Witches, Magic and Medicine @ Pitt Rivers Museum

The Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford holds a series of iconic objects gathered from around the world by Augustus Pitt Rivers, a chap with the passion and the cash to collect.  As you can see from above the objects are gathered together by themes and then geographical regions rather than by cultures or periods.  Within this technique there was assumed to be an evolution of object language, a sophistication that would emerge – however to our eyes all that is highlighted is both the diversity and the similarity of the human experience.

On our recent visit we focused on objects associated with shamans, magic and medicine. So who or what is a shaman. Within ethnography these individuals are mostly associated with hunting, rather than farming, societies and tend to use wild animal imagery as part of their practise.  Shamans mediate between worlds, have a central role with societies and have special ceremonies, objects and clothing associated with them – as is demonstrated in the toy model of the shaman with drum from Baffin Island (U.96.1, 1906.76.29).

Toy shaman

Toy Shaman

Our shamanistic tour of the PRM started in the main  Court area visiting Case C.8.A which holds a collection of object that directly refer to the role of animals in the Shamanic worldview – in particular diving birds.  There is a Siberian Shaman’s apron with iron figures of sun, Divers (the bird)  and fish (1915.50.135) and a head-ornament with iron figures of Divers (1915.50.135). These two objects reference movement between the different mediums – water birds fly in the air, walk on land, float on water and dive beneath to feed. These animals embody movement between the different physical worlds and may also symbolize movement between spiritual worlds.  The addition of the sun and the fish on the apron reinforces this point.

Birds were also referenced within a shamanic staff, this had a hollow tip that would be filled with feathers that shook out during ceremonial use; creating a floating cloud that would have surrounded the shaman and been carried away by the breeze (number unknown). What fantastic theatre!

The use of iron within the headdresses and apron is also of interest and could relate to the permanence of metals or the transformative creative process that occurs in the production of this metal, from ore to metal through fire. The red deer again makes an appearance in this case with a banded iron headdress bearing two tiny antlers, the symbol of regeneration, rebirth with branches reaching out into the heavens (number unknown).

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The use of animals within the shamanic performance was paramount, as can be seen in the Shaman’s bear-claw crown made of 30 grizzly bear claws (some fakes!) attached to a skin band, their tips joined by a cord whale bone (1954.9.99. American, N. W. Coast Tsimshian people) and whole  range of Haida items – a carved bone plaque with haliotis (shell) inlay representing a killer-whale, a shaman inlaid and carved ivory drum-stick head showing a Raven with human figure in its beak  (1884.58.5, Queen Charlotte), a Shaman’s dance stick, with carved, elongated eagle, painted blue and red (L.58.A, 1884.68.63) and Wooden Salmon charms (C.26.A – 1891.49.35 .1,  1891.49.35 .2 British Columbia).

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As archaeologists it is always invaluable to examine objects whose use and deposition has been recorded within living communities. For example when we find needle-shaped, perforated bones how often would we interpret them as pendants or know that they were part of a medicine-man’s necklet even if we had found on his grave (L.115.A, 1923.71.16 Skidegate, Queen Charlotte). Or associated whistles with medicine men (or contoolie) as reported for this necklet of blue-and-white beads with 14 whistles made from wing-bones of birds (engraved with crosshatched 3-4 finger holes and thumb) (Chucunaque tribe, San Blas district, Panama, Central America). Whilst bird bones can survive the passage of time, in most cases items made of feathers such as these Shaman’s ceremonial ear ornaments, (peaichang panalo), made from white duck down & the red tail feather of the toucan (L.32.B 1954.2.104 .1,  1954.2.104 .2, Upper Mazaruni District, British Guiana) would not even survive.

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Of course not all of these objects belong to distant exotic ‘tribes’, the PRM also holds some fantastic examples of British folk traditions from the Yorkshire ‘Witch-post’  with crosses and bars which stood in a shoemaker’s house near the door (C.8.A, 1983.18.10 Yorkshire, Nr Danby) and a second carved with hearts and other designs (1884.56.80 Nr Scarborough Yorks) for keeping out witches, to the sheep’s heart stuck with pins and nails as formerly used in South Devon for “breaking evil spells” (C.61.A, 1911.75.1, model).

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There are numerous other objects to see, from the regalia of a Zuni medicine man (Shell inlaid with turquoise and jet part New Mexico L.42.B, 1939.8.31) to the medicine basket of a witch doctor, complete with numerous medicines and charms (L.88.A – Medicine, 1903.41.1, Malaysia, Sarawak). There is further bird imagery on the oblong Akawaio basket decorated with fork tailed birds known as the kumalak bird (probably the swallow-tailed kite). These are generally regarded as the shaman’s bird among many of the Carib speaking tribes of British Guiana and they carry the shaman’s spirit to the mountains, rivers and forest and help him to contact nature spirits  (C.139.A, 1884.69.17, 1884.69.18, 1884.69.19).

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Elsewhere within the collection is a whole range of other magic, witchcraft and fetish objects e.g. a bundle of magic cords used during a trial in Court, as an amulet, to influence justice(C.28.A, 1927.30.91, Obuassi, Ashanti) and the large carved and painted human figure heavily studded with iron nails and other pieces of iron as votive offerings –  ‘a fetish figure of great repute’, (C.6.A, 1900.39.70 Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo).

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Finally we finished off our visit with a trip to the Blackfoot shirts. These are constructed of a single, brain tanned, elk hide  with sinew thread, porcupine quills, and natural dyes from plants and minerals. These are sometimes painted with a personal war record, and can bear hairlocks of both human and horse hair. The tradition of making these ceremonial shirts is being explored and reinvigorated using the PRM colllection.

If you want to follow our Shamanic trail do head over to the Pitt Rivers Museum yourself.  Our museum guide led us to the most relevant cases (as below) and objects and we have posted this information here for you.  For every object we mention we have included the case number, object number and provenance (when given). All images are Pitt Rivers Museum. To search for other material or images using the PRM object database  simply put shaman in the keyword for your search.

Particular cases of interest:
Case C.8.A in the Court – Magic, Witchcraft and Shamanism
Case C.29.A in the Court – Amulets, Charms and Divination – Africa
Case C.61.A – Sympathetic Magic / Natural Objects and Stone Tools Used as Charms
Case C.27.A in the Court – Amulets, Charms and Divination -Asia
Case C.31.A in the Court – Magic, Witchcraft and Trail by Ordeal
Case C.26.A in the Court – Amulets and Charms – Americas and Oceania
Case L.58.A on the Lower Gallery – Rank and Status
Case L.88.A on the Lower Gallery – Medicine

Jacqui Mulville 2013

One thought on “Witches, Magic and Medicine @ Pitt Rivers Museum

  1. Pingback: LiveFriday@Ashmolean. An urban Wilderness? | Guerilla Archaeology

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