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Two Chess Pieces were Found Hidden in a Barn to Protect Against Evil Spirits

James Hoare

Two 19th century chess pieces discovered hidden in an English barn were most likely placed there as a protective charm, reports local newspaper Skegness Standard.

The two pieces, a queen and a bishop which date from around 1850, were hidden in a wooden beam in the barn, which is located in the rural town of Burgh le Marsh, Lincolnshire.

Once a remote area rich with tales of sorcery and spirits, the village is three miles inland from the port of Skegness and was situated in — as the name suggests — marshland prior to it being drained for farming in the 18th century.

Burgh-le-Marsh, Lincolnshire, England. Photo by Richard Croft CC BY-SA 2.0

Burgh-le-Marsh, Lincolnshire, England. Photo by Richard Croft CC BY-SA 2.0

Archaeologist Dr Adam Daubney, from Lincolnshire County Council, said: “This is such an interesting discovery. We know that in the 1800s, people used to place artefacts at boundaries and thresholds of properties to help ward off evil spirits. These tended to be things like shoes, miniature bibles or mummified cats. We haven’t seen chess pieces before.”

The chess pieces are made from either crushed stone or plaster of Paris, and coated in resin to give them a smooth decorative surface. Dr Daubney explained to the Skegness Standard that they were discovered by the barn’s current owners during a recent renovation.

“The pieces were found in the beam which was over the main access point of the barn, so I think these have been purposely selected and placed to help keep the occupiers and their livestock safe. It seems likely that the praying Bishop and Queen — the latter which might have served the role of Mary – were carefully selected from the chess set as pieces that might have particular spiritual power to ward off evil.”

Concealed objects such as shoes, witch bottles, written charms, and bones, have been found across the British Isles, many dating from the period of the Witch Trials in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were believed to have protective properties — proving that faith in the protective powers of magical charms was just as strong as the fear of the malign powers of witches.

Witch Trials

Witch Trials

Speaking to The Vintage News, Brian Hoggard, a researcher into concealed charms and countermagic, noted that objects in barns were unusual, but barns were just as likely to be protected as the family home.

“In barns we tend to find protection marks [carved into beams] more often than objects,” said Hoggard. “Livestock were routinely protected, as were people, property and food! Everything was protected to be honest.”

Just as the practice of hiding objects around a property to keep the powers of darkness at bay predated the mass moral panic of the Early Modern witch trials, it survived it too.

Tituba Teaching the First Act of Witchcraft

Tituba Teaching the First Act of Witchcraft

The Witchcraft Act of 1735 officially ended witch hunting in Great Britain by making it a crime to both to practice witchcraft or to claim someone had magic powers. This criminalized people who accused others of witchcraft, as well as people who claimed to be witches, but it didn’t mean the fear of crones dishing out curses disappeared as if by, er, magic.

“Belief in witchcraft in the 19th century was still very strong,” explained Hoggard. “Literature was also introducing people to other supernatural ideas too. Look at the work of William Paynter from Cornwall (skillfully revived by Jason Semmens), clear witchcraft beliefs at the turn of the 20th century.”

Though admitting he’s not familiar with the Burgh le Marsh chess pieces beyond the news report, Hoggard offers an alternative explanation for the choice of the bishop and queen chess pieces — they weren’t necessarily representing religious authority, but acted as supernatural “bait.”

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“We need to think of them as anthropomorphic figures. Often the use of anthropomorphic objects is to work as a decoy, to lure the dark forces to attack them rather than the occupants.”

Brian Hoggard maintains a database of concealed objects at www.apotropaios.co.uk, and his forthcoming book Magical House Protection: The Archaeology of Counter-Witchcraft will be available on April 1, 2019 from Berghanhn Books.