Touching magic: Deliberately concealed objects in old Australian houses and buildings

01st December 2011

Ian Evans

PhD, School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle, October 2010

The objective of the research that resulted in this thesis was to establish whether the practice of concealing objects in sealed voids in old houses and other buildings, widely known in the United Kingdom for many centuries, also occurred in Australia. The supplementary tasks were to establish how widespread it was, the period in which it occurred, and whether the practice displayed the same characteristics as in the UK. These objectives necessitated the discovery, photography and recording of as many concealed objects as could be located. Distinguishing qualifying objects from random losses or strays was based upon personal experience in the field together with information derived from research in the UK and discussions with colleagues in this area of research in that country. Following on from that, my intention was to place this custom within the framework of folk magic rituals carried out in England until the early-mid-twentieth century. By confirming that folk magic was intricately woven into the lives of the English people a high probability that such practices were brought to Australia by convicts and settlers became evident. This research required an unusual methodology in that the virtually complete absence of any contemporary documentation, an absence of record that is recognised by UK researchers, suggested that a similar void might exist in Australian archives and libraries. My own prior extensive research into Australian domestic architecture had already failed to identify any references to such practices in this country in the literature relating to architecture, social history or the building trades in both Australia and England.

The focus of the research project therefore was to find as many concealed objects in Australian structures as possible and to examine and record these finds in an effort to understand the practice from a scrutiny of the objects and the place and manner of their concealment. The discovery phase was implemented by means of media releases, radio and television interviews, published articles in mainstream and heritage media and by lectures to specialist groups, particularly archaeologists. The result of this work, extending over a period of more than six years and which included travel to Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and within New South Wales, resulted in the accumulation of a significant number of finds of deliberately concealed objects. These have been recorded in a National Catalogue of Finds on which this thesis is based.

It was confirmed that objects, which in the context of this research include boots and shoes, garments, cats and a variety of domestic artefacts and children’s toys, were concealed in Australian houses and buildings, that they were both numerous and extremely widely distributed, that the types of objects and their placements were the same as those found in the UK and elsewhere and, in consequence, that a folk magic custom long-established in the UK was practiced in this country, raising the possibility of an ancient lineage for a practice that was previously unknown in Australia. Further research is recommended in an effort to extend the scope of this study. It is considered that this research will produce new insights into the lives of Australians in the period 1788–1930s.

Ian Evans
Touching magic: Deliberately concealed objects in old Australian houses and buildings
December 2011
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Thesis Abstracts
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