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Uncovering the mythical secrets of 'witch bottles'

Ananya Jahanara Kabir
The Holywell 'witch bottle' and its contents of bent metal pins. Copyright: MOLA

A group of archaeologists and historians are setting out to 'bust the myths' surrounding 17th century 'witch bottles' and find out more about these strange artefacts and their peculiar contents as they begin the first national survey of this English phenomena and its origins.

‘Witch bottles’ is the name given to 17th century glass and stoneware vessels believed to have served as objects for ritual protection or as the containers of a ‘prepared cure’ against witchcraft.

Bottles concealed and revealed’ is a three year project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and will be the most comprehensive synthesis of evidence relating to 17th century ‘witch bottles’ to date.

The project is being led by MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) Finds Specialist Nigel Jeffries as Principal Investigator in collaboration with Co-Investigators Professor Owen Davies and Dr Ceri Houlbrook from the University of Hertfordshire, who specialise in the study of magic, witchcraft, and popular medicine.

“Witch bottles are a well-known body of material and continue to be made today,” says Nigel Jeffries. “Many have been found over the years and they are believed to be bottles that contain a cure for bewitchment”.

“If you were 'bewitched' some ingredients would be prepared, put in the bottle and then it would be placed somewhere around a building to work its own counter magic. Whilst these bottles have been found from a diverse range of historic properties over the years, or from archaeological sites, they have also been found placed by rivers, streams and ditches.

“We think - and there are historical accounts of this - that the bottles were not prepared by an individual householder, but by people who were the transmitters of medical knowledge during the early modern period, known as 'cunning folk'.

“They could be astrologers, chemists or apothecaries, and would travel around the country and make themselves available where they were needed and would have prepared these bottles as part of an understood cure. That was one of the ways in which medicine and healing was practiced in this period.”

The bottles are usually found in houses, or streams and ditches.

When the bottles have been located in buildings they are almost always found either up the chimney or buried around the hearth. It's believed that the chimney was seen at the time as somewhere that evil spirits might enter and this idea translates across northern Europe.

Ananya Jahanara Kabir
MOLA Finds Specialist Nigel Jeffries measures bent pins from inside a 'witch bottle' found during excavations at Holywell Priory. Copyright: MOLA

The bottles contain a variety of items, most often pins and nails, but occasionally animal hearts wrapped in cloth and pierced with pins, along with thorns, finger nails and even pieces of human hair and urine.

“It would be wonderful to be able to get a better understanding of how these contents relate to one another, and whether or not they are grouped, and how this relates to the transmission of medical knowledge,” says Nigel Jeffries. “Clearly the selection of the contents was not random and must reflect contemporary beliefs in some way. We would expect some patterns.

“The history of witchcraft has long fascinated the public and we hope to reposition and recalibrate our understanding about the use of these bottles as well as understand them as a national collection: where are they now, are they curated in a museum, where were they found, and what do they contain?”

“We know that they have been discovered and reported on over the past 150 years or so and are kept either in museums, archaeological archives or feature in private collections, and so it is critical we get a better sense of it as an overall resource and the origins of the practice.

“No one has done this before and so we know very little about what connects these bottles, either chronologically or geographically. Are the ones in Suffolk the same as those found in Norfolk? Or different? Why might this be?”

For example, these bottles often contained pins. But no one has looked at what these pins are or why they are often bent. Are they normal domestic pins? Are they associated with women?

The bottles themselves are always German stoneware or the later English variants, but why? What's special about this material? And does where the bottles were found relate to what was found in it?

The MOLA and University of Hertfordshire team is currently charged with unpicking and examining each element of this practice. It is hoped that the resulting publications, catalogue and datasets and the insights they reveal will benefit not just historians and archaeologists of the period, but engage and inform museum and folklore curators, as well as members of the public with a fascination for witchcraft and history.

Associated image: MOLA Finds Specialist Nigel Jeffries inspects a 'witch bottle' found during excavations at Holywell Priory. Copyright: MOLA

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