Who you gonna call…

image

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.

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….)

DSC_0129[1]

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!

DSC_0132[1]

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.

DSC_0143[1]

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

A New Year Challange (reviving the Folklore Magpie)

For various reasons this blog has been neglected a little bit of late (and this post was actually started on New Year’s Day…), but I am pretty pleased that I’ve managed a good number of posts in 2015, and they seem to have well received, and actually read – which still comes as a bit of a surprise to me.

I have a long way to go before I reach the sort of viewing numbers of fantastic blogs such as Howard Williams’ Archaeodeath (which totted up a staggering over 46,700 views in 2015, over 200 posts), nor am I as elegant or prolific in my writing. That said I am feeling the need to get writing again.

So I’ve set myself a little challenge – at least 1 post a week, every week, for 2016. It must be folklory, landscapy, archaeology based (preferably all three!) and related in some way with the week, or what I’m doing. By the end of the year I should have 52 shiny new posts… well that’s the idea…

To start off, as I was writing this on New Year’s Day I thought I’d focus on a piece of domestic folklore that my gran always says – never wash clothes on NYD as you’ll wash someone out of the family.

To be fair, this piece of lore has been extended to Good Friday and a few other days too – but the New Year one seems to be prevalent (in the UK seemingly mostly in the Midlands where I originate, and Scotland)

There are a number of dos and don’ts relating to New Year, the first people entering your house have a bearing on your fortune, nothing must leave the house or it’ll bring bad luck, and noise must be made to drive away spirits from the house as midnight strikes.

But although I don’t subscribe to the washing thing (I’ve two little uns after all), and have seemingly got away with it so far, I always have the slight element of guilt about it. I can’t seem to find any origins for it – so folklory people I would be interested to know…

#FolkloreThursday – how did i miss that? (and the confessions of a folklore fraud)

I’ve been living in a twitter cave or something, as I have managed to completely miss #folkloreThursday. Oh and it’s wonderful, the folklore magpie I am is loving it all. But aside from this post I won’t be joining in – yet… Let me explain the root of my anxiety (as part apology and part explanation!)

I’m always slightly nervous at speaking up at folklory thing – not through any pretention on my part, but more the opposite. I feel a bit of an upstart fraud. Y’know the type, those people who breeze around pretending to be knowledgeable about a subject and are mostly just “empty vessels” as my gran would say. I hope I’m not seen like that – but it’s always a worry of a slightly neurotic person.

I’m not in any way a folklore expert, I’m following the worn path of those who love it but are utterly self-trained in the subject and I’m picking up things as I go along, I started incorporating it into my archaeological research in 2001 while working on a souterrain site in Northern Ireland.

The fairies… the place of full of them the old boy farmer was certain of it. He had been sure long before their dwelling place had been discovered. The folklore indicated where the archaeology was after the remains had been forgotten.

And I loved it. I loved what the stories were telling me about my site, the rituals that people confided in me while I was there because I was happy to listen to their folk beliefs.

From that point on it became a real part of my archaeological life, so much so I was actually on a number of occasions introduced as “the girl who talks about fairies”.

But over the years in academic circles I’ve come up against a lot of criticism and stick for studying folklore. I’ve had my research dismissed, I’ve had it described a pointless.

It’s becoming recognised now as a legitimate piece of material culture and source, and I’m glad to have in my own small way perhaps helped to beat that path, but it wasn’t pleasant at the start of my own academic journey.

More to the point it’s lead me to meet some amazingly interesting people, and I’ve learnt so much about my adopted home in the South-West through it.

But I never call myself a folklorist. As my twitter biog will testify, I am an archaeologist who studies folklore – often probably very badly. It’s the same reason I’ve never dared join the folklore society…

So #FolkloreThurday I’m so glad I’ve found you (and I thank the wonderful folklorist Mark Norman for the tip off on his FB page), but I’ll probably hide in my cave behind this blog for a while 🙂

Slight Return (or ‘The Sign of Four’)

I’ve neglected this blog over the last few months. Not completely my fault you understand, there are reasons for my tardiness; the first being the late stages of pregnancy and subsequent arrival of my now 11 week old. But the main reason is the frustrating situation I found myself in waiting to hear about possible funding sources.

I’m in a funny position. Being a honorary researcher sometimes finding funding is tricky as you’re associated with (in my case) a brilliant institution/department, but in many cases unable to get finances under your own right. This means I’m reliant on selling my research proposals to ‘proper’ academics without seeming like a mercenary and, sometimes, before they are truly formed, in order to secure a institution from which to co-bid from. (put into the mix that I also have a day job that requires me first and foremost to secure grants for other academics, the time I have to formulate ideas in the first place is precious but often in short supply…)

My choice of research doesn’t always help either – in many instances too academic or archaeologically focused for those interested in folklore, myths and stories, but too unusual for the more traditional landscapists.

So I found myself going round and around during the twilight part of last year with a book proposal that was universally liked but “didn’t fit the current list” of a number of publishing houses, a funding opportunity that I’d been approached about several months prior going cold, and requests for information going unanswered.

Combine that with late pregnancy hormones and I’d about had enough….

So, skip forward a couple of months. I’d had a break from academia (which is the joy of the honorary position – it allows a little breathing space) and with Little ‘un at school, and Littlest ‘un asleep I opened my inbox; four emails stood out:

  1. The return of pilot project funding I thought was dead and buried
  2. A possible book commission
  3. An approach for research collaboration
  4. Agreement to work on a large proposal

Four simple correspondences, but to me four signs to keep going and ride the rough with the smooth.

The game as they say is on…

Once upon a time…

As I start on a new research project, I wanted to make a space to collect and share folklore, old wives tales, local saying etc, and explore their place in past and present landscapes.

In particular I’m interested in how certain stories collect in particular places and focus on archaeological remains.

Please feel free to comment, share, and add to any post here.

The new project is at its very start, and more information to follow, but is building on ideas and research I’ve worked on for a while.

From little acorns….