In quarries and coal faces the quarrymen and coal miners used to place frogs
into gaps within the quarry face or coal face. Presumably as a form of
protection, the practice seams to date back as far as the early medieval
period. Frog bones found in older quarry faces.
From: British archaeology discussion list [mailto:[log in to unmask]]
On Behalf Of John Clark
Sent: 07 August 2013 10:39
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: [BRITARCH] Foundation sacrifice
Linda Speight wrote: >The superstition is very ancient, e.g. a deposit that
included frog bones appeared to have been deliberately placed beneath a
massive timber during the construction of Danebury hill fort (Merrifield).<
Yes, dogs (and frogs) at 4th-century BC Danebury to cats in 18th-century AD
walls. Do we therefore argue for CONTINUITY? - and if so is it continuity
merely of practice? - or continuity of belief - the rationale behind or the
believed purpose of the practice - that is, the 'superstition'?
>Hearths and thresholds seem to have been the best places for burying pots,
animals (and even old iron tools and other objects) in order to protect the
household. Then chimneys were built, creating an opening that left the
household vulnerable leading to the practice of placing a 'protective'
object up the chimney. <
An interesting hypothetical reconstruction of a practice changing to meet a
technological innovation - but unproven and probably unprovable.
Yet if this was indeed the reasoning, why cats and chickens (and, one might
add, old shoes)? Why not the IRON that nailed at the threshold (and later in
the form of a horseshoe hung above the door) protected the household from
The desire for a ceremony of some sort, perhaps with an 'offering' or
'sacrifice', to mark the inception of a new building, structure or
institution, in the hope of ensuring a generalised 'good luck', is surely a
human universal. Kevin Tolley mentions the 'time capsules' buried beneath
modern buildings (a practice already going strong in Victorian times). Then
there is the ceremonial 'laying the foundation stone' - not actually a
foundation stone since it is usually preserved highly visible in the front
of the building - a ceremony often requiring the provision of special
'sacred' implements (the silver trowel, which is then preserved as a trophy
and never used again).
And when did we start breaking a bottle of champagne over the bow of a ship
being launched, with wishes of 'good luck to all who sail in her'?
The fact that we feel the need for such inaugural ceremonies, all of them
entailing expense or indeed (like the bottle of champagne) deliberate
destruction (=sacrifice?), does NOT, I believe, argue for 'continuity' of
practice. 'Foundation deposits' or ceremonies could have been reinvented
many times in slightly different forms. And the 'superstition' or 'religious
belief' that those carrying out the ceremony might have put forward as its
basis would certainly also have changed over time - and is probably now
Ralph Merrifield was a folklorist as well as an archaeologist. He began his
career in the 1930s at Brighton Museum, where the long-serving curator
Herbert Toms similarly combined an interest in both topics. And Toms was
trained by Pitt-Rivers, with his wide-ranging interests in archaeology and
But popular understanding of folklore, when drawn into discussion with
archaeology, has perhaps still not entirely broken free from the influence
of the great Victorian and Edwardian founders of folklore studies with their
'doctrine of survival' that led them to take note of forms of activity
reported to be prevalent among so-called 'primitive' peoples, to identify
these as practices once universal at a certain point in human development,
and to link them with supposed 'survivals' in modern society (Frazer being
the most obvious example of this approach). For example, in the 1890s Bertha
(Lady) Gomme argued that the singing game 'London Bridge is falling down', a
game which entails catching a 'prisoner' and contains a verse 'Set a man to
watch all night...', commemorated the (supposed) 'primitive' practice of
burying a captive sacrificial victim under the foundations of a bridge to
Ralph Merrifield (with whom I worked at Guildhall Museum, later the Museum
of London - and who may have inspired, and certainly encouraged, my own
interest in the relationships between folklore and archaeology) has some
very wise words on the meaning of 'continuity' when applied to 'ritual'
practices in his final chapter.
Ralph would certainly have approved of the ongoing series of 'Popular
Antiquities' conferences at UCL Institute of Archaeology that bring
archaeologists and folklorists together - see
http://www.popularantiquities.eventbrite.co.uk/ if you aren't already aware
of the forthcoming one!