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Searching for the Witches’ Tower

Archaeologists hunt for evidence of a 17th-century English family accused of witchcraft

November/December 2019

Pendle 17th Century Witchcraft Hanging IllustrationPendle Lancashire Hawthorn TreeIn the fields belonging to Malkin Tower Farm, outside the village of Blacko, in Lancashire’s borough of Pendle, stands a solitary tree where small charms, fruit, and even the odd dream catcher are known to appear. These offerings are left behind by amblers on countryside strolls who are aware of the farm’s association with the notorious Pendle witch trials. In 1612, nearly a dozen people from this scenic region of hilly pastureland were accused of witchcraft, convicted, and hanged in the nearby city of Lancaster. Though they took place more than 400 years ago—nearly a century before the better-known witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts—the trials continue to captivate an eclectic mix of scholars, tourists, and neo-pagans. Researchers now conducting excavations at Malkin Tower Farm are hoping to find archaeological evidence of the witches themselves. The task is a daunting one, since material remains of magical practice are often ephemeral and difficult to distinguish from everyday objects. It also requires an understanding of the Lancashire in which the condemned lived, which was beset by religious and social upheaval, as well as substantial changes in traditional modes of rural life.

 

The team, led by archaeologist Charles Orser of Ontario’s Western University, chose to investigate Malkin Tower Farm because it shares the name of a property where the family most closely associated with the trials, the Devices, are known to have lived. The location Orser selected is only one of the possible locations for their home. No standing buildings from the seventeenth century—and no tower—survive at the site, and the exact location of the Device family home was never recorded. But in this part of the world, where farms are handed down over generations, place-names persist. “The names of individual fields, in particular, can be very ancient in this area,” says Malkin Tower Farm owner Andrew Turner, who, with his wife Rachel, operates holiday accommodations at the property. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the name ‘Malkin’ is actually quite a bit older than the 1612 trials.”

 

The farm’s current cottages, which sit on the lower slopes of a hill and look out over a vista of pastures, stone walls, and small lakes, date to the eighteenth century. Orser chose to investigate a field directly behind them, hoping to find evidence of earlier buildings. A 2018 field season based on geophysical surveys didn’t turn up much, but the team has now encountered what Orser says are the remnants of a demolished residence. “Clearly where we’re excavating now is a tumbled house, there’s no question about it,” he says. “And I can imagine that the local authorities would have wanted to demolish a house that they believed was associated with evil.”

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