When I first started working at the Museum of London’s Archaeological Archive I was told there was a ghost in our metal store. More Casper than Blair Witch, the ghost allegedly helped you find objects that had been ‘misplaced’. Sadly, I’ve never seen this ghost, but with 200,000 boxes containing millions of fragments of London’s history, I think it fair to say the ghosts of London’s past sit on our shelves.
I’ve sometimes found myself alone in the store. Often, I don’t really think about this sort of stuff and it can very easily feel like the archive is just a load of boxes. But then there are times when it hits me. Each shelf, each box, each and every single item contained within these walls was made, owned, broken or lost, by someone, some Londoner, at some point over the past 100,000 years. Each item is its own unique jigsaw piece in London’s story. Each item has a story to tell.
Sometimes, this realisation hits me in the face. I’ve recently had to archive a series of complete Roman animal skeletons, most likely sacrificial animals, whose death was to appease the Gods. This was a very real thing. This skull, these ribs I hold in my hand were part of a real life living beast that ran around whilst London was just starting off.
Early on in the job, I came across the burial textiles from the Spitalfields excavations. Amazing artefacts, intrinsically decorated, they make up the final clothes and grave goods of Londoners 300 years ago. All those years buried beneath the ground, connected to their ‘owners’, accompanying them on their journey from this world to whatever’s next.
My favourite objects that evoke these feelings are undoubtedly witching bottles; beer bottles with bearded faces, reused to host a concoction of blood, urine, copper pins and fabric hearts, all with the purpose of protecting oneself and one’s property from evil spirits. It’s easy to look back now and think what mumbo jumbo but to someone in the 17th century, this wasn’t a joke, this potentially was what kept them on the straight and narrow.
And it’s not just old stuff. Perhaps the most curious object we have is a modern day witching bottle; a plastic vitamin bottle stuffed with a full set of rotten extracted teeth, an American dime, a strip of metal, a tiny bottle with an unidentified liquid and a half penny from 1982. Found on the Thames, its story is unknown; who did it belong to? Why was it ‘made’?
To me, this item sums up everything we store here; the individual items, the tangible stuff can be listed. The rest though, the intangible, the unknowns, the ghosts… it’s those that can make these collections so magical, so mysterious, so full of intrigue.
Discover the archive for yourself – themed tours run at the Archaeological Archive every first and third Friday and Saturday of the month.