Horses, potions and amulets

MERL 66/8/26

MERL 66/8/26

Whilst doing my usual cataloguing of 1966, we had an enquiry into a set of bottles discovered beneath a farrier’s workshop in Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire (66/8/1–48). Having recently catalogued the collection I was given the opportunity to investigate the matter further. The researcher wanted to know if the contents of the bottles were known and if there was any record of the jars being buried for superstitious reasons – with my background in archaeology I found this incredibly intriguing. Horse shoes are known widely as lucky charms, but there are many more interesting superstitions that surround blacksmithing.

So I began my research by looking in the accession file, where there was a newspaper cutting from the Cambridge Independent Press (12 Nov, 1965) explaining that the discovery was made by Stan Webb, who was descended from a long line of blacksmiths and farriers. He and his assistant were breaking up the brick base of his old forge, which they were removing in order to make improvements to his shop. Having cleared several tons of brick the assortment of bottles, jars, earthenware and phials were unearthed from the centre of the forge. The items must have something to do with the family business, which had already been there for around 200 years by 1965.

Mr Reginald Lambeth, the Rural Industries Organiser for the Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely Community Council and the person who donated the collection to the Museum, heard of the discovery and set about identifying the items and their contents in an article he wrote for The Farriers’ Journal. Lambeth identified the jars as ranging in date from 1640–1780, some still containing residue of their contents. The ceramic jars range from lead glazed Delft ware to ginger beer bottles. Many were labelled with various herbs and oils including Tincture of Opium, Tincture of Myrrh, Oil of Rosemary and Digitalis Powder (Foxglove). Alongside the bottles a few ammonites and amulets were discovered. With this information about the contents I went on to research their use.

Until the eighteenth century farriers would often act as the village vet, explaining the vast amount of potion bottles discovered. I also found that many of the herbal contents were used to ‘jade’ horses. I also discovered that horses were often fed ginger cake to calm them – somehow the scent of the cake masks any smells that unsettle the horses. Thus it’s possible that Webb’s ancestors used ginger beer in a similar way.

Now what makes us think that the collection is to do with witchcraft and farrier superstition? Firstly, they were discovered beneath the hearth area of the forge, a hotspot for ritual burials and offerings across many cultures. In addition to the jars and bottles, some ammonites and two amulets were found which unfortunately we don’t have in our collection. George Ewart Evans’ The Pattern under the Plough explains that horseman would traditionally hang amulets in stables to prevent sprites, hobgoblins and witches from riding the horses at night. The amulets act in a similar way as the ‘all seeing eye’ used by various cultures to protect against evil. Having said all this, it could just be the case that the previous generations wished to protect their top secret horse-curing blends, or Webb’s father had simply wanted to get rid of all the old jars and plonked them in a pit. However I prefer the theory that Webb’s ancestors were protecting the forge against attacks from sprites, hobgoblins and witches.

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