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Two corked seventeenth-century wine bottles, one found on a wreck off the coast of the Netherlands, the other in the foundation of a demolished house in England, have yielded strikingly different contents: a rare example of 350-year-old Portuguese wine, and a putrid concoction of urine and hair designed to harm witches who cast spells.


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Similar vessels, different contents: Dutch bottle, left (Courtesy NISA), yielded red wine; English bottle, right (Alan Massey), urine.

The wine, possibly the private stash of a naval officer, was recovered from a Dutch warship sunk in the Wadden Sea, a shallow sound between the North Sea and the Netherlands coast. The onion-shaped green bottle is among the oldest corked bottles ever found with its wine intact.

The wreck was investigated by the Netherlands Institute for Ship and underwater Archaeology (NISA), a government-sponsored team that since the late 1980s has been conducting surveys of the Wadden Sea to inventory the more than 500 vessels, mainly Dutch, that are thought to have sunk there. "The Wadden Sea was an enormous anchorage between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries," says Arent Vos, head of NISA's Archaeological Diving Unit.

A panel of six tasters, mostly wine journalists, convened by Dutch wine historian Lucette M. Faber, recently gathered to taste the wine. Faber said it tasted like "an old Madeira with an aroma of marmalade and nuts. I also tasted elderberry juice and saw it in the wine's pinkish color." Wines mixed with elderberry juice are known to have been made at the time in the Douro region of northeast Portugal. Chemical analysis indicated a high level of acidity that could well have been caused by the addition of the juice. Since most wines during this period were shipped in casks, and only the finest were bottled, Faber speculates that the wine belonged to one of the ship's officers.

Meanwhile, the English wine bottle, discovered in 1993 in Reigate, 20 miles south of London, and initially thought to contain wine, yielded instead a fetid liquid and nine tiny brass pins, each bent into an L-shape. The find was identified as a witch bottle, used in England between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries to protect against evil spirits and to punish witches who had cast hexes. Now chemical analysis by Alan Massey and Tony Edmonds, both of Loughborough University, has proved what folk tradition had long held: that witch bottles were full of urine. Though 200 such bottles have been recovered, almost every excavated bottle had leaked, making it impossible to identify their liquid contents.

The primary use of the bottles was counter-witchcraft, says Brian Hoggard, a Worcester University graduate student who is writing a thesis on them. Victims of spells would urinate in bottles, add pins and perhaps some hair, and then bury them under their homes, casting a vengeful curse on the witches who had injured them in the first place. "The curse was intended to make the unfortunate object of it feel as if they were weeing with a bladder full of bent pins," says Alan Massey. Hoggard maintains a website on English folk magic that, in addition to witch bottles, discusses dried cats and horse skulls (www.apotropaios.co.uk).

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