Old homes: trea­sure troves of mem­o­ries

Hindustan Times (Chandigarh) - Estates - - HT ESTATES -

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.

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