns to try and knock it out of the tree – all while drinking cider…

Obviously little un’s Wassail was a more sober affair, but I was told how a king and queen were chosen and they had to make loud noises to “drive away the bad spirits”. By all accounts my little changling was good at this part, and made sure they “went back twice” to make noise to help the trees.

I love the fact a new generation of Devonian children are learning this, around their own school apple trees.