Contextualizing the “Witch Posts” of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Book ID:
Contextualizing the "Witch Posts" of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
cultural isolation (?) a study of magic and vernacular architecture in the North Reading of Yorkshire
'Price, David '
Publisher name:
University of Oxford
Book type:
Dewey decimal number:
133.4028 PRI CD
Dust jacket:
Contextualizing the "Witch Posts" of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford: cultural isolation (?) a study of magic and vernacular architecture in the North Reading of Yorkshire - by Dr. David Price - Archaeology and Text - University of Oxford
This thesis will contextualise the two Yorkshire “witch posts" of the Pitt Rivers
Museum as artefacts (from Scarborough and Danby respectively) which were exhibited
as part of the pedagogical rationale of a late nineteenth century anthropological public
museum. Both witch posts came from north-east Yorkshire, and Eskdale in the
Cleveland National Park is now known to have contained at least twelve examples.
Further south within a twenty-mile radius there are another five (see map) and a ‘final’
post was discovered at Rawtenstall in north-east Lancashire.
Originally collected by Pitt Rivers, or sent to his museum, in the last quarter of
the nineteenth century, the Scarborough and Danby witch posts were used to illustrate
that there was an immutable correlation between the worldwide evolution of material
culture and different stages in human social progression. As a consequence the posts
with their metaphysical properties naturally fitted into Pitt Rivers typological sequence of
similar artefacts gathered from across the world. In this case charms and amulets used to
ward off evil spirits and malignant witchcraft. Furthermore the symbolically decorated
wooden witch posts were also examples of indigenous folklore survivals whose roots
stretched back into a shadowy past and, as such, proved that the same society could
preserve layers of culture directly related to the different stages of social evolution.
After contexualising their nineteenth century presentation, I will use
contemporary cross-cultural dialogue to relocate the witch posts as examples of
multifaceted anthropological artefacts from a complex, if localized, North Yorkshire rural
munity. As a consequence the functions of the witch posts cannot be understood
without interrogating the relationship that exists between vernacular architecture and
behavioural psychology. In other words the witch posts were only part of a built
environment that emerged from localised social, economic and religious contexts. In turn
those contexts were shaped by human interaction with the landscape of the North
Yorkshire Moors and the prescribed cultural mores that had evolved over a long period as
farming communities shaped the spatial locations within their cruck-framed longhouse
farms to counter the threatening vagaries of arable farming, animal husbandry and the
making of diary products. I will, therefore, argue that despite the ideo-technological
changes that had taken place in nineteenth century farming, the witch posts that survived
did so in specific geographical areas where traditional cultural mores, whether understood
or not, retained a powerful hold on the form and social meanings associated with
vernacular buildings.
Because of the initial role of Pitt Rivers in acquiring a witch post from
Scarborough in the 1870s5 and the nature of his Deed of Gift to the museum in Oxford
that bears his name and to which the Rev. J. Atkinson6 (1814-1900) sent the Danby witch
post in 1893, I shall set the scene by outlining the intellectual and political milieu of
General Pitt Rivers.