Deliberately Concealed Items

Mystery of mummified cat in office basement’. The Edinburgh Evening News carried this story on February 13, 2007. The 180-year-old find in a basement in New Town, Scotland, was attributed not to feline misadventure, but to a deliberate act of witchcraft to protect the building against evil spirits. In the early 1960s, during restoration work at Lauderdale House in Highgate, London, workmen found an ornate goblet, shoes, and four mummified chickens, which had been immured in the chimney when the house was built in the late sixteenth century. Similarly, a mummified cat was found in the walls of a cottage in Cricksen, Essex, where it had been buried alive. Numerous such reports from the UK and other Western countries are extant. For example, on 15 July 2012 ABC National Radio in Australia broadcast a comprehensive lecture by historian Ian Evans on ‘deliberately concealed items’ in Australian heritage buildings. 

The phrase ‘deliberately concealed items’ describes items of clothing or apparel, dried cats or other animals, witch bottles, and various artefacts, intentionally hidden or buried by builders or the occupants of buildings. Such deliberate concealment of items relates to the ancient practice of foundation sacrifice and pertains to the ritual protection of a household and its occupants. To qualify for consideration, such objects must be found hidden within a building in such a way as to preclude accidental concealment or loss. Typically, where the concealed items are garments, in order to be protective they are never new, but have been worn and used, that is, they are imbued with a protective essence from the previous wearer. 

Protective ritual objects of this kind have been found in Continental Europe, the United Kingdom, North and South America, and Australia and are usually discovered when alterations and renovations are undertaken. The majority of ‘deliberately concealed items’ are found in buildings constructed before 1800, although such items have also been discovered in buildings dating from as late as the early 1900s. In rural Bolivia, foetuses of dogs and llamas, believed to bring protection and good luck if buried under the foundations of new buildings, are still for sale in modern times. 

Shoes were especially high on the priority list, thought to have wonderful protective qualities. Therefore, shoes were amongst the most popular items deliberately concealed in buildings. Formerly, most people only owned one pair of shoes, which was repaired over and over again for many years. A shoe is the only item of clothing that retains the shape of the body part it covers. Worn over many years, shoes were thought to become charged with their owners’ soul essence. Consequently, shoes were seen as imbued with protective qualities. The concealment of shoes is such a well-known folk custom that the museum at Northampton in the United Kingdom has set up a ‘Concealed Shoes Index’. Usually, only a single shoe is found concealed. Hundreds of finds are made and recorded in the museum every year. Many, however, remain undocumented, in all likelihood simply thrown out by builders who are uninformed and ignorant of this protective custom of the past.

Children’s clothes are often found among caches of deliberately concealed garments. Speculation has it that the purpose behind concealing children’s garments might have been to promote fertility, counteract infant deaths, and generally to protect the household’s children.

Amongst ritual objects frequently concealed in houses were so-called witch bottles, used specifically to counter witchcraft. Made of stoneware or glass, these were little potbellied bottles, representing a witch’s bladder. To keep witches away, such a bottle was filled with urine, to which had been added bits of sharp glass, pins, thorns, and other small sharp objects. Tightly sealed and hidden, the bottles were believed to transmit terrible agony to any witch nearby.

Similarly, cats, buried after they had been killed or while they were still alive, were thought of as highly protective. Under the laws of sympathetic magic, this was because of their association with witchcraft and evil, in other words cats were thought to decoy witches away from the house’s occupants. Popular locations for concealment were near chimneys, fireplaces, under the floors, above ceilings, and in sealed voids, typically places where witches and evil spirits could enter.

Interestingly, the custom of deliberately concealing garments and objects for protective purposes is not solely a historic practice, but occasionally still takes place in modern times.36


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