Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

A Dorset hag stone

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project


1884.56.3 is an object, described by a museum worker as a 'stone with natural perforation, found fixed on a nail to the cottage-door of Kimber, a carter in General Pitt Rivers' employment, to keep away witches'. This is particularly interesting as it must have been acquired between 1880, when Pitt Rivers first inherited the Rushmore estate, and 5 April 1881 when he sent the stone to South Kensington Museum (where his collection was then displayed).

The documentation held at the Museum states:

Accession Book IV entry - 1884.56.1 - 100 Charms Magic etc. - Naturally perforated stone, nailed to a cottage door against witches by a carter Rushmore nr Salisbury

'Green book' entry - South Kensington Receipts, 5 April 1881 - Collection of objects as per list attached nos 293 to 639 540 Holed stone used for the purpose of keeping away witches Rushmore nr Salisbury

Detailed Amulet card catalogue entry - Amulets ) O. Inscribed P. Talismans in cases Q Uninscribed single R Collars, necklets, armlets, rings S-T Juju [sic] U-W Stone X. Dance Y. Unclassed. - Naturally perforated stones Gt Britain Description: Stone with natural perforation, found fixed on a nail to the cottage-door of Kimber, a carter in Gen'l Pitt Rivers' employment, to keep away witches. Dimensions 100 x 64 approx Locality: Rushmore nr Salisbury How Acquired: P.R. coll 540 / 12191

The original documentation does not mention the name of the carter and it is not clear where the information came from, it first appears in the Ettlinger account, she thanks the then curator of the Museum, Tom Penniman, for information so he may have given her the reference, it is irritating that it was not recorded where it was obtained, as that source might have more information about the artefact.

Ettlinger mentions this item in her round-up of folkloric items held in Oxford museums:

More frequently, however, holed stones were fastened to the house- or byre-door, as is shown in three examples in the Pitt Rivers Museum, to keep away witches and pixies, or just for good luck. The first was found nailed to the door of a man called Kimber, who was a carter at Rushmore (near Salisbury), employed by General Pitt Rivers. The second served in 1896 in Ballymena (N. Ireland) to prevent pixies from stealing the milk, while the third, a pebble of black limestone, bored by pholas, was hung behind the door of William Twizel's cottage in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Northumberland.]. [Ettlinger, 1943: 235]

To fidn out more about the stone from Newbiggin go here.

This form of amulet is often called a hagstone, there is a good literature on this type of object. It seems to have been a common Dorset belief, recorded for example here. The stone had a natural perforation, or hole, and were often made of flint or polished pebbles found washed up on the Dorset coast.

In bygone days when superstition played a part in everyone's lives. It was common to see these stone baubles hanging above the doors of people's houses, for Hag stones were believed by some to have protective properties from the powerful effects of evil.
On farms it was customary to hang a hag stone on a nail (especially if it was made of iron as this increased the stones power) above the stable door or tied around a horses neck to prevent them from being 'hag rod'. A Dorset expression often used to describe when witches stole horses to ride to their sabbats. In some cases farmers who left their horses or even other livestock unprotected would often find their animals in sweaty and exhausted state with their manes full of tangles, which were known as 'hag knots'. A term often used, as it was believed that a witch tied knots in horse's manes to use as stirrups. [http://www.weymouth.gov.uk/home.asp?sv=1125]

Hag-ridden referred to the 'nightmare, characterised by terror, an impression of being awake but power-less to move or speak, and sensations of weight on the chest. Popular tradition represented such experiences as assaults by witches sitting on sleepers' bellies, inflicting terrifying dreams, and leaving their victims exhausted and haggard ("hag-ridden") in the morning. [Oates, 2003: 205] Holed stones were seen as a common counter-charm to deter the 'hag':

When horses were found sweating and exhausted in the morning, it was thought that witches or fairies had ridden them all night, and tangled their manes; this too was called hag-riding, and could be prevented by hanging a holed stone over their stalls, round their necks, or at the stable door. Hooks and shears were effective too (Herrick, Hesperides (1648), no. 892). [http://www.answers.com/topic/hag-riding]


Further Reading

Ettlinger, Ellen. 1943 'Documents of British Superstition in Oxford' Folklore, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Mar., 1943), pp. 227-249
Oates, Caroline. 2003. 'Cheese Gives You Nightmares: Old Hags and Heartburn' Folklore, Vol. 114, No. 2 (Aug., 2003), pp. 205-225