Cavity Creeps

Academics discover why horse skulls, bottles of urine, and other oddities keep turning up behind the walls of British homes

When pigeons recently flew out of a small hole in the ceiling of a cathedral in Valencia, Spain, restorers diligently went looking inside to check for damage. They found rather more than the usual assemblage of feathers, twigs, and string, for their cathedral's baroque dome was concealing a long-forgotten second ceiling—and this one contained a priceless Renaissance fresco. It's a fantastic find, and yet one that all home restorers, in their own small way, might aspire to. The notion of treasures and curiosities hidden within the very walls and ceilings around us is one that warms the hearts of crowbar-wielding home owners everywhere.

But what if the secret hidden in your walls and ceilings is, well . . . a dirty old rag?

For some, it's a distinct possibility: odd hidden stashes of household items, intended to ward off witches or bring fertility to a house, were a 17th-century folk phenomenon in Great Britain. And so it was in 1990 that workers in the English town of Reigate, knocking out a wall in the ancient premises of a local tombstone shop—the aptly named J. Stoneman and Sons—found a pair of objects secreted in a fireplace wall. The first object was clearly an inkwell, but the second was harder to discern. "It [arrived] all boxed up in tissue paper," Sue Stanton, a textile conservator at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, recalls. "And when you opened it up you saw what some unsympathetic person would describe as a crumpled old bit of brown rag." But barely visible beneath centuries of grime, a row of finely made buttons and lacing told a different story: It was a doublet, a close-fitting outer garment popular in Shakespeare's time. What appeared to be a filthy rag was a rare example of working-class clothing from four centuries ago, and all the rarer for being made of linen—a material that does not hold up as well over the centuries as wool does.

illustration: Caroline Hwang

Saving and recording these finds is now the goal of one of Britain's most curious academic ventures, the Deliberately Concealed Garments Project (concealedgarments.org). Based at the Textile Conservation Centre of the University of Southampton, the project takes the most intimate objects of humanity and ponders their hidden remains, while creating a database of old shirts, corsets, and gloves found crammed inside the walls and under floorboards.

"Shoes are the most frequently reported items," project officer Charlotte Dew tells the Voice, "perhaps because their rigid form makes it more immediately possible to see what they are when they are found." Indeed, one museum in Northampton has already recorded over 2,000 once-hidden shoes and boots. Children's clothing also turns up in these old caches, as when a creased and dirty baby's cap was found in a wall cavity in Abingdon, Hampshire, along with some coins and old receipts. "Deliberately concealed garments are often children's clothing," notes Dinah Eastop, the center's director. "This has led to speculation that such garments may have been hidden to protect the household against infant deaths and/or to promote fertility."

The phenomenon is not limited even to clothes. One cache discovered in Highgate, London, included a candlestick, a broken goblet, and . . . four dead chickens. Indeed, British home owners have been finding mummified animals stashed in their dwellings for hundreds of years. So many home owners discovered mummified cat and rat tableaux that museums were once almost embarrassed to receive any more of the ghastly things; it seemed, one historian marveled in 1950, "as if there had been a downright factory somewhere and profession of cat driers." The headmaster's house at King Edward VI School in Stourbridge, a building dating to 1550, proved in 1930 to have an embalmed tableau of a rat running from two desiccated ferrets under its floorboards, while one Edinburgh writer in 1869 could still recall the 1805 discovery of five or six horse skulls crammed into a sounding board above his church's pulpit. "I was a mere child at the time," he wrote, "and for long after the heads presented themselves to my dreams." These horse skulls were a common discovery in the walls and floors of public speaking places, leading some to attribute them to an old architectural notion of skulls working as a resonator to improve a room's acoustics.

But some stashes are simply puzzling. One home owner in Suffolk, pushing her fingers into a gap in her windowsill, found a 16th-century cache of nails, blades, the corner of a book cover, and a pin. It's hard to know what these totems held in common except that, rather tantalizingly, they were all sharp. Other finds have clearer purposes, such as "witch bottles," filled with anything from pins to human urine—and sometimes both—to ward off evil.

But all of these objects—skulls, bottles, pins, and the like—are durable enough that they might even be found buried outdoors. Clothing is much more fragile, and this is what makes clothing caches squirreled away in cool, dry houses especially valuable. Other finds cataloged by the Deliberately Concealed Garments Project include a velvet waistcoat wrapped around cat bones and paper patterns, found in the town of Nether Wallop; a corset uncovered in a thatched cottage in Pontarddulais; and a brown felted wool hat dating from 1350, discovered in a church buttress in Little Sampford.

Dew and Eastop are creating a Deliberately Concealed Garments traveling exhibition, which will launch next summer; in the meantime, foreign home owners should also keep on the lookout. "Concealed caches have been identified in many parts of the U.K., mainland Europe, North America, and Australia," Dew notes, theorizing that emigrants took the practice overseas with them. And a welcome one it is, too. The next time you leave dirty laundry lying around your house, just remember: You are joining a long tradition of fighting off evil.


Paul Collins edits the Collins Library for McSweeney's Books. His latest book is Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism (Bloomsbury).

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