Exchanging Ideas at Special Deposits Workshop

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Last week I presented a paper on the ‘Concealed Revealed’ project (see website here) at a workshop on ‘Coins, Hoards, and Special Deposits’, organised by Murray Andrews at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL. My paper detailed the post-medieval practice of concealing objects – from old shoes to animal remains – within the fabric of buildings: in walls, under floorboards, up chimneys, etc.

Powerpoint

I briefly set out the various theories surrounding these special deposits (the most popular being that they were meant to protect the buildings and its occupants) before shifting the focus to their contemporary finders. Many people who come across these items secreted away within their houses don’t want to throw them away, nor are they willing to donate them to museums: they either want to re-conceal them or keep them as close to their original places of concealment as possible.

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The major focus of the day had been on the archaeology of coin hoards, and while I enjoyed every single paper, I was a little concerned that my own – scheduled at the end of the day in that dangerous time between lunch and post-conference-drinks – might be considered beyond the audience’s interests. I was expecting polite applause and a hasty wrap up. What I received instead were some fascinating insights, information, and ideas. This blog post, therefore, is my attempt to draw together some of the facts and theories that were bounced around the room in response to the ‘Concealed Revealed’.

Concealed shoes seemed to spark most people’s interest. Personal anecdotes abounded, which I’m eager to follow up on. One woman told me of a concealed shoe found in Windsor Castle while a man told me a more personal story of his grandmother; having grown up in a Catholic orphanage in Ireland, it had apparently been custom for her and the other children to conceal their left shoes, containing scripture, in the walls behind their beds. Fascinating!

Comparisons were made between concealed shoes and the carving of shoe/foot outlines in the lead on church roofs. Robert Briggs was kind enough to share some photographs (below) he’d taken of the roof of a church in Sproxton, where shoe outlines lie alongside handprints and initials. Were these carvings intended as personal graffiti: a way of declaring ‘I was here’? Or do they have a more ritualised significance? Theories abound regarding the apotropaic function of shoes, which appear to have possessed, in popular belief, both the abilities to repel and capture malevolent supernatural forces. Perhaps shoes were concealed up chimneys for the same reason their shapes were rendered onto roof tiles: to protect the building and its inhabitants.

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Another comparison was made with the deposition of shoes in holy wells. Ethan Doyle White, presenting a paper on wells in Anglo-Saxon England, noted that examples of shoes in wells are much earlier than the period I’m focusing on (mainly the 18th and 19th centuries), but the custom could have been a precursor. Certainly the questions we would ask about shoes in wells are similar to the questions I’ve been asking about concealed shoes. Why might they have been dropped into holy wells? Was it their connection with their wearers that gave them a certain efficacy? Was the depositor suffering from an ailment of the foot and the shoe was selected to represent that ailment and affect a cure? Or were they simple accidental losses?

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The focus of the ‘Concealed Revealed’ on the contemporary finders and their desire to re-conceal these special deposits sparked an interesting discussion on processes of re-deposition. Some hoards are found containing items that significantly pre-date the deposition of the hoard: are these cases of people in history coming across objects from prehistory and feeling the need to ritually deposit them? Why would they do that? Maybe by engaging with contemporary finders of concealed deposits today, we might be able to understand the motivations and mentalities that led to re-deposition in the past.

These are all points that I want to follow up on in greater depth, but for now I just wanted to get them recorded – partly for my own purposes but also to demonstrate the evident value of such interdisciplinary workshops. By not restricting ourselves to disciplines and time periods, we’re able to learn of new case-studies, engage with different concepts, adopt fresh perspectives, and propose original ideas.

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