August 2009 Witch Bottle By: Rebecca Morehouse,
In January 1983, preceding construction of a wastewater treatment facility,
Mid-Atlantic Archaeological Research, Inc. (MAAR) conducted Phase
I and II archaeological investigations at the University of Maryland
Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies at Horn Point in
Dorchester County, Maryland. One of the sites identified during
these excavations was the White Oak site, a tenant house or possible
slave quarter, which dates to the mid-19th to early 20th centuries
(Schiek and Goodley 1984: II-17).
1: The remains of a witch bottle from the White Oak site.
A wine bottle neck (Figure 1) was recovered from a hearth or chimney
at the rear of a brick structure at the White Oak site (Schiek and
Goodley 1984: II-4). While wine bottle glass is far from uncommon
on domestic sites, this bottle neck had special significance because,
when excavated, it “contained a portion of a solid stopper into
which had been inserted, on both the inside and the outside, nickel-plated
copper straight pins” (Schiek and Thomas 1983: II-3). This collection
of objects indicated archaeologists had found the remains of a “witch
Originating in Europe several hundred years ago, witch bottles were protective
“white magic” charms used to ward off “black magic” or were used
as countermeasures to redirect an evil spell back on the conjurer.
A witch bottle, usually made using a glass bottle or ceramic jug,
was filled with urine and sharp objects, such as pins or nails,
and buried inverted at the entrance to a home or under a hearthstone
(Becker 1980: 20-21; Merrifield 1987: 163-175). Urine was the most
important ingredient in witch bottles, as it is the agent with which
the spell is turned back upon the witch (Figure 3). The sharp objects
may have been symbolic of the victim’s pain, and inverting the bottle
when buried symbolized the reversing of the witch’s black magic
(Becker 1980: 20-21).
Figure 2: A complete Bellarmine witch bottle with cork, hair, nail clippings, and a felt heart with pins found in Westminster, England and dating to the
17th century (Merrifield 1987: cover photo).
The witch bottle from the White Oak site (Figure 1) is broken and incomplete.
At some point in the past, the main body and base of the bottle
was destroyed, leaving only the bottle’s neck and lip and the pins.
Any urine that may have been present in the bottle would have been
absorbed into the surrounding soil when the bottle was broken or
it may have slowly leaked from the bottle as the sealed stopper
began to degrade. It was recovered from a layer which also contained
melted green bottle glass, bone, and a horse shoe (Schiek and Thomas
1983: II-3). Some of the bottle glass may have been part of the
original bottle and the bone and horseshoe may have been associated
with the ritual burial, as bone and iron, usually in the form of
nails, have been found with witch bottle burials from the 17th and
18th centuries in both America and England (Becker 2005: 18). Also,
in folk practice, iron in any form holds its own protective powers.
Witch bottles, like the one from the White Oak site, are evidence that
folk magic, deeply rooted in European traditions, was alive and
well, not just in the early years of the colonies, but well into
the 19th and even the 20th centuries. While such efforts may seem
amusing to us in the 21st century, witch bottles represent “the
poignant efforts of a pre-scientific era” to protect itself from
what were perceived as very real threats. (Becker 1980: 23).
way is to stop the urine of the Patient, close up in a bottle,
and put into it three nails, pins, or needles, with a little
white salt, keeping the urine always warm: if you let it remain
long in the bottle, it will endanger the witches life: for
I have found by experience that they will be grievously tormented
making their water with great difficulty, if any at all…The
reason…is because there is part of the vital spirit of the
Witch in it, for such is the subtlety of the Devil, that he
will not suffer the Witch to infuse any poysonous matter into
the body of a man or beast, without some of the Witches blood
mingled with it…”
|Figure 3: Quote from the Astrological Practice of Physick by Astrologist
Joseph Blagrave, published in London, England in 1671.
A special thanks to St. Mary’s College of Maryland student, Patrick
McKitrick, who brought the existence of this bottle to our attention
while conducting research for his St. Mary’s Project.
Becker, Marshall Joseph
1980 An American Witch Bottle. Archaeology 33 (2): 18-23.
An Update on Colonial Witch Bottles. Pennsylvania
Archaeologist 75 (2): 12-23.
1671 Astrological Practice of Physick. London.
1987 The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. London:
B. T. Batsford Limited.
Schiek, Martha J. and Ronald A. Thomas
1983 Archaeological Study for the Step II Engineering
Services at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental
Studies at Horn Point, Dorchester County, Maryland. Newark, Delaware:
Mid-Atlantic Archaeological Research,
Schiek, Martha J. and Edward C. Goodley
1984 Archaeological Site Examination: 18DO129, Dorchester
County, Maryland. Newark, Delaware: Mid-AtlanticArchaeological
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