In Haunt

Aiming to unearth a former haunt of The Pendle Witches, uncovering the history of Neolithic and Bronze Age tombs, and exploring ritual landscapes – all are fascinating projects pursued by Mike Woods, an Archaeologist and Geophysicist currently in the 3rd year of an Archaeology PhD at Manchester Metropolitan University. His PhD research focuses on the Neolithic passage tombs on the Isle of Anglesey in North Wales, and he is involved in multiple other projects.

Mike’s work brings hidden histories to the surface – quite literally – as through careful study, excavation and ethnographic comparisons, he explores how former cultures may have used the landscape; with an interest in ritual practices attached to death especially. Folklore, ceremony and strange stories abound. This is hands-on research, with Mike involved in everything from investigating Bryn Celli Ddu (The mound in the dark grove) on the Isle of Anglesey and surveying standing monoliths and dolmens, to exploring sites around Lancashire’s Pendle Hill. (Pictured below: Mike sitting within a Neolithic dolmen at Llandudno)

Mike Woods

Pendle Hill is after all steeped in the folklore of The Pendle Witches – a tale known by many in the North of England. The year 1612 saw one of the most notorious English witch trials in history –the Lancashire Witch trials - with those accused of witchcraft (and the murders of ten people) involving twelve individuals living in the Pendle Hill area of Lancashire: the so-called ‘Pendle Witches’. These included names that have since become infamous in the area: old Demdike (the nickname of Elizabeth Southerns, a wizened old woman in her eighties), her daughter Elizabeth Device, Chattox (the nickname of Anne Whittle) and Alice Nutter. Accusations against these ‘witches’ included everything from cursing poppets (little dolls), to practicing magic, selling their souls to the devil and murder.

Since the 16th century especially, the Pendle area had gathered a reputation of notoriety and disturbance – the abbey at Whalley lost in 1537 as part of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, much of the surrounding landscape wild and harsh. When James I came to the English throne in 1603 (he was  James VI of Scotland from 24 July 1567), a witch-hunting craze was gripping Europe, and the king himself was deeply  suspicious: having already written Daemonologie in 1597 and warning that witchcraft was a sinful practice punishable by death.

In terms of the Pendle case, many of the accused witches were seen as recusants – those who failed to go to church – heightening suspicion. Of the twelve individuals that were accused, Demdike died in prison, leaving nine women and two men left – one who was tried at York and the rest at Lancaster Assizes on 18 and 19 August 1612. It was ruled that ten were guilty, and the punishment to be execution by hanging. [1]

Whether ‘The Pendle Witches’ were dedicated to the cult of witchcraft, local healers misinterpreted over time or victims of an suspicious society, remains a point of exploration. So too do the locations they were reported to frequent; a key example being Malkin Tower: believed to be the home of Demdike (Elizabeth Southerns). It is here a witches’ coven reportedly took place on Good Friday 10 April 1612, a gathering involving a significant number of those who went on to be accused as part of the trials. Accounts from a court clerk at the time, Thomas Potts, detailed that Malkin Tower was based within the Forest of Pendle – though it is thought that the building was demolished shortly after. Since then, the mystery of its exact whereabouts and what happened there has continued to build.

The search for Malkin Tower has been something that Michael has significantly been involved in, and he spoke to Haunt to tell us more… 

Hello Michael. Can you tell us more about your interest in folklore and witchcraft – where did this stem from?

“My interest in folklore and magic started with my studies into British prehistory and the rituals attached to death and burial in the Neolithic (New Stone Age) and Early Bronze Age periods. The specifics behind these rituals have been lost to time but excavation and ethnographic comparisons with similar cultures death rites can shed some light on the possible meanings behind these rituals. In the last year of my dissertation at the University of Central Lancashire I began a 2 year internship where I was tasked with finding 8 sites around Pendle Hill in Lancashire to be archaeologically investigated by the local community. It was during this investigation that I decided to attempt to find Malkin Tower; home of Old Demdike and her family of witches who were executed for witchcraft in 1612.” (Pictured below: Mike digging at Malkin Tower Farm - the wall behind is all that is left of the structure above ground and is known as the 'Malkin gable')

Malkin Tower Dig

Your research has significantly helped inform excavation on what is the possible site of Malkin Tower – where The Pendle Witches coven infamously gathered on Good Friday 1612. Is this a different site then to the reported ‘discovery’ of Malkin Tower nearly ten years ago and can you tell us a bit more about your research here?

“The discovery of the mummified cat at Lower Black Moss reservoir was an interesting find as the holing up of live cats in the walls of buildings was a ritual thought to protect the inhabitants of the house from curses and spells. This ritual is similar to the witch marks found carved on beams in old buildings across the country, these types of artefact are known as apotropaic symbols and are thought to ward off evil, items used for similar purposes can be found throughout the world and across the ages. Unfortunately the mummified cat is the only evidence linking the site at Lower Black Moss to witchcraft and it is believed that this site is evidence for the superstitious nature of the inhabitants of Lancashire from this period.

"The popularity of the Pendle witches must be taken into account as the media will often exaggerate the findings and attach them to popular historical events. Recent excavations carried out by myself and MMU on the Isle of Anglesey was reported on by the Sun newspaper who wrote that we had discovered a wizards grave. This statement is linked to the Roman writings about Anglesey which claim the island was the last stronghold of the druids. The druids are a religious group that existed in Britain throughout the Iron Age and Roman period. The tomb we excavated was Bronze Age which is many centuries earlier. Folklore surrounding historical monuments can often be found and I have worked on sites that claim links to King Arthur, Robin Hood, Giants and the Devil himself. These are often grandiose story telling in history or an attempt by the locals of the area to understand prehistoric monuments before the advent of archaeological science.”

What in particular suggests that this excavation site aligns with Malkin Tower? How sure of this can we be?

“The first thing I did in my hunt for the Pendle witches was to review all evidence regarding Malkin Tower and the events surrounding the Pendle witches (particularly the black sabbath held at Malkin Tower on Good Friday). I mainly looked at the evidence from Thomas Potts' Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches which is a contemporary account written by the clerk to the court during the witchcraft trials. Potts book was published in 1613 and immediately became a best seller and gave rise to the popularity of the Pendle witch story. In his account he records that Malkin Tower is within the Forest of Pendle (a Medieval hunting ground with a defined boundary), has more than one structure (Demdike’s grandson recounts going from his house at Malkin Tower to his grandmother’s house at Malkin Tower) with clay floor surfaces in the buildings into which they buried poppets (voodoo dolls made out of clay) and human skulls.

“After reviewing the historical evidence I walked the fields surrounding Pendle Hill with John Clayton (local historian and author of 2 books on the witches) and whittled down the potential sites for Malkin Tower to the most convincing locations. I then looked at old maps for the area alongside satellite images and Lidar data before finally carrying out a number of geophysical survey with a magnetometer in an attempt to locate the ruins of structures beneath the ground. The location at Malkin Tower Farm uncovered two structures that were dated through excavation to the early 17th century.

“At the beginning of this project i understood that it would be unlikely that I would uncover any direct archaeological evidence for witchcraft so set out to search for clay floor surfaced buildings that date to the early 17th century. Malkin Tower Farm has had the name Malkyn attached to it since the 1500s and geophysical surveys carried out found two large rectangular anomalies that were found to be clay floored farm buildings dating to the early 17th century. With the name Malkin being the name for the site 100 years before the events surrounding the Pendle witchcraft trials and the discovery of the clay surfaced structures dated to the time of the witches, it is the best contender we have so far for the true location of Malkin Tower.” (Pictured below: Mike carrying out a resistivity survey at Bryn Celli Ddu)

Mike Woods

The dig on the site has also been part of a community project and significant student work. Why does connecting with the past like this still matter today?

“The site at Malkin Tower Farm was excavated over 2 seasons by American and Canadian students lead by Professor Chuck Orser who specialises in the archaeology of poverty and was open to the public. Public archaeology is an important part of what we do and how I started my journey into studying and uncovering evidence linked to the ancestors. We all come from somewhere and everyone should have the opportunity to work alongside professional archaeologists to connect themselves with the stories of the past. Community digs are being carried out across the country with many opportunities for volunteers to gain experience into the study of the archaeology,  if any students at MMU would like to get involved in archaeological excavation then they can contact myself (michael.woods2@stu.mmu.ac.uk) or the history department at MMU for further information on how to get involved.”

Can you tell us of some of your future projects – as well as current work at Manchester Met?

Llanfechell Triangle

“I am currently investigating the Neolithic passage tomb known as Bryn Celli Ddu (The mound in the dark grove) on the Isle of Anglesey as part of my PhD research project. Geophysical surveys have revealed an Iron Age settlement and possible stone circle alongside several previoulsy undiscovered Bronze Age burials in the landscape surrounding the tomb. The remnants of strange ritual can be found all across Anglesey with many of the Neolithic and Bronze Age tombs having a deposit of human ear bones in the centre of the monuments and mysterious symbols such as spirals, cups and rings are often etched into the stones from which these tombs are constructed. I am about to start surveys near the village of Llanfechell which is home to a number of standing monoliths, a Neolithic tomb and a stone triangle. (Pictured above: Llanfechell Triangle)

"I am often investigating spooky sites too and recently visited a church in Preston where some medieval sorcerers raised the dead through necromancy, one of them is called John Dee and has links to Manchester and was the royal astrologer for Queen Elizabeth."

By Emily Oldfield 

Images provided with thanks to Mike Woods 

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Comments

  1. Annie28
    What an interesting article. Well done Mike on your work in Pendle and on Anglesey.
    I love spooky things too and would be interested to hear more about John Dee and his local sorcery.
    Thank you too for your help with my book on The Pendle Witches , The Magic and the Myths which is recently published and for children aged 9 to 99.
    I look forward to hearing more about your research.

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