Is there truly such a thing as the cursed archaeological discovery? Can old objects that are recovered have latent sinister properties contained by burial, only to be unleashed simply by being found? As an archaeologist I tend not to think about this too hard as my job involves trying to find old things that have been buried by accident or design. If I actually believed in curses my job would be that much more difficult. If curses were actually real then my life would be that much more difficult.
The curse is something of a trope in archaeology, and the object of jokey conversations on many excavations I have been on. I’ve been involved in rites carried out before excavations. I’ve seen ceremonies take place at the end of digs just as things are being covered up again. Different motivations underpinned these events, although I can’t say I took many of them that seriously.
Often we leave things behind on excavations, to be buried with the remnants of the site, from whisky bottles, to coins, to other things which are best left unsaid until after I am either retired or dead. These structured deposits mirror practices that we often find archaeological evidence for, but part of the motivation is also surely to put something back in compensation for what we have taken away.
Archaeologists are a superstitious-curious lot in general, but the famous curses we hear about are driven by popular culture. The most famous example being the ‘curse of the mummy’ or ‘curse of the pharaohs‘, part of a phenomenon that Jasmine Day called ‘mummymania‘. This dates back to the nineteenth century (BC), very much a Victorian concoction, as John J Johnston, and others, have noted.
Yet there seems something strangely illogical about the whole concept of ‘the curse of Tutankhamen’ where a whole bunch of people apparently died, some of whom were old, and others bitten by insects in hot sweaty places (I don’t mean armpits). A dog was heard to howl. All of this over a fairly extended period of time. It is the archaeological equivalent of the ‘curse of Dad’s Army’, where old people playing the parts of old men died within a decade or two of the show being made. It is reminds of me of an amusing running joke in Private Eye where aged celebrities who make it as far as their tenth decade eventually die and join the ’94 club’.
Mummy curses largely belong to the popular culture of films, books, and computer games. But underlying them are real archaeological discoveries (albeit it often found under questionable colonial circumstances) including, lest we forget, dead bodies. Regardless of what happened to their guts and brains post-mortem.
What of another, slightly less famous archaeological curse, that associated with the celebrated Hexham Heads. This is the third is a series of four blogs I am writing on these little buggers, having already explored their discovery, scientific analysis, supernatural associations, and their mysterious disappearance in part 1 and part 2. Some who handled and possessed these objects between 1971 and 1978 believed them to be cursed.
In this third installment, I want to report on my own engagements with the story of the Heads. Nothing original, all that I have done has been done before by others, but I wanted to bring an archaeological sensibility to the process, in part in preparation for a paper I am working on around the topic of cursed material culture. Here, then, I’ll report on my brief chats with archaeologists who were around the Newcastle Museum of Antiquities and archaeology department in the 1970s, some archive research, and finally my cursed fieldwork to the place where the Heads were found.
As of yet, there have been no werewolf (or weresheep) incidents at my home. As of yet.
The archaeology of the Hexham Heads
For the time being, let’s treat the Hexham Heads as a pair of archaeological artefacts. What can we say about them?
They form a small assemblage of archaeological material, both of similar enough form to suggest some kind of typological relationship. They are two spherical objects made of stone-like material, and carved with roughly human physiognomy.
The circumstances of discovery is well documented although of questionable reliability. They were found during an impromptu ‘excavation’ in a suburban back garden by two children in 1971 and thus could be said to have no secure context, but some sort of provenance. They were quickly handed in to the authorities by the finders, and spent a period of time in the care of museum experts and academics, during which they underwent various episodes of invasive sampling. The results of these investigations were contradictory, and during the period of analysis, competing claims about the manufacture and taphonomy of the Heads were made in the media. Nonetheless Dr Anne Ross had the Heads drawn, and they were duly published in a paper on Celtic heads in the journal Archaeoligia Aeliana (with that illustration reproduced in full above). This paper acknowledged the problematic nature of these heads in terms of where they came from and when they were made.
Anne Ross had published on this general topic before, and it could be argued was pre-disposed to be credulous where the Hexham Heads were concerned.
Somehow the Heads ended up being taken to Southampton University, where some of the aforementioned analysis took place. The Heads were then passed onto a scientist, Don Robins, for further investigation of a non-conventional manner. Once this private research was concluded, the Heads subsequently went missing after they came into the possession of a psychic in 1978.
During this period, the Heads were connected to a series of paranormal events.
What happened to them while they were in the Newcastle Museum of Antiquities in the early 1970s? I was fortunate enough to be able to speak to, and correspond, with an archaeologist who dealt with the Heads during this period, Roger Miket.
Despite being photographed by the media in 1974 (really? not sure about the timeline here) clutching the Heads, Roger has little memory of them. (This photo was taken before the Heads were apparently passed back to the Robson family, the finders, see archive discussion below.) Miket did have access to them for a while, and also visited Rede Avenue to see where they were found. For at least some of the period between 1971 and 1974, the Heads were in the keeping of Anne Ross and so not always in Newcastle. Roger concluded, “I was personally very skeptical of the stories attached to them, and never felt anything of a mysterious nature, and certainly not anything malevolent.”
Another archaeologist who was around the Museum and archaeology department in the 1970s is Lindsay Allison-Jones, although she personally did not actually handle or even see them. She told me however that some time later she emailed the (now defunct?) band The Hexham Heads about why they chose that name which suggests a lingering curiosity if nothing else.
Paul Screeton carried out a more extensive interview with Allison with excerpts in his 2012 book The quest for the Hexham Heads.
Digging into the archives
Both Roger and Lindsay suggested I contact Andrew Parkin at the Great North Museum, Newcastle, which now has the archives of the old museum of Antiquities. He kindly scanned and sent me everything in their files appertaining to the Hexham Heads. This file has in the past (I presume) been consulted by Paul Screeton, who reproduced various letters and newsclippings I was sent in Quest for the Hexham Heads.
The documents in this file include a series of 20 letters, notes, and memos, documenting back and forth between the museum staff, academics, the finders of the Heads (the Robsons) and the alleged maker of the heads (Des Craigie). Correspondence includes letters to, or from, Roger Miket, Anne Ross, David Smith (museum director), and DA Robson, one of the scientists who examined the little rascals. Theses documents cover the period 29th October 1971 to 8th April 1975.
Also included were two newsclipping from 1972 (from the Evening Chronicle and Journal) and two Fortean Times articles from 2012, the latter suggesting that the file was at least at that point in time being actively maintained.
Other ephemera include the original version of the Screeton book (Tales of the Hexham Heads) as 10 pdfs, although you can now download this as one convenient pdf from the Hexham Heads blog. A copy of a book section in some kind of mysteries encyclopedia where H is for HH was also appended.
Finally, two key analytical reports were in the file: the pivotal one by DA Robson which argues that the Heads were made of cement, and a more credulous earlier summary written by F Hodson in 1972 that suggested a geological origin for the material that the Heads were made from. Both are discussed in my previous blog post on this matter and are in the public domain.
The earliest letter is the first communication sent to Anne Ross, in other words the first she would have heard about the discovery of the Heads. The letter, from Miket, ends with a handwritten note that the Heads were packed and sent, presumably to Ross, on 25th November 1971.
Also of note in the file, is a letter from Mrs Robson in March 1975 asking for the Heads to be returned to her sons, as they were keen to have them back. The Museum had been keen to return them for some time, having concluded that they were of modern origin. The following month, a letter was sent by David Smith to Des Craigie saying tests had concluded, the Heads had been returned to the Robsons, and that the file was now closed. Typical of the confusion and coincidence that hovers around the Hexham Heads like bees around the Candyman is the note in the letter about the Robson family and analysis by Dr Robson.
What happened next? The archive trail stops here and further confusion has been sown by the above letter. Screeton notes that the Heads were indeed returned to the Robson’s via Prospect House, Hexham (Quest, pg 75). There are still some dots to be joined here however because Screeton also notes that in 1977 Anne Ross said that the Heads were in Southampton with one of the geologists who had sampled them two years earlier and that they had been in a box there for years. Don Robins (not Robson, do keep up!) got his hands on them on 21st September of that year (pg 82) and the rest, as they say, is mystery.
The contradictory nature of historical records is not unusual, and suggests actions and words were not necessarily aligned in this paper trail. There is no way to resolve how the Heads were both in Newcastle being returned to the Robsons while at the same time were in a box in Southampton.
The complex timeline of the movement of the Heads between 1975 and 1978 is captured nicely in the Hexham Heads blog in a tour de force of parallel alternative histories. Four possible sequences of possession are postulated, depending on when the Heads were actually made, and what happened in the pivotal spring of 1975 when the Heads had their Sliding Doors moment. This is ‘Sequence 2’ which presupposes the Heads were indeed genuine ancient objects found by the Robsons and ended up in Southampton, never being returned to the family.
“Sequence 2 (the chain begins at the top and each name passes to the name underneath, [being the handiwork of James Fisher])
- Colin and Leslie Robson
- Betty Gibson
- Professor Richard Bailey
- Barbara Harbottle
- Roger Miket
- Peter Moth
- Dr Douglas Robson
- Anne Ross
- Frank Hodson
- Anne Ross
- Don Robins
- Frank Hyde”.
All of this begs the question as to how many heads there actually were, and which variants Don Robins / the Robsons were actually given…
There seem to have been a lot of Heads knocking about at this time. Des Craigie, when attempting to demonstrate he made these little ugly objects knocked one up for the media. Newsclippings in the Hexham Heads file include this story dated to 3rd March 1972, from The Evening Chronicle, with the wonderful headline ‘Terror from the Celtic mists’.
The story tells of Ann [sic] Ross’s plans to excavate in the garden at Rede Avenue, it being a possible ‘Celtic burial ground’. Ross makes a direct connection between the presence of such a shrine and the supernatural. Here also the story notes that Colin Robson had been making creepy clay heads at school before his big discovery. Occam’s razor and all that…
The same claim is made in the above cutting, also in the collection, from the Journal at the same time.
As archaeological objects, the Hexham Heads pose more questions than they provide answers. Their origin, discovery method, materiality, chain of ownership, and current whereabouts are unclear. Frankly this is all a bit suspicious if we are to regard these as anything other than modern curios. There are issues of authenticity, honesty, and motivation, that all render these deeply problematic objects. And that is before the curse is taken into consideration.
If Anne Ross planned fieldwork, then perhaps so should I, although excavation seemed a bit over the top.
I first tried to document a visit to Rede Avenue back in March 2013. On a fieldtrip with Honours students to northern England, I left the team at Hexham Abbey and briskly walked the 15 minutes or so it took to get to the house where the Heads had been found 40 years earlier. After a detour to a nice toilet in M&S I headed through a car park, up some stairs, and walked the few minutes towards the familiar house, number 3. There followed some discrete photography of the house and street signs, and some careful peering through a hedgerow into the back garden where the Heads were found.
On my walk back to meet up with the students, I went down a very narrow alley connecting a car park with Priestpopple (an actual street name) past some warehouses. Daubed on one wall was a cartoonish round face, a head looking back at me in Hexham. A coincidence?
I met the students at The Grapes pub. This establishment features in Paul Screeton’s book about the Hexham Heads because apparently it is haunted. He featured a salacious story about the ghost’s nefarious activities.
On the occasion of that visit, no hauntings or further incidents occurred, and I had a pleasant pint in the shadow of a slot machine, possibly one of those ones with the head of Noel Edmonds on it, glaring out with Iron Age inscrutability. Then we decamped and headed onto some Roman site nearby.
A few years later when I was starting to blog about the Heads, I went back to my archives and could not find any photos from this visit. I had the photos of the abbey visit itself and the Roman site afterwards, but the Rede Avenue images were missing. Cursed!
It took me six years to make it back. In the area to make some mediocre Neolithic-style pottery with Potted History Graham Taylor, I decided to take the chance and make the pilgrimage again although this time Jan came with me to take the photos. I wasn’t taking any chances this time. Especially as I had forgotten a power cable for my phone and so I could not take any pics. Even then it took ten months to retrieve the photos from the visit from the cloud, a ghostly disembodied repository.
We headed up the alleyway but the graffiti was gone, replaced by one of those muddy brown rectangles that are frequently painted over such daubings. Through the retail car park we passed (which was not pedestrian friendly lacking a pavement) and up the set of stairs out onto Wanless Lane / Loan. In turn we wound up a slight gradient to Rede Avenue. This is Hexham Head country.
We sidled up to the semi-detached house at the western end of the street, standing at the end of the drive-way. Some photos were taken of the house and surrounds, and no-one seems to have been around, or looking out through one of the many windows on the property.
As with my first visit, my only sense of unease related to lurking outside someone’s house and taking pictures of it. We looked at the back garden from whence the Heads came. But this did not feel like a cursed place to me. It had no real sense of pastness, which I do sometimes pick up when working at prehistoric sites. But in itself this is probably wishful thinking.
The end of my quest for the Hexham Heads was a disappointment, but then I think those particular objects retain a sense of mystery only when we don’t look at them too closely. Expose them to the harsh light of scrutiny, or stare directly at them, and their power withers and they become, well, frankly a bit ridiculous.
We retreated to a Wetherspoons in town that is a converted old cinema, which I must say has very spacious toilets.
A few months later we returned to Hexham, this time to see the Abbey, which had been closed in our earlier visit, which had me cursing at the time. Inside, we saw more heads, this time carvings on wooden benches, misericordia, and a fine series of stone carved figures along the side of the tomb of Rowland Leschman, Prior of the Abbey in the 1480s.
Screeton spends a lot of time looking at heads in the abbey and trying to find rude sculptures, but of course they have nothing to do with the Rede Avenue Heads. Quite a few places here did remind me though of the BBC adaptation of The stalls of Barchester.…
Heads are everywhere in Hexham. Painted heads. Wooden heads. Stone heads. Pints with great big foamy heads. Cursed heads. They should call the place Headsxham.
Do I feel cursed now that I have excavated those stone rows in Caithness, or disturbed a few prehistoric burials in my time? Have I brought certain doom and bad luck upon myself because I have reduced the Heads to archaeological objects? Should I be looking over my shoulder for mummies, were-sheep, or the ghosts of monks, or Dad’s Army cast member zombies?
Not really. I don’t look over my shoulder. Perhaps I dare not.
I have visited Rede Avenue twice, in my hunt for the tale of the Heads. Not the truth you understand. Just the story. The place. Suburbia. Mundanity coloured by an explosion of supernatural energy. Five minutes’ walk from Marks and Spencers. Ten minutes’ stroll from haunted pub The Grapes. Not much further on to ‘spoons and the Abbey. Something undeniably weird happened here almost 40 years ago……
Head hunting has its pleasures, and one of the things that strikes me as most fascinating about the HHs is that, despite their loss and uncertain origins, they have never been more accessible, more visible, more written, and spoken about. A new lease of life has been afforded the Heads as generation haunters, and this will be the subject of my final forthcoming post on this bestial pair of spheres.
Sources and acknowledgements: many thanks to Lindsay Allison-Jones, Andrew Parkin, and Roger Miket, for their help with filling in some of the archaeological and archival background. Many thanks to Jan for taking the Rede Avenue pictures in this post. Other images have been credited as appropriate in the text or below those pictures. I have never been in touch with Paul Screeton (I don’t think he likes archaeologists all that much) but I owe a debt to his book and several images that have been reproduced in this post. Information about the Leschman Screen at Hexham Abbey came from the abbey webpages. Finally, thanks to James Fisher, custodian of the Hexham Heads blog, for his help, and making material about them available freely and for all who dare to care.