Honorary Landscape Slayer

Okay, it’s been over a year since I wrote anything here. There has been good reason (which I may cover in another post…) but suffice to say it’s a pretty poor show blog wise.

So, to ease back into the habit, I thought I’d share an interview I gave a little over a month ago for a podcast/blog called Landscape Slayers.

They were brilliant and v tolerant of my slightly rambling painkiller induced meanderings!

So for anyone interested please have a listen (and let me know you’re thoughts)

Landscape Slayers

Women: ruling Hallowe’en since forever

A little thing for Halloween by me for the brillian Women are Boring blog


Where our witches at? Women Are Boring is donning its Hallowe’en hat for the weekend and getting SPOOKY. This piece, by Dr. Lucy Ryder, is the first in our two-part Hallowe’en series (the second is coming on Monday). Read on and learn all about where Hallowe’en originated, and how women have always been central to the festival.

10665389_10152821527398838_3608783368422652392_n We love you, Lisa Simpson

Where does Hallowe’en come from?

Hallowe’en is one of most secular of religious festivals, and possibly the most misunderstood. Deriving from the considerably more ancient Samhain (first recorded in the Irish tale Tochmarc Emire meaning ‘When the summer goes to rest”) the current fright night we now experience is a long way from its very ancient, but decidedly muddled, origins.

From an archaeological viewpoint, the period around Samhain (stretching from 31st October to, in some traditions, November 2nd) is difficult but not impossible to trace for the landscape…

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Landscape of…. nothing?

I’m supposed to be writing, I mean ‘proper’ writing for an edited book. The problem with having a day job unrelated to my research is that I’ve have to write when time allows rather than when inspiration strikes.

So I have a chapter deadline looming fast, and my motivation has gone off to hide. As such I’m procrastinating; one such diversion is helping with some local history work of my village.

Everything is everso much more interesting when you’re trying to avoid the thing you need to do, and I’ve been happy to be pulled away on this tangent. But something is wrong. As a landscape archaeologist I have a standard toolkit of things to check first, which for my research also means delving into the local lore.

Except there isn’t any. There is nothing, not a pixie, ghost, or petrification in sight.

At first I thought I was just not looking in the right places, but hitting the internet to check more obscure gazetteers I was still drawing a blank.

How can a place have no narrative of it’s community? Is it down to the lack of existence or lack of preservation? If the latter,  why? Is there some reason, when surrounded by the Blackdown Hills that are filled with Willow-o-wisps, ghosts of dead rebels, dragons, and great battles of giants warriors and pixies there is nothing that sheds light of the beliefs of the villagers that lived here before me.

I have to admit, I am at a loss to explain, but it does elicit further distraction – I am determined to get to bottom of this odd deficit in my database.


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…

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.


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…

Finding Black Annis

Anyone who knows me through twitter will have seen my favourite thing at the minute is Poly-Olbion project Map currently on display at the University of Exeter.

Like with any map, I did the usual thing of finding home, both physical and ‘spiritual’. I searched the upside down map of Britain (the first thing that struck me was how difficult it is to navigate around an upside world!) and came to the midlands. Nestled near to the reference to Richard III was a small warning triangle with “Black Annis” underneath.


So, if they know nothing else, any child who has grown up in Leicester/Leicestershire will probably know 3 stories; the legend of Old John, the ghost story of Lady Jane Grey (both coincidently located at Bradgate Park), and the warnings about being eaten by Black Annis…

The Black Annis legend is thought first appeared in print in 1797 through a poem by John Heyrick, it was brought to popular consciousness again in 1874 when the Leicester Chronicle ran a piece about her:

“Little children who went to run on the Dane Hills, were assured that she lay in wait there, to snatch them away to her ‘bower’ where she scratched them to death with her claws, sucked their blood, and hung up their skins out to dry.”

Annis was supposed to haunt/hunt in the area around St. Mary de Castro Church, and have tunnels to Leicester Castle. She was still said to roam long after her cave was filled in and a housing estate was constructed just after WWI on meadows she was reported to frequent.

There are fantastic stories (which can be found in Katharine Briggs’ Dictionary of British Folktales and Legends: Narratives) of evacuees recalling the screams of Annis, and some houses putting “witch-herbs” on the frames of windows and doors to stop her long arms reaching in and stealing sleeping babies.

As a child I often wondered why this witchy creature was called Black Annis, when she was supposed to be blue with iron claws (claws that were supposed to have scratched out the cave under Danes Hill where she was supposed to dwell), and as an undergraduate I also knew of students who quickened up around the area of the church “just in case…”.

The Annis figure has turned up in comics and computer games in recent years, and has become, in this sense, a folk motif all of its own.

There are lots of books, articles, and webpages retelling the story, and looking into its origin, be it an anchoress discredited during the Reformation by protestant reformists (see Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft), to ancient ‘celtic’ goddess. I won’t repeat those here, but whatever she was or has become, her presence is well and truly confirmed.

It might be worth still walking quickly around St. Mary de Castro’s… just in case…