This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Nearly 200 ceramic and glass jars, jugs, bottles and vials containing bent nails and pins, bits of fabric, human hair, fingernail clippings, and other unusual artifacts, have been reported in England and the United States (Becker 2005; Hoggard 2004). Known as witch bottles, they represent a form of sympathetic magic intended to counter the harmful spell of a suspected witch or to protect a household from evil and misfortune.
THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF WITCHCRAFT AND SYMPATHETIC MAGIC
WITCH BOTTLES IN THE ORAL AND WRITTEN RECORD
Accounts of witch bottles are common in both England and the United States from the 17th century onward, appearing in witchcraft trial proceedings, printed sermons and essays, and collections of folklore.
The Holywell Witch Bottle, an English example of a 17th century Bellarmine jar that contained 60 bent pins (Museum of London).
The earliest known examples of witch bottles date to the mid‐16th century when witchcraft and magic were a part of everyday life (Merrifield 1955, 1987). Historians have generally assumed that belief in witchcraft in both Europe and the United States gradually declined in the 18th century, disappearing with the emergence and spread of the Enlightenment (Becker 1978:2). However, there is evidence to suggest that the practice continued much longer that previously realized, and in some areas is still alive and well even today.
DEPARTMENT OF ANTHROPOLOGY
M. CHRIS MANNING
AMERICAN WITCH BOTTLES
HOW DID THEY WORK?
Only a handful of examples of witch bottles have been documented in the United States, the earliest dating to the mid‐18th century. Although there are many parallels, American witch bottles differ from English examples in that they are all glass bottles or vials instead of stoneware jugs. Those that have been identified to date have all been found in the New England or Mid‐Atlantic regions, with the exception of a possible example from Kentucky (Barber 2006; Davis, pers. comm. 2011). Archaeologist Marshall Becker was the first to identify a witch bottle in the United States, later reporting five additional examples that had largely gone unpublished (Becker 1978, 2005). In recent years, two more examples of potential witch bottles have been excavated (Barber 2006; King 1996), although not everyone is convinced that these latest cases are indeed witch bottles (Becker, pers. comm. 2011).
In his 1684 sermon against so‐called ‘white magic,’ Increase Mather wondered “How persons that shall unbewitch others by putting Urin into a Bottle [. . .] can wholly clear themselves from being witches” (Mather 1684:269). Seven years later his son, Cotton Mather, also expressed his disapproval of the “Urinary experiment” in which “the Urine must be bottled with Nails and Pinns, and such Instruments in it as carry a Shew of Torture with them, if it attain its End” (Mather 1691, quoted in Godbeer 1992:44).
Increase Mather’s Illustrious Providences (1684).
Witch bottles can be recognized by their unusual contents—generally a combination of pins, needles and nails, or less frequently, other sharp objects such as thorns, shards of glass, and splinters of wood. Along with sharp objects, witch bottles usually contain elements conducive to sympathetic or image magic, including human hair, fingernail clippings and urine. On occasion, a heart‐shaped piece of felt, fabric or leather pierced with pins and needles has also been found.
ESSINGTON WITCH BOTTLE, TINICUM ISLAND, DELAWARE COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA
The Essington witch bottle was the first example identified in the United States (Becker 1978). It is described as a “squat, dark olive green” wine bottle dated to 1740‐50, containing six brass pins and tightly sealed with a whittled wood stopper (Becker 1978, 2005). The bottle was found during the excavation of a mid‐17th century structure occupied by an English family during much of the 18th century, when it is believed the bottle was deposited (Becker 1978). The bottle was found in an inverted position in a small hole dug near the base of a chimney. In addition to the bottle, a sherd of black‐glazed redware and the long bone of a bird (possibly a partridge) were also found in the feature, directly under the shoulder of the bottle. In addition, Becker (1978, 2005) has suggested that at one time the bottle also contained urine and a felt heart long since decayed or evaporated, although physical evidence is inconclusive.
In the first decades of the 20th century, American folklorists collected numerous accounts of the continued use of witch bottles and similar magical objects. Puckett (1926) recorded a method for curing someone who is conjured. The African American informant described how an afflicted person could “get nine needles, nine brass pins, and nine hairs from your own head. Cork these up in a bottle with some of your urine and set the bottle in the back of your fireplace. [. . .] When the bottle bursts, all your ailments will leave you” (Puckett 1926:299). Hyatt (1935) recorded a similar account from a German American informant in Adams County, Illinois: “We had a neighbor who we thought was bewitching my son. So I took a bottle and got a paper of pins and put them in the bottle, then put my urine in and cork the bottle up and put it down in the cellar in a dark place. And sure enough, that neighbor came to our house with her face all full of little pinholes. And my son got well after that” (Hyatt 1935:544).
21ST CENTURY ADAPTATIONS
From documentary evidence we know how witch bottles were both constructed and used. When someone experienced unexplained illness or misfortune, witchcraft Bellarmine witch bottle and contents, was often suspected. To cure the afflicted, the necessary found in the mud of the Thames River, ingredients were put inside a bottle that was then tightly London (Merrifield 1955). sealed and placed in a hot fireplace. As the contents of the bottle simmered, the witch responsible for attacking the unfortunate victim would experience excruciating pain and have trouble urinating. If the bottle exploded (as it often did), the witch would be instantly killed. To induce a slower death, the bottle could be buried, preferably near the hearth where the heat of the fire would continue to warm the contents, thereby amplifying the pain.
MARKET STREET WITCH BOTTLE, PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA
In 1981, during excavations at the Market Street Site in downtown Pittsburgh, an American‐made, free‐blown, aquamarine glass bottle was excavated from the bottom of a brick‐lined cistern. The bottle was tightly sealed with a cork and contained “a murky fluid” that might have been urine as well as two fabric shoe insole patterns wrapped up inside a roughly triangular or heart‐shaped piece of felt pierced with nine brass pins and three needles (Alexandrowicz 1986; Becker 2005:19‐20). The pins had stamped heads, a process patented in 1824, which dates the bottle to the first half of the 19th century. The presence of the shoe insole patterns is particularly interesting, as there is evidence that shoes served a magical or apotropaic function in both England and the United States (Merrifield 1987). Becker, however, has suggested “that the victim of the bewitchment may have had some type of foot disorder, possibly with bilateral symptoms, and attempted to use these patterns as a means of counteracting its effect” (Becker 2005:19).
Essington Witch Bottle (top), the wood stopper and four pins found inside, and an associated redware sherd and bird bone (bottom) (Becker 1978, 2005).
In the United States, the English tradition of witch bottles as counter‐magic appears to have merged with African religious and magical traditions. Hoodoo, a syncretic belief system incorporating elements from both African and European sources, was (and appears to still be) widely practiced in the South, particularly among Black Americans. It appears that conjure bottles “took the place of malevolent conjure bags in some areas, particularly those settled by the English” (Anderson 2005:61). The contents of conjure bottles are adapted to a wide variety of magical functions and frequently contain “typically African elements such as hot red pepper powder, graveyard dirt, and/or goofer dust, plus a piece of paper containing the intended victim’s name” (Yronwode 2000). Furthermore, modern or ‘New Age’ witches—those who subscribe to the Wicca faith— construct bottle spells in a similar fashion. In the case of both hoodoo and Wicca assemblages, the term witch bottle is not be appropriate and the more general terms of conjure bottle, bottle spell or bottle charm are preferable.
LEWES BOTTLE, DELAWARE
In the 1960s, a glass bottle containing pins was excavated at the site of a colonial Dutch fort, from an intrusive pit feature believed to be associated with the doorway of a more recent farmhouse. The bottle and its contents are not described in the original report, but Becker (2005) dates the bottle to 1700‐50. Unfortunately, no other details are available concerning this example, as it was not well documented at the time of excavation.
Data based on a survey of 187 witch bottles, approximately half of which had no associated contents (Hoggard 2004).
A survey of English witch bottles conducted by Hoggard (2004) reveals that among bottles with known contents (about half of the sample), 90% contained iron pins or nails, suggesting they are a good indicator of this artifact type. In addition, witch bottles are frequently found in an inverted position, buried under or near hearths and chimneys, or under thresholds, walls, and foundations. Merrifield (1955) has also observed that in certain parts of England, witch bottles were regularly deposited in rivers, streams, and ditches as well as in churchyards.
COVE LANDS CHARM, PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND
A small, hand blown clear glass medicine vial containing six straight pins was recovered from the site of an early 19th century building near Providence, Rhode Island. The vial has been dated to 1780‐1820 and is probably associated with an earlier structure that once stood on the site (Becker 2005:18).
HORN POINT WITCH BOTTLE, DORCHESTER COUNTY, MARYLAND
During excavations at a mid‐19th or early 20th century tenant house site on Maryland’s Eastern shore, the broken neck of an olive green glass wine bottle dating to the mid‐18th century was recovered. Part of the stopper still remained in the bottle and a total of 17 nickel‐plated copper pins, both straight and bent, were stuck into both the inside and outside surfaces of the cork (Becker 2005:17‐18; Morehouse 2009).
Bottle charms continue to be made today and provide an interesting comparison to historic witch bottles (Yronwode 2000). In 1988, a small plastic medicine bottle containing a halfpenny, a dime, teeth, a wrapped piece of metal, and a small vial of Written spell found inside a plastic bottle charm recovered from oil was found on the banks of England’s Louisiana’s Vermilion River (left); modern plastic bottle charm recovered from the Thames River (right). Thames River (Powell 2008). In Ontario, Canada, a police officer apprehended a man in possession of a plastic bottle containing urine and razor blades, “for protection from bad people” (Andrews 2009), while in Louisiana more than four dozen brown plastic prescription bottles filled with powder and written spells have been recovered from the Vermilion River (Blanchard 2004).
Line drawing of the Market Street Witch Bottle and its contents, including a heart‐shaped piece of felt pierced with pins and needles, and two fabric shoe insole patterns (Alexandrowicz 1986).
GREAT NECK WITCH BOTTLE, VIRGINIA BEACH, VIRGINIA
OPENING AN ENGLISH WITCH BOTTLE
In 2004, a sealed salt‐glazed ceramic Bellarmine jug was excavated from a site in Greenwich, London. Because the Greenwich example was recognized as a witch bottle early on, researchers were able to conduct extensive analysis in laboratory conditions, the first such witch bottle to be studied in this way.
In 1979, a small, narrow, light green glass medicine vial was discovered at the edge of a cliff near the site of a 17th‐ century structure at Virginia Beach. The vial, dated to 1690‐1750, was found buried in an inverted position and contained approximately 25 brass pins and at least three iron nails fused together by oxidation. There also appeared to be a light amber‐colored film in the lower portion of the vial that was interpreted as human urine but was never tested due to contamination during initial cleaning (Becker 2005:18; Painter 1980).
PATUXENT POINT SITE (18CV271), CALVERT COUNTY, MARYLAND
During salvage excavations at an early colonial site in Calvert County, Maryland, occupied from 1658‐1680, a pit feature was found to contain “the remains of four glass case bottles which appear to have been placed in the pit in an inverted or near‐inverted position” (King 1996:27). In addition to hundreds of fragments of bottle glass, the pit also contained the remains of three iron nails, a pig’s pelvic bone, the lower jaw bone of a possum or raccoon, and an oyster shell and chert flake (both believed to be redeposited prehistoric artifacts). The unique nature of the pit deposit has been noted, and—based on the inverted position of the bottles, the presence of iron nails and “two unusual animal bones,” as well as the feature’s location near a domestic structure—it has been proposed that the artifacts represent the remains of four witch bottles (King 1996:28). As King (1996) admits, however, there is no indication of many of the usual contents of a witch bottle such as pins or other sharp objects, a felt heart, human hair or nail clippings, or urine. As a result, some archaeologists have expressed doubt that these are indeed the remains of witch bottles (Becker, pers. comm. 2011). If the deposit does represent one or more witch bottles, they would be the earliest known examples in the United States.
X‐rays, CT scans, and gas chromatography analysis showed the bottle contained nails and pins and was partially filled with liquid. Furthermore, the position of the oxidized nails and pins in the neck of the bottle suggested it had been buried in an inverted position. Upon opening the bottle, it was found to include eight bent brass pins, twelve iron nails, ten fingernail clippings from a well‐manicured hand (suggesting higher social status), a piece of heart‐shaped leather pierced with a bent nail, human hair, ‘navel fluff,’ and human urine (which chemical analysis showed contained traces of nicotine). There was also chemical evidence of ‘brimstone’ or sulfur in the bottle (Geddes 2009; Pitts 2009).
X‐ray image and partial contents of the Greenwich Witch Bottle (Geddes 2009).
Broken bottle neck with straight and bent pins from the Horn Point Witch Bottle, Maryland (left) (Morehouse 2009); line drawing of the Great Neck Witch Bottle and pins from Virginia Beach, Virginia (right) (Painter 1980).
ARMSTRONG FARMSTEAD (15FA185), FAYETTE COUNTY, KENTUCKY
Salvage excavations at the Armstrong Farmstead in Kentucky recovered a small, hand‐blown glass medicine vial, sealed with a cork, with four straight pins inside. The bottle, which was dated to 1810‐50, is associated with a small structure and is described as “very unique” (Barber 2006:16‐4). Although it is not identified as a possible witch bottle in the official report, an archaeologist who reviewed the report recognized the similarity to known examples (Davies, pers. comm. 2010; Davis, pers. comm. 2011). Furthermore, ten additional pins were found by the entrance to another structure at the site (Davis, pers. comm. 2011). At least one of the pins from the site (although not necessarily from the entrance) was purposefully bent into a unique circular or ‘whorl’ shape. Although the bent pin appears in a photo in the report, no discussion of the pin or its location appear elsewhere in the report. Other relevant items excavated from the site that are not discussed in the report but which might indicate the presence of folk magic include a Catholic medallion and a pierced silver coin (Davis, pers. comm. 2011).
Alexandrowicz, J. Stephen 1986 The Market Street Witch Bottle, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Proceedings of the Symposium on Ohio Valley Urban and Historic Archaeology IV:117‐ 132. Anderson, Jeffrey E. 2005 Conjure in African American Society. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge. Andrews, Mark E. 2009 Bottles and blades. British Archaeology 108 (September/October). Electronic document, http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba108/letters.shtml, accessed April 19, 2011. Barber, Jennifer L. 2006 Phase II and III Archaeological Excavations at the Armstrong Farmstead (15Fa185), Fayette County, Kentucky. Report on file with Cultural Resource Analysts, Inc., Lexington, Kentucky. Becker, Marshall J. 1978 An Eighteenth Century Witch Bottle in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 48(1‐2):1‐11. 2005 An Update on Colonial Witch Bottles. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 75(2):12‐23. Blanchard, Kevin 2004 Bottles of hoodoo taken from Vermilion River. The Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), September 3. Geddes, Linda 2009 London’s magical history uncorked from ‘witch bottle’. NewScientist (June 4). Electronic document, http://www.newscientist.com/article/ dn17245‐londons‐magical‐history‐uncorked‐from‐witch‐bottle.html, accessed September 15, 2009. Godbeer, Richard 1992 The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England. Cambridge University Press, New York. Hoggard, Brian 2004 The archaeology of counter‐witchcraft and popular magic. In Beyond the Witch Trials: Witchcraft and Magic in Enlightenment Europe, edited by Owen Davies and Willem de Blecourt, pp. 167‐186. Manchester University Press, New York. Hyatt, Harry Middleton 1935 Folk‐Lore from Adams County, Illinois. Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, New York. King, Julia A. 1996 The Patuxent Point Site. In Living and Dying on the 17th Century Patuxent Frontier, Julia A. King and Douglas H. Ubelaker, editors, pp. 15‐46. Maryland Historical Trust Press, Crownsville. Mather, Increase 1684 An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences. Merrifield, Ralph 1955 Witch‐bottles and Magical Jugs. Folk‐Lore 66 (March):195‐207. 1987 The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. New Amsterdam, New York. Morehouse, Rebecca 2009 Witch Bottle. Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum, Maryland Department of Planning. Electronic document, http://www.jefpat.org/ CuratorsChoiceArchive/2009CuratorsChoice/Aug2009‐WitchBottle.html, accessed April 17, 2011. Painter, Floyd 1980 An Early 18th Century Witch Bottle. Chesopiean 18(6): 62‐71. Pitts, Mike 2009 Urine to Navel Fluff: The First Complete Witch Bottle. British Archaeology 107(July/August). Electronic document, http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ ba107/news.shtml, accessed September 15, 2009. Powell, Nicky 2008 The Holywell witch‐bottle. Museum of London. Electronic document, http://www.museumoflondonarchaeology.org.uk/News/Archive/News08/ witchbottle.htm, accessed April 19, 2011. Puckett, Newbell Niles 1926 Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill. Yronwode, Catherine 2000 Witch Bottles: Hoodoo and British. The Arcane Archive. Electronic document, http://www.arcane‐archive.org/occultism/magic/folk/ hoodoo/witch‐bottles‐hoodoo‐and‐british‐1.php, accessed March 14, 2011.
Suspected witch bottle and associated artifacts from the Patuxent Point Site, Maryland (left) (King 1996); glass medicine vial containing four straight pins, and an unusual ‘whorled’ pin, both excavated from the Armstrong Farmstead, Kentucky (right) (Barber 2006).
I am indebted to the following individuals: Dr. Mark Groover, Dr. Colleen Boyd and Dr. Ron Hicks, for serving on my thesis committee; Dr. Marshall Becker, for his insightful correspondence on American witch bottles; Dan Davis, for first recognizing the Armstrong witch bottle and providing important details on the find; Kevin Cupka‐Head and Dr. Owen Davies, who helped track down the Armstrong Farmstead site report; and fellow researchers Brian Hoggard and Megan Springate, for their continued professional support and encouragement.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?