Old homes: treasure troves of memories
Once you start digging – whether excavating long-populated urban land for a commercial project or tearing down the walls of a house – you never know what you’ll find. It might be a ritual object placed there to ward off evil spirits 300 years ago, or a few decades ago.
Every building has history within its walls, ceilings, floors and foundations. Consider Michelle Morgan Harrison, an interior designer who is renovating her home, a house built in 1816 in New Canaan, Connecticut, US. Her general contractor, Patrick Kennedy, recently found a skull buried beneath an old white oak beam. “At first, I thought: It’s human!” said Harrison, who was relieved to discover that it wasn’t. Then they thought it might be a horse’s skull, one of the objects that Irish builders traditionally placed inside homes.
It turned out to be that of a dog, although half of the skull was missing.
“I’ve seen a bit of everything” while renovating, said Kennedy, a contractor and carpenter for 20 years. “But the skull was unique, and there’s no way it could have fallen in there the way it was buried. It was placed almost exactly in the centre under the doorway, and there were no other bones with it. I immediately thought it was something superstitious.”
So much so, he said, that he plans to rebury it in the same place in the house after renovations are complete.
“The practice of burying or concealing items in the structure of a house is called immurement,” said Joseph Heathcott, an architectural historian and urbanist who teaches at the New School in New York. “It is actually an ancient practice that cuts across many cultures and civilisations,” Heathcott added. The most famous examples are artifacts entombed with Egyptian pharaohs in the pyramids, but he said that ritual objects have often been found in the walls of Roman villas and ordinary houses during archaeological excavations.