Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Around the time of the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, belief in witchcraft also persisted in England and continental Europe. Witch bottles--small containers filled with personal items, sealed, and buried--are one way witchcraft appears in the archaeological record. The belief was that the buried bottle absorbed a spell, tormenting the witch that cast it. When they are found today, they are almost always broken or empty, but in Greenwich in 2004, workers found a rare, unopened example, a stoneware bellarmine jar. They heard rattling and splashing inside, so the bottle found its way to retired chemist Alan Massey, an old hand at examining witch bottles. It was an unusual opportunity to bring all the tools of modern science (laboratory science and high-tech elemental analysis--our own witchery!) to the study of 17th-century witchcraft.

X-rays revealed pins and nails stuck in the jar's neck (it had been buried upside-down), and a CT scan showed that it was about half-filled with liquid. Using a long needle, scientists penetrated the cork and extracted some of the brew inside. Using proton nuclear magnetic resonance and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry, they determined the contents: urine. The bodily fluid was spiked with a metabolite of nicotine, indicating a smoker, and sulfur, the hellish brimstone of the Book of Revelation. After removing the cork, and taking in what was likely a rather unpleasant smell, Massey inventoried the contents: 12 iron nails (one of which was driven through a leather heart), 8 brass pins, clumps of hair, 10 manicured fingernail clippings, and a little clot of what looked like bellybutton lint. Textual sources confirm that these were not unusual items. According to British Archaeology, where the find was first reported, a court record from 1682 documents the recommendation of an apothecary: "take a quart of your Wive's urine, the paring of her Nails, some of her Hair, and such like, and boyl them well in a Pipkin." Apparently, sometimes when you have attracted the attention of a witch, you have to get your hands dirty and resort to a little of the craft yourself.