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Mysterious objects in our collections

Close-up detail of Medusa's head at the back of the statue of Fame and Pegasus (c1705) by Andries Carpentiere, at Powis Castle, Wales
Medusa, the snake-haired creature of Greek mythology, on Andrew Carpenter's statue Fame Borne Aloft by the Winged Horse Pegasus at Powis Castle, Wales | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Many of the historic houses in our care have intriguing objects with connections to magic, mystery or death. From witch bottles to death masks and a boat made of bones, discover some of the mysterious objects in their collections.

Magic and mystery at Snowshill

The Witch's Garret

Tucked away at the top of Snowshill Manor in Gloucestershire is a secret room which is closed to the public, called the Witch's Garret. Charles Paget Wade decorated this room with a ceremonial magic circle on the floor and adorned the walls with images of male and female mandrakes, a plant closely associated with witchcraft and alchemy.

Magical and astrological objects

Wade collected many mysterious objects, including armillary spheres, witch bottles and a magician’s chest. He also designed unusual clocks, including the Nychthemeron, a 24-hour clock that features astrological and zodiac symbols, and the Unicorn clock – named after the Unicorn room at Snowshill, it features images from a Tarot pack of playing cards.

Spells and sorcery

Discover objects which tell tales of witchcraft and potions, from ancient Greece to Harry Potter.

A large metal cauldron in the middle of a room at Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire
The Witch's Cauldron at Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

A witch's cauldron? 

A large metal cauldron that's featured in the Harry Potter films dominates the Warming Room at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire. It's believed to have originally been used for cooking by the nuns, before the Abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. 

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Skulls and bones 

From curious models made of bone to quirky tobacco holders, these are just some of the unusual items in our collections.

Japanese porcelain jar and cover modelled as a skull topped by a frog, on the dresser in the Entrance Hall at Greenway, Devon
Japanese porcelain jar modelled as a skull at Greenway | © National Trust Images/Nick Guttridge

Greenway's skull 

It'll come as no surprise that you’ll find a skull at Greenway, the former Devon holiday home of the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie. Despite its realistic appearance, it’s not an actual human skull but a porcelain jar that Christie’s husband Max Mallowan used to keep his tobacco in. 

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Warding off evil spirits

Throughout history people have often looked for ways to control or prevent misfortunes and catastrophe, and events which we might now pass off as just part of life were frequently blamed on the forces of evil. Individuals or groups of people were often labelled as witches who cast spells or curses on people, property, places, crops or livestock. With belief in the powers of darkness so common, people found ingenious ways to ward off evil spirits and deeds.

A hidden talisman?

A Georgian shoe was found under the floorboards at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire. It's likely to have been deliberately placed there as it was common right up until the 20th century to hide shoes in walls, under floors and in chimneys. Many have been uncovered in recent years and the reason they were hidden is still debated, but one theory is that they were believed to protect against evil.

Witch bottles

Witch bottles are jars or bottles which contained spells that would draw malevolent magic into them, preventing evil spirits from affecting peoples’ lives. A bottle with a liquid inside was found upside down in a stone boundary wall on National Trust land on the Isle of Purbeck in 1986. It's believed it was placed there to prevent disease in the cattle that grazed the field.

The death mask of Sir Isaac Newton on the wall at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire
Sir Isaac Newton's death mask at Woolsthorpe Manor | © National Trust Images/Oskar Proctor

The grave and beyond

Death masks

In the days before photography, death masks were a way of creating a lasting, accurate likeness of a person. Wax or plaster would be spread onto the face of the corpse and left to harden. The resulting mould could then be used to cast multiple impressions of the face, such as the pewter version of Sir Isaac Newton’s visage hanging on the Study wall at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire.

A miniature coffin

A tiny oak coffin measuring 9cm x 3cm can be found at Llanerchaeron in Wales. It’s actually a snuffbox and as well as providing a quirky talking point, the shape of the box would have served as a memento mori, a reminder to the owner and to others that life is fleeting.

An Allegory of Death

An allegorical painting hangs at Nostell in West Yorkshire. Painted on copper, it depicts death as a violin-playing skeleton, standing before a rich merchant counting his money. Another skeleton can be seen approaching a customer in the background. The painting is one of many versions of the same subject by Flemish artist Frans Francken II (1581–1642).

Sevres Wine Cooler, showing nymphs worshipping the bust of Pan, from a service made for Louis XVI, dated 1792, in the Porcelain Lobby at Upton House, Warwickshire

Art and collections

We care for one of the world's largest and most significant collections of art and heritage objects. Explore the highlights, our latest major exhibitions, curatorial research and more.

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