Witch bottle is uncorked to discover spellbinding content
A fear of witchcraft prevailed in 17th-century Britain
Take a small heart-shaped piece of leather, a handful of iron nails, eight brass pins, a lock of hair, some nail clippings, a pinch of navel fluff and place them in a bottle. Then add a pint of urine, seal the bottle and bury it by your front door — this is the recipe for warding off a witch’s curse.
An analysis of the contents of the first witch bottle to be found with its cork intact has cast light on the fear of witchcraft in the 17th century.
The theory behind the witch bottle was that by placing the items and bodily fluids in a bottle, the evil spell could not only be diverted but would also rebound on the witch.
The bottle, which was found at a building site in Greenwich, southeast London, in 2004, was the first of more than 200 witch bottles discovered that still had its contents intact.
It was sent to Alan Massey, a retired chemistry lecturer from Loughborough, who has examined half a dozen witch bottles. Dr Massey said: “We threw every test we could devise at it.”
The analysis took 12 months to complete. Before the salt glaze bottle was opened, it was X-rayed and put through a CT scanner, which showed that its contents included bent iron nails and an unidentified liquid, some of which was drawn off by inserting a syringe through the cork.
Tests determined that the liquid was 300-year-old urine and traces of nicotine indicated that it had come from a smoker. The ten nail parings were examined under a microscope and were found to be those of an adult.
Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology, which has published the results of Dr Massey’s analysis, said: “From their size, they probably came from a male and they were well manicured so he was from a higher social class. It is possible that we could one day identify him from DNA analysis and the location of the discovery.”
The small leather heart was pierced by one of the iron nails. There were traces of sulphur, then known as brimstone, and what is thought to be navel fluff. The other objects may have had ritual significance or been associated with the person who filled the jar.
Mr Pitts said: “This is a relic of early modern Britain. There is documentary evidence of how people were advised to make witch bottles but this is the first that has been subjected to rigorous scientific analysis.”
Other charms placed in houses to ward off evil spirits are occasionally discovered during renovations, including children’s shoes and dead cats. The practice continued into the early 20th century.
Witch bottles are much rarer. Dr Massey believes that the bottle he examined dates from the last quarter of the 17th century.
He said: “When I first heard about witch bottles I assumed that you had to catch a witch and make her wee in it. But of course it is much easier and makes more sense to do it yourself, based on the ‘scientific theory’ behind it.”
Most witch bottles are heavy stoneware wine flagons from the Rhineland known as bellarmines after the French cardinal whose face was traditionally embossed on the neck. When the import of bellarmines ceased glass bottles were used, although fewer have survived.
Kent Archaeological Review: The Old Vicarage, Upchurch, and the Discovery of Leather Shoes by Michael Moad.