When David J. Shorten got the call that a ram skull was found during a room renovation at the Benjamin Nye Homestead museum in East Sandwich, he thought it made sense that farm animal remains would be found on a 17th century property, the executive director said.
The skull, found tucked beneath the floorboards of a first floor room in June, was likely placed when the home was constructed in 1678 by the original homeowner, Benjamin Nye, to act as a talisman—a magical item meant to ward off evil spirits and protect the home, Dr. Shorten said.
“At first sight, you think ‘it was a farm, this is livestock’ but the person doing the work is a historical archaeologist and he said ‘no, you can tell that this animal was not butchered for meat,” Dr. Shorten said. “The animal remains were placed as a boundary underneath the home to protect the home from evil demons, witches and fairies.”
Talismans were used widely in New England by 17th century Puritans, Dr. Shorten said.
According to a dissertation published by Cynthia Kay Riley Augé in 2013 about archaeology and magic in New England between 1620 and 1725, historical archaeologists often found these magical material culture items but misidentified them, Ms. Augé wrote.
This dissertation, which Dr. Shorten found when researching Puritan magic culture, is centered around New England house museums throughout the Cape and the South Shore that hold magical properties.
It became the basis of the research used to explain the ram skull and two other talismans found during renovations.
Also found were two coins underneath two separate doorways and a carving of a daisy wheel, a simple geometric shape combining circles and triangles, in the northwest corner of the house beneath floorboards, Dr. Shorten said. Both are meant to ward off spirits and protect the household. Both of these talismans were generally associated with the women of a household, so in the case of the East Sandwich homestead, they were presumably placed by Mr. Nye’s wife, Katherine Tupper.
“Magical belief and practice were integral factors influencing daily decision-making regarding personal safety, identity and interrelationships in the 17th century,” Ms. Augé wrote. “Power was attributed to symbols, images, decorations, objects, places or practices that serve to protect from the harm of other worldly beings and immaterial spirits.”
The ram skull will be on display at the Nye Museum throughout the summer as part of “The 17th Century World of Benjamin Nye and Katherine Tupper” exhibit, which showcases three main focuses: the architectural, material and industrial lifestyle of an individual Puritan couple living in New England.
The display features remains of original building materials hewn in the 17th century, imported goods the family possessed, original fragments of pottery and iron and the industrial usage of the original grist mill.
“When it comes to the 1600s, there’s only so many ways you can learn about the personal lives of two individuals who lived in the town of Sandwich,” Dr. Shorten said. “These three focuses enabled us to gain new insights about their world.”