Thursday 26 November 2015

An Interview with Dr. Ceri Houlbrook

Today here at Albion Calling we have the archaeologist and folklorist Dr. Ceri Houlbrook with us (if you're not familiar with her work, check out her account here). Having completed her PhD on the subject of coin trees at the University of Manchester back in 2014, she is currently involved in a post-doctoral project examining concealed apotropaic devices in the British Isles and the ways in which they have been dealt with by those who have discovered them. We talk about her research, her new co-edited book, and her views on the intersections between folkloristics and archaeology.

Dr Houlbrook at a love-lock bridge in Prague, Czech Republic

[EDW]: Under the supervision of the archaeologist Professor Tim Insoll (who was interviewed here back in August 2014), you completed your PhD at the University of Manchester in 2014 on the topic of “Coining the Coin-Tree: Contextualising a Contemporary British custom”. Subsequently, you have published a number of research articles on the coin tree phenomenon in such peer-reviewed journals as Folklore, Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, and Post-Medieval Archaeology. What was it that led you to coin trees as an object of enquiry? Could you possibly also provide this blog’s readers with a summary of your research on this subject?

[CH]: Since doing my MA in ‘Constructions of the Sacred, the Holy and the Supernatural’ at Manchester, I’ve been interested in British folk customs – particularly how they survive, and sometimes flourish, in contemporary society. The coin-tree is just one such example of this. Although the custom of inserting coins into trees stretches back to the 1800s (maybe even the 1700s), where it was originally associated with healing rituals, it’s really only been over the last two decades that the practice has spread across the British Isles, with coin-trees popping up in all corners of the country. I was interested in asking why the 1990s and 2000s had seen such a rapid increase in the custom, and in finding out what it means to its modern-day participants. My conclusion: it means whatever its participants want it to mean, and I use coin-trees to demonstrate the malleability of folklore and the mutability of meaning. These allow customs, legends, and lore to survive their transitions into different times and places, by enabling them to adapt.

[EDW]: You are currently a Postdoctoral Research Assistant working as part of a Leverhulme-funded project titled “Inner Lives: Emotions, Identity, and the Supernatural, 1300–1900”, which is based at both the University of East Anglia and the University of Hertfordshire. Could you tell us a little bit more about this exciting new project and what your role entails?

[CH]: As you might have guessed from its title, this project, run by Prof. Malcolm Gaskill, Prof. Owen Davies, and Dr Sophie Page, is broad – both chronologically and thematically. To summarise briefly, we’re interested in examining how people historically have dealt with the cross-overs of emotions (fear, hatred, love), selfhood, and aspects of the supernatural. My strand of the project is entitled ‘The Concealed Revealed’, and I’m looking at the sorts of devices and customs people used to protect their homes from preternatural threats, from concealed shoes and mummified cats to timber markings. As well as cataloguing examples of this from across the British Isles, I’m also interested in considering what happens to them after they’re found; once the concealed has been revealed, so to speak. Are they disposed of, re-concealed, or displayed? And what does that tell us about people today and their own relationships with emotions, identity, and the supernatural?

Coin-tree in Ingleton, Yorkshire.
Image copyright Dr. Houlbrook
[EDW]: Like myself, you’ve been in attendance at the Folklore Society’s Newer Researchers conferences over the past two years and have conducted research that has crossed into the two respective fields of archaeology and folkloristics. Where do you tend to view yourself in relation to these two disciplines, and how well do you think that they work together?

[CH]: Although I’m not a huge fan of labels and pigeonholing myself, if people ask I tend to call myself a ‘folklore archaeologist’. This basically means that I use methodologies from both folklore and archaeology to gain insights into ritual practices and popular beliefs, both historical and contemporary. Take concealed shoes for example. We have no (surviving) written evidence describing the practice and therefore no explanation for why people in the 18th and 19th centuries concealed shoes within the walls, roof spaces, and fireplaces of their homes. Cue folklore archaeology: by considering oral lore surrounding shoes and the materiality of the shoes themselves, together with their liminal locations, we can at least come up with some working theories on this enigmatic practice.

[EDW]: Oxbow Books have recently brought out The Materiality of Magic: An Artifactual Investigation into Ritual Practices and Popular Beliefs, an edited volume that you co-produced with Natalie Armitage. In this volume, you also have a chapter titled “The Wishing-Tree of Isle Maree: The Evolution of a Scottish Folkloric Practice”. Could you elaborate for us on how this particular book came about?

[CH]: In 2012, Natalie Armitage and I organised a panel at the Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference entitled ‘The Materiality of Magic’. We were eager to get both the subject and word of ‘magic’ – seen as something of an academic taboo – back onto the archaeological agenda, and to illustrate how research into ritual practices and popular beliefs benefit from a material culture perspective. We were also eager to demonstrate how prevalent such practices and beliefs are across time and place, and so we invited speakers with a wide range of interest areas, ranging from Bronze Age Europe to modern-day Africa. The session was a great success and in saying that I’m not blowing my own trumpet, but that of the speakers. The fact that the session attracted such a large audience that we needed to move to a larger room is no doubt due to the fantastic papers presented and the interesting debates they sparked. Publishing the session was the logical next step; the themes we discuss and the methodologies we employ are important, so we naturally wanted to reach as large an audience as possible.

[EDW]: Are there any other projects in the pipeline that we should be keeping our eyes out for?

[CH]: My personal interest at the moment is the archaeology and heritage of love-locks. For anyone who doesn’t know what love-locks are, they’re exactly what their names suggest: padlocks employed globally in declarations of love, usually inscribed with a couple’s names and attached to a bridge. I find them fascinating for a number of reasons. Firstly, for what they reveal about the malleability of folk customs; love-rituals boast a very long history but they have to adapt in order to survive, and love-locks are the most recent – and arguably the most widespread – manifestation. Secondly, they’re incredibly useful from an archaeological perspective: studying a contemporary custom can inform how we interpret past practices. And thirdly, they reveal a lot about notions (and the subjectivity) of heritage; some cities (e.g. Paris) see love-locks as a nuisance to be discouraged and disposed of, while others (e.g. Cardiff) embrace them as part of their heritage. I’m currently applying for funding to conduct both broader and more in-depth research into this custom, but for now I’m keeping a blog ( and asking anyone with information on, pictures of, and opinions about love-locks to contact me on

[EDW]: Thank you very much Ceri, I wish you all the best with the rest of your Concealed Revealed project!

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