Witchcraft at Barway? The Archaeology of Magic

The contents of the one of the pits discovered at Barway, showing the stones and the copper disc covering the pit © David Barrowclough, 2014

I recently became aware of a most interesting article by Dr David Barrowclough, published in 2014, on discoveries made at Barway near Ely in Cambridgeshire, entitled ‘”The Wonderful Discovery of Witches” Unearthing the Occult: Necromancy and Magic in Seventeenth-Century England’. Dr Todd Borlik mentioned it in his paper on magic in the Fens at the ‘Magic and Intellectual Culture’ symposium at York on 5 March. In the article, Dr Barrowclough describes an excavation carried out by the owner of a local farm which uncovered two small pits in an old orchard, ‘circular in plan and … partially filled with large stones, each the size of a man’s fist’ (Barrowclough 2014, p. 6). The stones are of a size that would have made them difficult to find in the locality, suggesting a degree of planning; furthermore, the arrangement of the stones in the pits is unusual, as they are grouped together to form a semicircle on the north side of each pit. Covering the two pits were a circular and a semi-circular disc of copper, 15cm in diameter. This seems a unique and unprecedented feature. Two further pits were subsequently discovered to the right and left of the first pit excavated, each containing what was apparently a single woman’s shoe in a seventeenth-century style.

My first reaction on reading of the Barway site was to think of the Saveock Water excavations in Cornwall, which since 2003 have uncovered evidence of unique and apparently ritual depositions of unhatched eggs and birds on a single site, dating from the seventeenth century to the 1980s. Both the Saveock and Barway sites seem to represent unique post-medieval ritual practices, which has led the archaeologists at Saveock to posit the existence of a modern pagan cult, while Dr Barrowclough speculates about possible connections with witchcraft and magic. His article makes an important contribution insofar as he suggests (pp. 2-3) a possible framework in which archaeology might reveal evidence of magical practice. Ritual and religion are notoriously difficult to pin down in the archaeological record, and notoriously open to interpretation, and this is surely true of magical practice to an even greater extent. However, Dr Barrowclough presents a convincing case that the Barway finds are a rare case of the archaeology of magic. It is difficult to imagine what other purpose such deliberate and bizarre depositions, at that particular period in history, could have served.

Dr Barrowclough theorises that the pits covered by copper discs are what remains of an original circle, and his most intriguing suggestion is that the copper discs corresponded to phases of the moon (p. 9). However, his method of ‘triangulating’ the discovery with known superstitions and occult practices is somewhat problematic, as he accepts some older or more dubious sources (such as Charles Leland’s Aradia) without sufficient criticism. I am not sure that Dr Barrowclough has understood the nature of malefic witchcraft in English tradition; witches were not thought to ‘cast spells’, and a ritual site such as Barway would have had no role in early modern English witchcraft (insofar as we understand it – and that is a crucial caveat). His suggestion that the site could have been connected in some way with necromancy is likewise fanciful and unsupported by the evidence, since the material remains correspond to nothing we know of medieval and early modern necromantic magic. On the other hand, the copper discs sound redolent of astrological image magic, and there are records of metal images of the sun, moon and planets in medieval magical practice. Astrological magicians made use of ‘sigils’ bearing images associated with the planets to draw down their influences. This was a form of ‘natural magic’, considered less harmful than necromancy, and is one form of magic more likely to leave behind material traces. Furthermore, astrological magic sometimes involved ritual burial of sigils, such as a famous operation for driving away scorpions that involves burying an image of one.

More likely than astrological magic, however, is the possibility that the Barway deposition is an example of elaborate apotropaic ‘counter-magic’, of the kind regularly carried out by ordinary people and cunning folk until the early twentieth century. The discovery of shoes, a common feature of apotropaic inhumations in East Anglia, would support this. Burial was often a feature of apotropaic rites prescribed by cunning folk; to lift a curse laid by a witch, an animal, a witch bottle or even a piece of meat might be buried, in the belief that the curse would be lifted as the object decayed. Admittedly, pits half-filled with stones and covered with copper lids feature nowhere in what we know of such apotropaic practices, but we are still discovering a great deal about such customs and, as Dr Barrowclough acknowledges, the original organic depositions in the pits could have decayed. How the Barway deposition fits into the ‘logic of magic’ that applied in seventeenth-century England we may never know, but it has certainly expanded the boundaries of our understanding of unsanctioned ritual in the period.


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