Archaeology Magazine Archive

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A look at the archaeology of Halloween, witches and witchcraft, creatures of the night, and ancient curses and magic



Uncanny archaeology springs from many roots. Today, Halloween—once All Hallows Eve, now All Saints Day—is a time for children to trick-or-treat costumed as super heroes, the latest characters invented by corporate marketing departments, or more traditionally as witches or ghosts. But some Halloween traditions are related to an ancient Celtic harvest festival, Samhain, and Celtic rituals, not all of them pleasant. In many past cultures the boundary between the living and the dead was thought to be shaky at times, as with Samhain. Those beings believed able to cross it—in spectral form as ghosts or as walking undead, such as vampires and zombies—were to be feared. Augustus' boyhood home was haunted according to Suetonius, the biographer of the caesars, but there is more than just written evidence for belief in the undead centuries ago, as vampire burials attest. And throughout history people have used love spells, protective charms, and curses to gain their ends. Were they successful? We don't know, but we have their voodoo dolls and lead tablets engraved with deadly appeals to supernatural forces. We also have the remains of witchy rituals, as well as evidence of counter-rituals intended to fend off attacks by witches. All of these beliefs have left a surprisingly strong—and often bizarre or gruesome—mark on the archaeological record. It's uncanny, but real archaeology. (Well, okay, the zombie attack in Predynastic Egypt article is a spoof.)


Halloween's Celtic Roots

Folklorist Jenny Butler talks about the Celtic feast Samhain and its relationship to Halloween, exploring how the past and present mix in the night of costumes and jack o' lanterns

Celtic Sacrifice
Grim deposits of butchered bones attest ritual slaughter by Galatians at Gordion in the 3rd century B.C. Are there connections to divination rituals and Samhain?


Exorcising a Plague Vampire
Matteo Borrini, who recently excavated an "exorcised" skull from a 16th-century grave on the Venetian island of Lazzaretto Nuovo, discusses the reality behind belief in malicious, pestilent plague vampires

The Vampire of Lesbos
Eight-inch iron spikes nail down the identification of a 19th-century vampire burial near Mytilene


Archaeology of the Undead
Zombie expert Max Brooks--author of The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From the Living Dead and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War--explains humanity's oldest struggle

Zombie Attack at Hierakonpolis
Weighing the evidence for and dating of a Solanum virus outbreak in early Egypt, archaeologist Renee Friedman and her colleagues look at clues from the past and establish protocols for containing cases in the future


Witches of Cornwall
Macabre evidence of witchcraft surfaces in an archaeologist's front yard as excavations reveal pits lined with skins of swans, and even a black cat, and filled with swan's eggs. And, in a nearby spring-fed pool lined with white quartz, a hodgepodge of offerings including part of a cauldron

An American Witch Bottle
Discovery of a mid-18th-century witch bottle in Pennsylvania proves that practicing witches traveled to the colonies from England

Opening a Witch Bottle
For the first time, a witch bottle, buried in the 17th century to ward off spells, has been opened under laboratory conditions

Fine Wine & A Piss-Poor Vintage
Two corked 17th-century wine bottles have yielded strikingly different contents

Magic & Curses

When Spells Worked Magic
In ancient times, a curse could help you win in the stadium or in the courts, and a plea addressed to a demon could bring you the woman of your dreams

Curse of the Stolen Cloak
A rare Roman-era curse tablet found in England asks that the Celtic god Maglus punish a thief

Curses of Caesarea
Why were 50 curse tablets buried at the headquarters of the Roman governor of Judea?

Curse of the Balsam Cookers
What was the secret protected by a curse inscribed on the mosaic floor of an ancient synagogue on the shores of the Dead Sea?