The Political Use of the Voodoo Doll

By Natalie Armitage (University of Manchester)

With the general election imminent it’s probably safe to say there is at least one politician out there whose rhetoric you’ll be glad to hear the end of. And, if your vitriol towards them needs a physical output, a recent workshop by Knit For Peace has just the solution for you: crocheted versions of your least favourite politicians to stick pins into. Suggested figures include, but are by no means limited to, Nigel Farage (pictured), Michael Gove and Eric Pickles.


It’s all a bit of fun, you might add. No one really believes in the efficacy of such things. But the rich history of the use of figurative images to attack those in power suggests otherwise; yes, it might not bring about a physical change in the actual person targeted, but the persistence of the practice implies at least a cathartic element for the user.

There is ample evidence that the use of a small makeshift image to cause injury upon a figure of power was a prevalent notion in the middle ages. The life of King Duff was supposedly threatened by witches cooking his waxen image over a fire in 968 (Baroja 1990: 95-6; Ewen 1933: 80). It is thought an image was implicated when Henry V prosecuted Joan Navarre, his stepmother, for attempting to kill him via witchcraft (Kittredge 1958: 79) and there are numerous records of Elizabeth I being targeted by malcontents utilising wax images (Thomas 1991: 612-3; Kittredge 1958: 87-8). Noblemen, Kings, Queens and Popes were all thought to have been threatened in this way and the use of figurative image magic was seen as a very real danger.

While today we might see these objects as trivial items, there is still a palpable unease about their effects – in all reality, not in their efficacy to cause physical bodily harm, but in their ability to negatively affect a person’s public image. In 2008, the then French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, launched a lawsuit against the makers of ‘Nicolas Sarkozy: The Voodoo Manual’ which included a doll, pins and a set of instructions for malevolent action against the subject. The case was not ruled in his favour, with the judge ruling the doll adhered to the boundaries of “free expression” ( 30/10/08). But the fact that such a supposedly trivial object might incite one of the most powerful men in France to bring a lawsuit against its sale and production hints at the unease we still feel about such items and the intentions behind them.

Having said this, however, there is some evidence to suggest venting your anger for a particular politician (or other individual) by proxy of their image can be beneficial for your own well-being. People can experience negative, possibly to the point of intrusive, thoughts when an activity is left incomplete, this is known as the Zeigarnik Effect. Studies have used the process of the voodoo doll – using an image to vent frustrations – to demonstrate these negative effects can be diminished when the physical act of aggression is enacted upon a doll – thus, completing the aggressive thought process through a physical manifestation (DeWall et al 2013: 5). Trivial or not, the use of such objects may serve a vital social function and in some way explain their endurance through history to the present day.

So before you create an image of your hated politician for this election, remember: harmless fun it may be, but for some, the effects are all too real. But, if their political rhetoric is bringing your blood to boiling point, it might well be the cathartic outlet you are looking for.

The Materiality of Birthdays

A blog post by Ceri Houlbrook, with her pre-birthday reflections. Actually, this is now her post-birthday celebration week: the cake is (sadly) finished, but let’s keep on the festive spirit another few days!

I’m one of those annoying people who really and truly loves their birthdays. Despite nearing my 30th (cringe), I still count down to the big day with the jubilant enthusiasm of a six year old: two weeks to go, one week to go, three days to go. I expect my nearest and dearest to treat it as a national holiday and I don’t just have a birthday, oh no; I also celebrate my birth-eve and my birthday boxing day. In fact, I’m pushing for a birth-week this year (although my husband assures me that’s not going to happen).

So in honour of my birthday coming up, I thought I’d write a themed blog post: the materiality of birthdays. I want to think about the material manifestations of this notion; I want to consider what a museum would include in their glass cases if they were going to create a display about birthdays. And why wouldn’t they? Birthdays have been celebrated for millennia – more than celebrated, in fact; they’ve been ritualised.

Think about the rituals involved in your average British birthday. A gathering of the celebrant’s family and/or friends, whether in a house, restaurant, bar, nightclub, etc. The recitation of the words “Happy Birthday” whenever the celebrant is greeted. The almost ceremonial presentation of wrapped gifts. All culminating in what I like to call the birthday-cake procession.

If this isn’t a ritual then I don’t know what is.

So what could a museum display if they wanted to explore the ritualization of birthdays?

Well, they could start with gifts: objects presented to somebody in honour of an occasion. Technically, a gift or present is given with no payment in return, but there is usually an expectation that the recipient will reciprocate the gesture upon the giver’s next birthday (and when that doesn’t happen, a falling-out tends to ensue). To heighten a sense of anticipation and surprise, the gifts are often wrapped in paper, the colour and patterning of which might be determined, stereotypically, by the age and gender of the celebrant (pink for a girl, blue for a boy, pastel colours for a baby, and so on).

The choice of gift is subject to the (often subconscious) adherence to a complex network of etiquette and applicability. This is often based, again, on age and gender; you (hopefully) wouldn’t buy a six-year-old girl The Exorcist on DVD and you (probably) wouldn’t buy a sixty-year-old man a ‘My Little Pony’ figurine. The relationship between giver and recipient also pre-determines the form of gift; it regulates how much time, effort, and money is spent. Close relationships demand gifts in-keeping with the personality, hobbies, and tastes of the recipient, whilst mere acquaintances are entitled to resort to the more generic gifts of chocolates and “smellies”.

Gifts are given in conjunction with a greeting card: a piece of card, folded and printed with a message, often decorated on the front with some form of illustration. Again, much can be elucidated about the recipient, and their relationship with the giver, from a card. Sometimes this is stated explicitly: the message on the front might read ‘Birthday Girl’, ‘Birthday Boy’, ‘Happy Birthday Granddad’, ‘To a wonderful sister’, ‘To a special friend’, and so on. The age might be specified as well, if the celebrant is a child or if their new age falls into that category of “important birthdays”: 18, 21, 30, and then every decade thereafter. Personality can also be illuminated by the choice of card: is the pre-written message sentimental or humorous? Is the front adorned with flowers, a scenic landscape, a sports car, a photograph accompanied by an amusing caption?

And the message written by the giver is even more illuminating. Is it the generic ‘To… From…’? Is it personalised? Are there kisses? If so, how many? Most givers of greeting cards would deny putting much thought into this, but whether they realise it or not, they do.

Finally, we have the birthday cake; the culmination of the birthday celebrations. Traditionally it’s sponge cake, but not always. This year I’m deviating from tradition and opting for carrot cake, whilst in Primary School I remember a foam “birthday cake” being recycled for every child on their birthday; we still got to blow out the candles but with at least one birthday every day, the teachers weren’t going to keep buying real cakes. Generally speaking, though, it’s sponge cake with icing, and again the age and gender of the celebrant might determine the colour and design.

The ritual surrounding the birthday cake is short but precise. The cake tends to be surreptitiously unwrapped in the kitchen, preferably without the celebrant’s knowledge. The candles, probably recycled from the last birthday celebration, are dug out from the back of a cupboard. They are counted out, the quantity equal to the age of the celebrant – candles in the shapes of numbers will also suffice – and they are delicately placed onto the cake. The lights are dimmed to create the right atmosphere; the candles are solemnly lit; and the cake is carried ceremoniously into the presence of the celebrant. On cue, those gathered break into a song, the words of which they will have been familiar with since infancy. The celebrant leans down to blow out the candles, to the flash of a camera. The successful extinguishment of the candles permits the celebrant a wish for the forthcoming year, and provokes cheers from everyone present.

As I said before, if this isn’t ritual, then what is? And more to the point, it’s highly materialised ritual; it’s an event that is manifested in material objects, which can tell us a lot about birthdays and what they mean to people.

And so when my birthday comes round in 3 days (yay!), I intend to take a step back and look at the event through the critical eyes of an archaeologist. I intend to excavate and curate my birthday – that is, in between tearing open presents like a giddy schoolgirl and gorging myself on carrot cake.

The (Im)Materiality of Everyday Magic

By Ceri Houlbrook

I was reading through Adam Parker’s fascinating perspective on ‘Magic in Archaeology’ and was struck by his Umbrella Paradigm. Adherence to unwritten ‘laws’ concerning what will bring you bad luck, good luck, future fortune, and so on, is prevalent in contemporary society. We make wishes on wishbones. We avoid walking under ladders. We knock on wood to avoid tempting fate. Whether or not there is any actual belief behind the adherence is hard to judge and even harder to write about, but physical adherence itself is widespread. This much can hardly be doubted.
What interests me is how these adherences leave very little trace in the material record. The material evidence of an umbrella testifies to its use as a device to protect against rainfall; it does not testify to the notion that it’s considered unlucky to open an umbrella indoors. Likewise, the material evidence of a ladder testifies to its use as a height enabler; it does not testify to the notion that it’s considered unlucky to walk beneath it. The material evidence of a mirror testifies to its use as an object which allows a person to view their reflection, but not to the notion that a broken mirror is highly unlucky. A wishbone testifies to the consumption of fowl, but not to the custom whereby two people snap it and whoever gains the larger part is granted a wish. A wooden table testifies to its use as a surface for holding objects, but not to its use as the wood a person taps in order to avoid tempting fate. And so on and so forth. Everyday ‘magic’ is, it seems, not well represented in the material record.
It makes me wonder what we’re missing when we look at artefacts from beyond our time and place. Do we see only the utilitarian aspects of many of them? As anthropologist Jack Goody asserted in his paper ‘Religion and Ritual: The Definitional Problem’, ‘attempts to see…the sacred-profane dichotomy as a universal part of the actor’s perception of his situation are misleading’ (1961: 160). No such stringent dichotomy exists; it’s well acknowledged that many objects are both utilitarian and ‘magical’ (ie. associated with ritual or superstition), as expertly demonstrated in Maureen Mackenzie’s 1991 Androgynous Objects.
So it’s widely known and accepted that objects are simultaneously utilitarian and ritualised. But there must be so much we’re still missing; so many facets to artefacts that aren’t evident in their materiality. We can turn to contemporaneous written records or to oral testimonies but, where these are lacking, we need to use our imaginations a little. I’m not suggesting that we make something up, that we ascribe a ritual purpose to an object entirely out of the blue. What I am suggesting, however, is this: we need to acknowledge that no object, regardless of how innocuous it seems, lacks the capacity for ‘magic’.
If my umbrella – one of my duller, most functional possessions – can be considered to some degree ‘magical’, then I suppose anything can!

Magic in Archaeology – My perspective.

A guest post by Adam Parker from the York Museums Trust, opening the discussion on the values and possibilities of studying ‘magic’ in archaeology. Many thanks to Adam for this inspiring piece!

What is magic in Archaeology? That is one of the fundamental questions we are approaching. Magic is an expression of supernatural belief not unlike, but explicitly differing from, religion, used to effect positive or negative change on the world around the user. It can be active, passive, aggressive, ethereal, epigraphic, iconographic, simple or complex. The myriad possibilities relating to the range of magical evidence in the archaeological record is important, fundamentally, because it is something that is almost ubiquitous in the populations that we study as archaeologists and for its endearing ability to present itself with a touch of individualism.
As a museum curator, one of the immediate problems I have faced is the modern connotation of the word ‘Magic’. Magic, to the general population, can be two things. It can represent the idea that an individual has a real personal power beyond that of normal humans (a la science fiction). Alternatively (and I would argue, more commonly), it relates to a form of entertainment and a performance – something to thrill and amaze, rather than the evidence for a belief and participation in the supernatural world.
I have often wondered whether it is our duty to explain. Or whether it is our duty to promote a re-appropriation and reinterpretation of the word ‘magic’ ? I have no doubt that the majority of people working on, or academically interested in, magic in archaeology are already working towards the advocacy of this area. Thanks to all for efforts so far, but also apologies, for I believe we need to work harder as heritage professionals to promote the world of magic in archaeology – from a united front on occasion. Religion and magic are intimately linked but can be studied as individual concepts.
The public consciousness understands what ‘religion’ is because it is something that can be taught to us from a very young age and something we all experience physically, socially and culturally throughout our lives. ‘Magic’ is not taught. In fact many facets of its expression transcend the traditional idea of belief and can become finely ingrained in personal behaviour even right here in the 21st Century. I would be wary of retrojecting this idea into archaeology, but the point stands. Taking a case in point in a modern context, let’s consider a belief in luck: the social acts that may be ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’.
People frequently look at me oddly when I say things like this. The explanation I use is a simple one – The Umbrella Paradigm. Even now, in 2014 Britain, individuals can fear the act of opening an umbrella indoors and claim it to be ‘unlucky’. Now, I will readily admit there is a logistical issue here; confined spaces and a greatly increased personal diameter could prove itself a danger to people and objects. It is a minor risk at best, but to call it ‘unlucky’, even unwittingly, identifies it as learned belief entering into the world of the supernatural – that a karmic power might punish an individual for breaking an unwritten magical law. When someone does feel the sting of an umbrella arm or a coffee mug is flung from a table and considers this ‘unlucky’, the belief s reinforced. Cause and effect.
I fully realise that this example is reductio ad absurdum, but I have no doubt it will be a social commentary to which many can identify. The point is this – an understanding of magic does exist in a modern public consciousness, it is just not quite aware of it as something to be studied as we are. We need to tap this. The explanation for this is perhaps the greatest problem we currently face as heritage professionals; the variability in the very definition of the term ‘magic’ used across the discipline. I will readily admit that my academic specialism is very much in the Roman world, with a professional generalism in the archaeology of Britain, and so my knowledge of the potential magical evidence base on a global level might be lacking. Within my own discipline and research I use my own, personally developed, definition of what magic is as a basis for analysis. I suspect that others do exactly the same thing.
Because we are individually working from multi-disciplinary perspectives and are academically divided in terms of chronology and geography (which is entirely natural – no-one can be a master of all trades)our interpretations of the magical phenomenon may vary as a result. What if we used the same definition and could approach this material in archaeology from a unified perspective? Would there be value in this approach, or would it be too reductionist to be of any use? Would we compartmentalise all of our analysis and interpretation and stagnate the discussion, or develop a single perspective from which we can produce interrelated meta data?
In developing all data we must rely upon context. I am an empiricist; a core belief of mine is that we must rely on contextual evidence to further our interpretations. This is an entirely justifiable and, frankly, reasonable position to approach magic from and is very much the position of the archaeologist. Our issues arise when context is lost. My personal experience of this relates to small finds from antiquarian collections, potentially acquired from almost any place in modern Europe several hundred years ago. Our interpretation can be diminished through a lack of context. Now, there are many other ways to approach small finds, particularly in a museum environment, and these should always be explored to help generate a better understanding of the past , but I believe that the finite number of spatial and chronological analyses (particularly from multi-disciplinary approaches) currently limit our understanding.
Archaeologically we have no global spatial data, no meta-analyses to draw conclusions from. This is, in fact, a long way off indeed. Greater interaction between academics, students, curators, teachers, authors and other interested parties is, perhaps, the obvious pathway to solutions for these problems in the study of Magic in Archaeology. Let’s open the discussion, let’s write the research agendas, let’s comment, let’s complain, let’s argue, let’s move forward. Magic is important because it offers us contextualised insights into the beliefs, actions, customs and traditions of our predecessors in a manner incomparable with the (often) associated ideologies and institutions of religion. Discuss.

Adam Parker, York Museums Trust

Manchester TAG 2014 – Cataloguing Magic: Papers abstracts

Running Order

1.       Is there such a thing as ‘magic’? – Elizabeth Graham (UCL)
2.       ‘Objects of Power: Magic or Sacred or What?’ – Crispin Paine (UCL) 
3.       Revealing the Ritually Concealed: Tracing the concealed shoe from its moment of discovery. – Ceri Houlbrook (University of Manchester) 
4.       Economies of magic: reassessing interpretations of cowries in the African Iron Age – Holly Atkinson (University of Manchester) 
5.       Behind Glass: Magical and Religious Objects Out of Context – Natalie Armitage (University of Manchester) 
Questions for papers 1-5 
Tea break 
6.       Collecting Magic – Tabitha Cadbury (University of Bristol) 
7.       The Materiality of Finnish Folk Magic – Objects in the Collections of the National Museum in Helsinki – Sonja Hukantaival (University of Turku) 
8.       Redefining ‘Magical Medicines’: Public Engagement and Curation of African Medico-religious Objects at Manchester Museum – Bryn Trevelyan James (King’s College, London)
9.       Magic in Museums: the case from Estonia. – Tõnno Jonuks (Estonian Literary Museum)  and Kristiina Johanson (University of Tartu)
10.   The case of the spinning statuette: ‘magic’ at the Manchester Museum?Campbell Price (Manchester Museum) and Chiara Zuanni (University of Manchester)
Questions for papers 6-10 


Is there such a thing as ‘magic’?  Elizabeth Graham (UCL)

When I was carrying out research on the Franciscan evangelisation of the Maya in Yucatan and Belize in the 16th century, I realised I needed to know more about the Christianisation of Europe.  This research then got me interested in the terminology used to discuss Christianity, particularly the terms that figured, and to some extent still figure, in the positioning of ‘us’ (good guys) and ‘them’ (bad guys):  words like the devil, demons, cults, pagans, miracles, saints, and magic. Saints are the good deities, demons are the bad ones; miracles are performed by God, magic is the work of the devil.  Preliminary research suggests that the word ‘magic’ derives from early Christian labelling of the practices of Persian non-Christian holy men. If this holds true, then ‘magic’ is derived from the demonization of the cultural practices and beliefs of ‘the other’. It is, in and of itself, meaningless; it takes its usage from historical context.  Why, then, do we still use it? Why has it been such a hot topic in anthropology, as in ‘magic’ vs. ‘religion’?  (I would even hold that there is no such thing as ‘religion’!).  I hope in this presentation to explore these questions and stimulate debate.

‘Objects of Power: Magic or Sacred or What?’ – Crispin Paine (UCL)

This short talk will look at some of the objects that have the power, or can be used, to effect personal change. Some are called sacred, some medical, some magic, while some can be therapeutic and others can effect real damage. We shall look at a variety of objects of power – holy relics, amulets, lucky charms, quack medicines and simple souvenirs – and (rather than attempt answers) ask questions. What makes them different? If there is a difference between religion and magic, who is defining it? And above all, how should museums behave towards objects of power, and how should they respond to the variety of attitudes visitors are likely to take to them? What responsibilities do these things give their curators?

Revealing the Ritually Concealed: Tracing the concealed shoe from its moment of discovery – Ceri Houlbrook (University of Manchester)

Concealed shoes are shoes which were purposely concealed within the walls, chimney breasts, and roof spaces of domestic buildings. A vast number of these have been discovered throughout Britain, dating primarily to the 18th and 19th centuries. The motivations behind their concealments are still unknown to us, but the prominent theory suggests that shoes were employed as apotropaic devices, concealed within homes to protect the inhabitants from malignant preternatural forces. The metonymical connection between a shoe and its previous wearer is believed to imbue the shoe with the necessary protective power, and one theory suggests that, to possess this power, shoes must bear the unambiguous imprint of their past wearers, hence why the vast majority of them are old, well-worn or damaged.

Concealed shoes are often found during restructuring works, and from the point of discovery, their biographies can follow a variety of courses. Some debate, for example, surrounds their removal. Some finders believe it to be ‘bad luck’ to remove concealed shoes and therefore wish to keep them in situ. Other concealed shoes are donated to museums, where still more debate surrounds their treatment: should they be restored by textile conservationists, as some are, or should they be left in their original state, their damaged conditions being considered central to the interpretation of the custom?

Focusing on two caches of concealed shoes discovered in Ilkley and Otley, North Yorkshire, this paper aims to trace the complex biographies of these objects following discovery, considering how they have been variously perceived and treated by their finders and custodians.

Economies of magic: reassessing interpretations of cowries in the African Iron Age – Holly Atkinson (University of Manchester)

Cowries have been incorporated into a myriad of African contexts and artefacts, whilst their presence on the continent is one of long standing. Interpretations of cowries, however, have remained superficial. Influenced by the art historical approach, cowries in museum contexts have been considered from a primarily aesthetic viewpoint. Concurrently, archaeological interpretations have focused mainly on cowries as currency; a consequence both of their prolific use during the slave trade, and of European imports, particularly in West Africa. Apparent as painted and embossed motifs on pottery, gourds and figurines, as divination counters and burial goods, and materially incorporated into clothing, charms, furniture, power figures, masks and even walls, this variety of functions begs us to question the reason(s) for their value.

Museum and archaeological approaches have failed to appreciate their complex and multiple biographies. Not merely aesthetic products of trade, cowries were a means by which ritual, social and political processes could be negotiated and maintained. Adopting the definition of magic put forward by this session, it is therefore suggested that cowries in Iron Age Africa were perceived to have medicinal potency and formed part of a ritual economy. Consequently, this paper argues for the need to consider and engage with the material properties which made cowries potentially magical objects. This approach will be supported and explored using African cowry artefacts in museums; to also indicate how we can begin to overcome the lack of engagement with notions of magic in museum settings.

Behind Glass: Magical and Religious Objects Out of Context – Natalie Armitage (University of Manchester)

The nature of the Vodou altar and much of the associated magical practice is one of assemblage, while many objects are recurrent in various instances, many of the artefacts are found and then assembled to create meaning. These sacred objects are also not fixed, their nature is changeable, often being added to by the various visitors and observers with countless offerings. It could be argued that the objects in themselves are not necessarily sacred or magical, produced for such a purpose as in a westernised religion, but the altar/object becomes so by means of the accumulation and collaboration with an audience. Can such objects exist in a traditional museum setting? Or does the nature of their assemblage and their necessity for interaction render them inert in such a location?

If, as Hooper-Greenhill asserts, the strength of the museum lies in providing ‘people an experience of the real thing such that a desire to know more ensues’ (1999, 1) then how does this relate to the specific objects of a culture, such as Vodou, in the ‘behind glass’ museum culture that we are all familiar with; where the material objects of worship seem defined by the interaction with an audience, not inherent in the object itself? Are the material artefacts of such a practice only viewed in their true sense when there is a reciprocation with the viewer? Is their very nature interactive, and how does that change the way in which we might approach the museology of such objects?

Collecting Magic – Tabitha Cadbury (University of Bristol)

Although references to popular magic have permeated historical records for millennia, it was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that English charms and amulets were systematically collected and catalogued by museums. This paper examines changing tides of museum practice in collecting and cataloguing English material magic. It provides an overview of the most prolific collectors – folklorists, curators and early anthropologists such as Edward Lovett, Herbert Toms and Alfred Cort Haddon – and influential museums. Why did academic and popular interest in documenting this material ebb and flow, and why is the tide of interest rising again today?

The Materiality of Finnish Folk Magic – Objects in the Collections of the National Museum in Helsinki – Sonja Hukantaival (University of Turku)

In Finland the material aspects of magic have long been of marginal interest to scholars. Still, during the late 19th and early 20th century academics and lay collectors in Finland gathered several magical objects into museums, in addition to vast folklore collections describing magic practices. Matters of ‘vernacular’ or ‘folk’ religion including magic practices and beliefs have a long research history within the disciplines of Finnish folkloristics and comparative religion, but neither have had any particular interest in material aspects. Recently, however, some Finnish archaeologists have “discovered” these phenomena and finally also the material part of magic is becoming the object of study.

This paper concentrates on the objects classified as magical in the collections of the National Museum in Helsinki. These date mainly to the late 19th and early 20th century, and are thus contemporary with the archived folklore accounts illuminating the meanings and use of such objects. The collection includes for example miniature coffins containing an impaled frog or wooden stick figure, magic pouches with various content, animal bones and teeth, round “snake’s court stones”, and curious growths of trees. In addition to these the museum also holds numerous Stone Age tools which evidently have been used as potent “thunderstones”.

The aim of this paper is to present this collection, to show the characteristics of objects in Finnish folk magic, and also to analyze the process of ascribing magical meanings to a natural or constructed object, both from the viewpoint of practitioners and museum personnel.

Redefining ‘Magical Medicines’: Public Engagement and Curation of African Medico-religious Objects at Manchester Museum – Bryn Trevelyan James (King’s College, London)

Since Evans-Pritchard’s (1937) seminal publication, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, African medico-religious practices have typically been interpreted within a rubric of ‘magic’ and the supernatural. A consequence of this has been the widespread anthropological tendency to reduce healing practices from across Africa to a spiritual or religious metaphysic, disregarding material culture and associated practices (Morris 2011: 245). Problematically, this in turn limits disciplines, like archaeology and museology, which rely upon anthropology analogically (Insoll 2011a: 145).

Having researched West African medico-religious practices both in Manchester Museum and on multiple seasons of fieldwork in Ghana since 2008, the question of how to build a broader base of analogy for exploring the region’s ‘magical objects’ has been a long-term focus. This paper unpacks the museum-based cycle of that investigation, particularly as Manchester Museum’s ‘Researcher in Residence’. Grounded theoretically within the field of archaeological ethnography (Hamilakis & Anagnostopoulos 2009), academics from various disciplines and diverse members of Manchester’s African community were invited to redefine objects in the collection via workshops, events and installations. Here, the alternate beliefs and material biographies emerging from these dialogues, and the utility of a circular process of enquiry within museum contexts, is examined through primary case studies.

Magic in Museums: the case from Estonia – Tõnno Jonuks (Estonian Literary Museum) and Kristiina Johanson (University of Tartu)

Estonian museology has traditionally been deliberately ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’, thus missing interpretative labels, like ‘religious’, ‘magical’ etc. Still two collections can be emphasised as exceptions – Estonian National Museum with its ethnographical collection, including several items used for healing magic; and the Museum of Pärnu. The latter is especially interesting – being one of the first local museums in Estonia based on private collections, it includes several objects with attractive legends. Most of the objects are Stone Age lithic items that have been considered “thunderbolts“ and used for different magical purposes by the local community. The discussion of the paper will focus on how magic has been used, or more usually – why it has been avoided in Estonian museums and why most of the objects have been treated in emphatically ‘scientific’ way.

The case of the spinning statuette: ‘magic’ at the Manchester Museum? – Campbell Price (Manchester Museum) and Chiara Zuanni (University of Manchester)

In June 2013, a video of an Egyptian statuette spinning by itself in its case in the Egypt Gallery of the Manchester Museum went viral. The video caught also the attention of media worldwide, prompting a huge public response to the episode. This paper aims to discuss how ideas of magic, drawing on perceptions of Ancient Egypt, were used by the museum, the media, and the public to interpret and comment on the spinning statuette.

The statuette would have been set up in a temple around 1750 BC. It was dedicated in honour of a man called Nebiu, and carries a text promising offerings for the deceased from the god Osiris. It was donated to the museum in 1933, and since then has been on display.

During the media storm that followed the publication of the video, many hinted at a ‘magic event‘, which could be related to popular perceptions of Ancient Egypt: ideas from movies and popular culture were widely used to explain and comment, often ironically, on the episode. At the same time, in the museum galleries people were jostling to see the statuette and questioning the museum staff. Therefore, this paper will observe how media and museum audiences have used the concept of ‘magic’ in relation to the spinning statuette: what beliefs and attitudes towards ‘magic’ emerge from these comments? Why was the museum criticised for suggesting a ‘magic’ connection? And what have been the outcomes of the episode for the museum and for our understanding of public perceptions of Ancient Egypt?

Liverpool TAG 2012 Papers in ‘The Materiality of Magic’ session

Papers in ‘The Materiality of Magic’ session

Prof. Stuart Campbell, Magical Reality: Beliefs, communication and transformations in the late Neolithic of Mesopotamia

Frances J. Neild, Of Magic and Metaphor: Transformative power in the Prehistoric Near East

Peter Leeming, ‘Also found…(not illustrated)…’: The curious case of the missing magical fossils

Prof. Joakim Goldhahn, The Magic of Stones and Bones: The Bronze Age Hvidegården burial from Zealand in Denmark revisited

Katherine Leonard, Arranged Artefacts and Materials in Irish Bronze Age Ritual Deposits: A consideration of prehistoric practice and intention

Adrian Chadwick, Doorways, Ditches and Dead Dogs: Material manifestations of practical magic in later Prehistoric and Romano-British communities

Stephen Gordon, Domestic Magic, Apotropaic Devices and the Walking Dead in Medieval England, c.1100-1400

Natalie Armitage, Artefacts of European and African Figural Magic: The beginnings of the Voodoo Doll myth

Ceri Houlbrook, The Wishing-Tree of Isle Maree: The evolution of a Scottish folkloric practice

Bryn Trevelyan James, Ciki and jiki: The Inner and Outer layers of healers’ workspaces in Madina, Accra

Prof. Tim Insoll, Magic or Common Sense? The archaeology and materiality of African divination systems

Manchester TAG 2014: Session ‘Cataloguing Magic’

Cataloguing Magic: The Complex Biographies of Ritual Objects in Museum Contexts

Organisers: Ceri Houlbrook, Natalie Armitage, Chiara Zuanni (University of Manchester)

Following the success of ‘The Materiality of Magic’ session at Liverpool TAG 2012, this second session aims to further establish ‘magic’ as a term and subject on the archaeological agenda. Despite its simple definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, as ‘the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces’, ‘magic’ is a term viewed by many scholars with wariness or distrust, having been ascribed certain pejorative or sensationalist connotations. These connotations have greatly influenced our perceptions and uses of it. This factor will therefore be considered in specific relation to museum contexts; how has the word ‘magic’ been used by museums and the heritage industry? Has it been avoided? Has it been exploited? However, as well as offering an exploration of the sensationalist undertones of ‘magic’, this session also aims to de-sensationalise and de-stigmatise it by defining it simply as a term encompassing ritual practices and popular beliefs, and inviting our contributors to propose their own definitions of it. The primary purpose of this session is to investigate the complex biographies of ritual and folkloric objects within museum contexts. Not limited geographically, we aim to offer a wide range of case-studies demonstrating the complex issues involved in the museumising of ‘magical objects’. How have they been catalogued? Do their statuses as ritual or folkloric artefacts influence how they are stored and displayed? How are they presented and interpreted? These are just some of the questions this session aims to explore.

Liverpool TAG 2012: Session ‘The Materiality of Magic’

The Materiality of Magic: An artifactual investigation into ritual practices and popular beliefs

This session examines the applicability of an archaeological perspective tothe study of magic.This is a topic which has been undoubtedly pushed to the peripheries of many disciplines,
often designated a „fringe‟ subject, and subsequently neglected, a relegation which is nodoubt due to the term „magic‟ itself. Despite its simple definition in the Oxford EnglishDictionary, as „
the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or 
supernatural forces‟, „magic‟ is a term viewed by many scholars with wariness or distrust,
having been ascribed certain pejorative or sensationalist connotations. In this session,however,
„magic‟ is a term simply employed to encompass ritual practices and popular 
 beliefs.The purpose of this session is to investigate the ways in which beliefs in magic aremanifested materially, and to highlight how monuments and artefacts can prove invaluablesources in such studies. With focuses ranging in chronology and geography from the Neolithic Near-East to modern-day Britain, the papers of this session will demonstrate boththe unquestionable prevalence of such beliefs and the value of adopting an archaeologicalviewpoint.
This paper‟s title, „The Materiality of Magic‟, proves therefore to be a double entendre,
referring both to the relevance of the study of magic, as well as to the pertinence of utilisingthe artifactual evidence in such investigations. As Merrifield asserted  – and as the papers of this session will validate
 – magic and ritual „can be studied objectively like any other human behaviour, and archaeology can make a major contribution towards its investigation‟ (1987:
Session organisers:
Ceri Houlbrook and Natalie Armitage