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Cats in the attic



So Historic England have put out a call for people to look for ‘witches’ marks’ in their attics – carvings and marks on beams that would repel evil spirits and malevolent forces. We have in our collections two cats (or the vestiges of two cats) one probably and the other certainly, placed in the attic for that same purpose.


Riverside Cottage, Corhampton

The first (HCMS 1969.150) was found in Riverside Cottage, Corhampton, in the 1960s. This is the more dubious as it hadn’t been ‘arranged’ in a particular way (as far as I can tell).  According to Ralph Merrifield’s 1987 classic ‘The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic’ cats deliberately placed in the attic were set up in ‘hunting mode’, often with a rat, mouse or bird in their jaws. This poor desiccated puss doesn’t look very fierce, it must be said.


A house in Chawton

The other one (HCMS 1969.270) is a classic example.  It has been stuffed with straw and is in a very lively (well, you know what I mean) pose.  There’s no record of a rat, mouse or bird being in the vicinity, but the earlier owners of the house in Chawton, where  it was found were definitely hoping it would keep vermin or evil influences at bay.

Merrifield quotes an article by Miss M Wood (‘Dried Cats’, Man, November 1951) where twenty-two examples are listed, and suggests that the practice may have originated from the sacrificial use of animals during the building process. It developed, however, as an antidote to witches, particularly in the 17th century. Witches were supposed to work their evil by familiar spirits, such as rats or mice, and a sentinel cat would be the perfect (so to speak) guard.


Beneath a beach hut.

There was another desiccated (and salt cured) cat in the collections – striking quite the most scary pose – but the place of discovery, beneath a beach hut at Christchurch, suggests something less than a deliberate concealment.

Hampshire Cultural Trust

Series by: Anne Aldis, Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone.


Buried in time – the Rockbourne Roman Villa hoard

The hoard today

The hoard today

The excavations at Rockbourne (1940s to 1970s) unearthed more than 700 coins scattered across the site, but ‘jackpot day’ came on Saturday, August 26th, 1967 when a hoard, of 7,714 bronze and silver-bronze antoninianii and three silver denarii, was found buried in a two-handled storage jar.  The coins mostly belonged to the period 250 to 290, but issues of Diocletian and Maximianus suggested a deposition date of around 305.

Quite a find! A press photo showing the site of the discovery.

Quite a find! A Press photo showing the site of the discovery.

The hoard caused great excitement at the time and the news even made some national papers, presumably resulting in a late-season rush of visitors to the villa.  After the coins had been counted they were carried off to the village shop to be weighed (collectively!).  As the scales were not up to the job, someone produced a set of bathroom scales and they provided a reading of 56lbs (25.4 kg).

Another picture for the papers!

Another picture for the papers!

A T Morley Hewitt, discoverer of the villa and owner of the site at the time, then set about having the coins cleaned and identified.  When it was clear there were numerous duplicates – 2,439 issues of Tetricus I, for example, and 1,474 of Victorinus – he rewarded each of his regular diggers with a small packet of coins at the annual dinner later in the year.

Out on display...with the total number and the dating yet to be finalised.

Out on display…with the total number and the dating yet to be finalised.

This dispersal of the hoard continued in other ways, as the decision was made to sell some of the duplicates in order to raise funds for the continuing excavation.  There was also some dispute about whether the ‘finder’ should have a significant share of the hoard.  At the end of the day (or more precisely in 1979, when Hampshire County Council acquired the site and finds) only 986 coins were present, and only half of these ended up in the site archive.  These 493 coins, along with the New Forest jar in which they were concealed, are part of the museum displays.

Three imperial close-ups, including Carausius, bottom right.

Three imperial close-ups, including Carausius, bottom right.

Debate continues about whether such hoards represent the hiding away of wealth, particularly in troubled times, or a religious offering to the gods.  The discovery of the huge ‘Frome hoard’ in 2010 (52,503 coins in a very large pot) supports the votive offering theory.  The excavator of the Frome find reported distinctive ‘organic matter’ around the pot, suggesting that this was packing to protect it.  Morley Hewitt also mentions an organic component to the Rockbourne find, but it’s not clear in what quantity.

In 1894, a hoard of 4,020 coins, of similar date, was found on the site of Roman farm buildings at Whipps Hill, less than a mile from Rockbourne.

Further reading:

Rockbourne Roman Villa; A Guide  £5 plus p&p, available from Hampshire Cultural Trust.

A1979.6   Archive held by Hampshire Cultural Trust.

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone.

Buried in time – ‘my little bull calf’

Deep pits were a recurrent feature of the 1970s excavations at the Romano-British small town at Neatham, near Alton.  They appear to have been cut to source water (wells) to retain water (cisterns) or to be used for human waste (cess pits). Sometimes there was a clear evolution in the use of a pitted area and the final act would be infilling with rubbish. In other examples, later activity – the creation of a furnace, or even a post-Roman ‘grubenhaus’ – complicated the picture.

Deep pits and damp digging conditions!  Excavation in progress in the 1970s.

Deep pits and damp digging conditions! Excavation in progress in the 1970s.

One regular occurrence was the deliberate deposition of significant offerings in these subterranean holes and this echoed a practice widespread across the Roman world. In one instance at Neatham, 195 coins of late 4th century date were recovered from a well, although as they were dispersed it was difficult to know if they were all, or just part, of the original hoard.

A Neatham bath house under excavation.

A Neatham bath house under excavation.

The circumstances of some of the other finds were a bit more straightforward. Along with a series of complete coarseware pots there were two Rhenish motto beakers, a plain Rhenish beaker, a complete cock skeleton, cock bones and dog bones discovered in various pits. ‘It is suggested’ said the report’s authors, ‘that when a pit was dug below the water table an offering was made to the water deity; and a similar offering was made when the water had turned foul and the function was to be changed’.

Copy of neatham pot

The Rhenish ware included a motto beaker, painted in white slip, which read V I [ T ] V L A, a term of endearment, through a pun on the word vitvla (latin for ‘bull calf’) and the diminutive ending – vlvs of vita (latin for a loved one). The same endearment, in its German form, is still used today. The other motto beaker read DAMER[VM, which translates as ‘give me pure wine’.

Rhenish ware is generally thought to be an early 3rd century import, although the Neatham deposits were probably not made until around the year 300.

Further reading

Millett & Graham, Excavations on the Romano-British Small Town at Neatham (1986), Hampshire Field Club & Arch Soc, Monograph 3

Many items, including the beaker, are on display at the Curtis Museum, Alton.

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.

c r u m b s !

The Hampshire Field Club & Archaeological Society Papers and Proceedings Vol. 17 p.174 reported that in 1948 a ‘Good Friday bun’ 102 years old was presented to Southampton Museum and continued with the following edited extract from British Calendar Customs – England Vol. I “Moveable Feasts” Wright and Jones – Folk Lore Society London 1936.

‘The Use of Good Friday Buns and Bread for Curative Purposes’


‘There is a popular custom, depending on a belief in the efficient curative properties of cross-buns or bread baked hard on Good Friday, which still lingers in some towns and villages. The custom consists in keeping for a year, or for several years, Good Friday buns or pieces of bread baked hard on Good Friday; the buns or pieces of bread are kept in a dry place e.g. suspended near the ceiling of a dry room or kept in a close-fitting box placed in a dry cupboard.  A small piece of such bun or bread finely divided by means of a nutmeg-grater and mixed with water, milk or brandy was believed a good cure for all kinds of complaints, such as diarrhoea and dysentery; in some cases, the belief in the efficacy of this ‘medicine’ was so great that if it failed to effect a quick change for the better, hope of the patient’s recovery was abandoned.


The belief in the efficacy of the dry Good Friday bun and bread was strong and widespread and could be found in many counties other than Hampshire. At the present time [1936] it lingers in Devonshire and Worcestershire, but otherwise it would be difficult to find the homely Good Friday bun or piece of bread hanging from the ceiling or enclosed in a dry box.

Another belief connected with Good Friday bun and bread is that, unlike ordinary buns and bread, they never become mouldy, a belief expressed in an old rhyme:

                 ‘When Good Friday comes, an old woman runs

                 With one- or two-penny hot cross buns,

                 Whose virtue is, if you believe what’s said,

                 They’ll not grow mouldy like the common bread.’     

This ‘belief’ is however based on the fact that when special care was taken, as it used to be, in the making and preservation of the Good Friday bun and bread, the amount of moisture left in them would be so small that no mould or fungus could develop’.


Nowadays, of course, the history of the Hot Cross Bun is most reflected in a familiar nursery rhyme, first recorded in the early 18th century, and the true origin is , as they say, lost in the mists of time. They may have Pagan roots – the equal-armed cross being more Celtic than Christian. What more can we do but enjoy them for what they are – they may no longer be viewed as a cure-all but one tradition says, ‘Half for you, half for me, between us two, good shall be’ – if you share a hot cross bun with someone you will ensure your friendship for the coming year!


Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.

Buried in time – a Roman curse tablet from Badnam Creek

‘Curse tablets’ of the Greco-Roman world are associated mostly with civil and criminal court cases but also with unsolved crimes and personal grievances.  In the Roman Empire they were usually inscribed with a stylus on lead tablets (tabletae defixio), although wooden tablets, papyri and other materials were also used. In both Classical Greece and Roman Britain the use of lead was probably due to its plentiful natural occurrence.

The heavy, cold and dull nature of lead also made it appear a natural medium for inscribed curses because such attributes, commonly associated with lifelessness, were thought to be transferable to the targeted individuals.  Lead curse tablets in Britain are found in rectangular form while in other parts of the Empire the inscribed material may take a human or even animal shape. Generally, tablets do not measure more than about 80mm x 120mm with texts written on one side only.

The 'defixio' from Badnam Creek.

The ‘defixio’ from Badnam Creek.

The tablet from Badnam Creek, a tributary of the Hamble River, was found by metal detector in 1982 and is on display at Westbury Manor Museum.  The curse, dating from about 350 to 400 AD, was directed by a man named Muconius at the unknown thief who had stolen his gold and silver coins. He may have written it himself, or paid a scribe to prepare it. His hope was that divine retribution would descend upon those responsible for his loss.

The curse text - after R S O Tomlin, who also provided the translation.

The curse text – after R S O Tomlin, who also provided the translation.

The text translates as

“Lord Neptune, I give you the man who has stolen the solidus and six argentioli of Muconius. So I give the names who took them away, whether male or female, whether boy or girl. So I give you Niskus, and to Neptune, the life, health, blood, of him who has been privy to that taking away. The mind which stole this and has been privy to it, may you take it away. The thief who stole this, may you consume his blood and take it away, Lord Neptune.”

Neptune was the name of the Roman god of rivers, lakes and springs before becoming god of the sea. Usually he is depicted as a bearded man holding a trident and with a somewhat angry countenance. He was also the god of earthquakes and storms and the patron of horses and horse races perhaps by being perceived as riding the waves. In the Roman Pantheon he is a son of Saturn and the brother of Jupiter (Lord of the Heavens) and Pluto (Hades – Lord of the Underworld). The Greek equivalent is Poseidon.  Among other curse tablets from rivers in Britain are examples from the Thames at London Bridge, the Little Ouse at Brandon, Norfolk and the Tas at Caister St. Edmund, Suffolk.  All appealed to the god Neptune.

Niskus – The identity of Niskus is uncertain. The use of the letter ‘k’ (only one other such usage is known of in Roman Britain) is rare. The most plausible identification is with a male version of Niska which is a name associated with water-nymphs, found on tablets (now lost) in 1845 at the principal hot spring at Aix-les-Bains in France. Alternatively, Niskus may have been a native British water-god but no evidence has been found as yet of a link to Neptune similar to that which occurred between the British goddess Sulis and the Roman Minerva at Bath.

Defixio – meaning ‘to fix’ – and ‘to curse’. Many tablets were originally perforated and nailed to the fabric of temple buildings – as at Bath.

A later Roman gold coin - a solidus of Honorius

A later Roman gold coin – a solidus of Honorius

Solidus – gold coin introduced by Constantine around AD 309 – there were 72 to one pound of gold; argentioli – small silver coins  ‘argenteus’ translates as ‘of silver’.



Britannia, Vol XXVIII p 455.

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.