Digging for Wishes – Talk at Middleton Archaeology Society

Middleton Poster


Another little bit of self-promotion here. I’ll be talking about the Ardmaddy Excavation at Middleton Archaeology Society at 7:30, Thursday 29th May. It’ll be held at the Olde Boar’s Head on Long Street, Middleton, Manchester. Come along if you can!


Cataloguing Wishes

Heritage Lottery Fund Landscape Logo

After the dig, the coins and other small finds came with me back to Manchester, where I’ll be cataloguing them all before returning them to Ardmaddy Estate later in the year. So at the moment I’ve got bags and boxes of coins taking up most of my kitchen and lounge, and have spent every evening for the last week cleaning them all. I’m not going to lie to you; this has been a pretty tedious task. There were a total of 700 coins (a pure coincidence that there were exactly 700), and each coin needed to be cleaned and dried. Having spoken with a conservator at Manchester Museum, I knew the safest way to do this was also the simplest: clean them gently with water and a toothbrush, and then leave them out to dry before putting them back into their bags. So that’s what I’ve been doing.

It’s been difficult at times trying to distinguish between caked-on dirt and corroded metal, and most of the coins still look as unrecognisable as when they first came out of the ground, but I’ve managed to clean most of them up. I’m not sure what’s going to happen to them when they’re returned to Ardmaddy – Charles, the land-owner, will probably keep a few for the castle and give some to local museums, but I imagine that the majority of them will be returned to the tree, so there doesn’t seem much point in cleaning them to perfection. And, as John remarked when we were digging, you don’t want to risk using any chemicals on them which might make them pristine now, but ruin them in the long-term. So I’ve been cleaning them just enough to determine their denominations and their dates, and then, utilising practically every flat surface in my kitchen, I’ve been laying them out to dry.

I’ve catalogued all 700 of them now. They’re predominantly 1p and 2p coins, but there are plenty of higher denominations – even a couple of £1 coins – and some foreign currency. They range in date from 1914 to 2011, representing almost a full century of what looks to be near-continuous observance of this custom (although I won’t know when the custom appears to have been most popular until I analyse all of the data). The next job is to take them into the university labs on Monday to measure, weigh, and photograph them all, and then I can start writing up the excavation report.

To be honest, I’ll be glad to get the coins to the university – and not just because I want my kitchen back. It’s strange digging up 700 deposits and then bringing them back to my house. I know that this is what archaeologists do: we dig things up in order to learn about them and the people who used them. But I feel almost like a marauder of wishes, digging them up and then having 700 of them just sitting there on my kitchen table. They all look rather melancholy out of context, separated into plastic finds bags and arranged in trays; they’re data now rather than deposits. And while they’re incredibly useful data (and this is probably a blasphemous thing for an archaeologist to admit to), I do hope that once I’ve got all of the information I need from them, Charles decides to return some of them to the tree. That just seems like the right thing to do.

Or maybe I’m just showing my true colours as a sentimental folklorist rather than as an archaeologist…?



The End of the Dig

The last two days at Ardmaddy have been very busy (and dry – yay!). We’ve dug a grand total of 500 coins, ranging in date from 1927 to 2010. I think the others were happily surprised by how many coins there were but maybe a little disappointed that we didn’t identify any older ones. But 1927 is ancient in my books, and I’m very happy that the practice seems to have increased rather than decreased over time. I suppose that’s the difference between archaeologists and…well, whatever I am.

Yesterday Jane and I worked on test pit 2, which kept producing coins until we reached the third spit (30cm down). We’d dug a good 10cm coin-free, and were just about to declare that pit finished, when we found a straggler – a 5p, which must have slipped through the cracks in the rocks. Because we don’t ‘terminate’ a pit until we’ve had a find-free spit, we then had to dig another 10cm, but this one produced no more coins, so that one got filled in. So did John’s and Ellen’s, and then Lara started on test pit 4. It was pit 3 though which surprised us. We’d left it for last because it was in such an awkward position – a long, thin strip tightly squeezed between the fence and the tree, so anyone digging it would have to be very careful. When today came round we discussed whether to even open it; we knew we wouldn’t have time to finish it (today was the last day of the dig), but decided to give it a go – and what a Pandora’s Box that turned out to be!

The first coin John dug up was a 1927 penny, and then we uncovered quite a few halfpennies and a tiny metal button. Most of the coins were still post-decimal, but there were a LOT of them, and they were only under the turf. Sadly there wasn’t enough time to get even the first spit finished, but if there’s ever the opportunity to come back and re-open that pit, I’d definitely take it.

Today’s been busy for a few other reasons as well. I’d advertised it as an open day, but because of how bad the weather’s been and how few people we’ve seen walking on that track, we didn’t expect anyone to turn up. But Charles the estate owner came, along with Robert, a member of the community council, and Mike of Kilbrandon Museum, and we attracted the attention of a few curious walkers. They were all very interested in how old the tree was (I deal with people’s preoccupation with age in my thesis) and wanted to know what we’d found. A few of the local residents we’ve spoken to have been convinced that the wishing-tree is far older than the testimony of the coins would suggest; either we’ve not been digging deeply enough/in the right places, or it’s a case of that preoccupation with age again. A lot of people tend to over-estimate the ages of coin-trees, claiming that they’ve ‘always been there’, when they’re in fact only 10 or so years old. Obviously this coin-tree is much older than 10 years – if I had to estimate, I’d say that it possibly began in the 1920s, but didn’t become popular until the 1940s/50s – but I doubt that it’s ‘centuries’ old, as they claim in The Heritage Trees of Scotland. But like I said, I find the contemporaneity of these coin-tree fascinating; unlike my fellow archaeologists, the more modern these folk customs are, the more I’m intrigued by them.

Today I went off on my own little coin-tree hunt. I’d been told by a local resident that there’s another coin-tree along the track, so I went searching, and just over 1km from the other tree, I came across a living birch beside the track with roughly 50 coins embedded into its bark. Cataloguing the coins, at first I thought that they were all post-decimal; I assumed that when the original coin-tree fell in the 1990s, people transferred their attention to another tree. But then I noticed that some have been there so long that the bark has practically swallowed them, leaving only a sliver of blue-green metal on show. So maybe this second coin-tree pre-dates the fall of the first; it’s certainly not unusual for a site to have more than one current coin-tree (Ingleton has 30!).

Adding to our busy day was the visit from Euan from the Oban Times. He wanted to write an article on our excavation, so Ellen and I picked him up from the main road and drove him up to the tree. I didn’t particularly enjoy answering questions about myself – fortunately Ellen makes a good PR officer! – and I really didn’t enjoy posing for photographs, standing beside the coin-tree with a pile of coins in my hand and a cheesy smile on my face, and I don’t think the others did either, if their reluctant grumblings were anything to do by. But I’m really glad that somebody’s interested enough in the tree to write about it, and I’m hoping that enough people will read the feature and come forward with stories of their own about the tree.

I’ve had a really interesting and exciting week. Despite the rain, I’ve loved the dig (although I don’t think I’m built fir archaeology; after 5 days of digging, I’m aching in muscles I didn’t even know existed), and I’ve enjoyed every other part that’s come with it: chippy in Oban, Jane’s cooking, the log fire, the beautiful view from our cottage, and our personal tour of stunning Ardmaddy Castle (complete with stag heads mounted on stone walls). I’d like to thank Lara, Jane, Ellen, and John for all of their hard work, invaluable help, and enjoyable company!

And so we came, we saw, we dug – and now the excavation’s over, the pits have been re-filled, and I’ve got roughly 500 coins to clean and catalogue once I get back to Manchester. And, if you think you’d be vaguely interested in reading about the next stage in these coins’ biographies, that will probably be the topic of my next blog entry.








Seamus Heaney, ‘The Wishing Tree’

In honour of Seamus Heaney (1939-2013):

The Wishing Tree

I thought of her as the wishing tree that died
And saw it lifted, root and branch, to heaven,
Trailing a shower of all that had been driven
Need by need by need into its hale
Sap-wood and bark: coin and pin and nail
Came streaming from it like a comet-tail
New-minted and dissolved. I had a vision
Of an airy branch-head rising through damp cloud,
Of turned-up faces where the tree had stood.

Day Three at Ardmaddy

Well, day three didn’t give us dry skies. We woke up to heavy winds, rain, and dense mist, and it hasn’t eased all day. Everything is sodden and caked in mud, and it was getting so difficult to record anything that we decided to finish early. Returning to the cottage, we spent a good few hours wringing out our “waterproofs” and peeling mud off the equipment. So we certainly didn’t get the weather we were hoping for (hence the photograph of me looking wet and a little fed up). But, on the bright side, there were coins aplenty!

The test pit I was working on (T6), which is the only pit outside the enclosure, didn’t produce much: two coins and a very muddy shoe lace (possibly initially tied to a branch of the tree, so definitely interesting). I dug down to 20cm and, because we found nothing in the second spit, gave up on that one and re-filled it.

The others had more luck with their pits. Ellen (T1) and John (T4) found 37 coins between them, and they’re still only on their first 10cm spits, so I imagine that if there are any older coins, they’ll be buried deeper. Jane’s pit (T2) was the most interesting. She uncovered 51 coins, most of them in the north side of her pit, the end closest to the roots of the tree, and she had two non-coin finds. The first was a ring-pull – maybe not overtly exciting, but I find it interesting. Either it means that somebody has had a drink at the site, marking the tree out as a feature which passers-by stop at (unsurprising). Or the ring-pull was placed there as a deposit. This wouldn’t be surprising either; I’ve found plenty of items of food/drink packaging which have been deliberately deposited at coin-trees: crisp packets, chocolate wrappers, and sandwich bags wrapped around branches and beer bottle caps embedded into their barks. So it’s easy to believe that a ring-pull could have been left there by somebody who had no other object to deposit.

The other non-coin small-find unearthed by Jane was – to me, anyway – very exciting. It was a long, bent, rusty nail. Its crooked form suggests that it was probably embedded into the tree at one point, and that’s very interesting, because for a few of the older coin-trees I’ve looked at – e.g. Isle Maree, Scotland; Ardboe, Northern Ireland; Gougane Barra, the Republic of Ireland – nails and pins were the most common deposit in the past, before coins came to the fore. They were popular deposits in the 18th and 19th centuries because it was believed that they transferred diseases from the depositor to the tree; by hammering a nail into a tree, it would implant a person’s ailment beneath the bark, leaving that person cured. I’ve been theorising that the Ardmaddy coin-tree may originally have been a nail-tree, but this is the first piece of evidence I’ve had. I know it’s only one example, and may have been an anomaly, but I’m wondering if Jane might uncover some more pins and nails the deeper she digs tomorrow.

Weather forecast for tomorrow: Rain. But hopefully less than today…




Day Two at Ardmaddy

Day two of the dig and a productive one! We metal-detected the top of 3 test pits and fingertip-searched any hot spots for coins, then de-turfed those pits and, again with the help of the metal detector (a very useful buy!), identified any coins in the turf. And then we began digging.

We haven’t finished the first 10cm spits yet but have already found 115 coins – coins of note were a couple of pre-decimal pennies and a US cent – as well as a shell, some unidentified pieces of metal (one possibly a button), a piece of pipe (probably not a deposit) and two pieces of string, which were probably originally tied to the branches.

The most coins uncovered were in the pit by the roots of the tree, at the space closest to the track. This wasn’t what we were expecting; we thought that there might have been more coins down at the branch end, which may have fallen loose when the tree collapsed. So we were wondering if people have started to simply toss their coins over the fence towards the tree. Maybe they think that the enclosure is to keep people out (the stile is on the opposite side from the track and isn’t obvious). There was a similar practice at Becky Falls, Devon; I witnessed two young girls throwing their coins onto a coin-tree from the path, claiming that if the coin landed on the tree, then their wishes would be granted.

Once the coins were uncovered, we kept them in situ in finds bags for 3D recording, and brought them back to the cottage for sorting. So once we had tea (thank you for cooking again Jane!) we sat around the kitchen table, piercing holes in the finds bags to prevent the build-up of moisture. And now we’re sat in the living room, John’s made a real fire, it’s raining and windy outside, and we’re wondering what tomorrow will bring – hopefully dry skies and lots more coins!