The Holywell witch-bottle

MOLA team

Archaeological excavations by the Museum of London Archaeology Service (MoLAS) just off Shoreditch High Street  (near Bishopsgate), as part of the East London Line project, have revealed parts of the medieval Holywell Priory amongst the remains of other buildings - as well as something a little more sinister.

A ceramic bottle was found buried in a large hole under the floor of an 18th century house. The bottle is a London stoneware vessel, dating from 1670 to about 1710. However, it is the context in which the bottle was found and what it contained that are the most important aspects of this find.

The red brick floor tiles had been removed and a large hole dug in the doorway of a basement or latrine. The bottle was then upright placed in the hole and the hole backfilled with earth. The tiles were then carefully relaid, but on a slightly different alignment, so it was clear the area had been disturbed. This ritual placing or concealing of an ordinary household object alerted the archaeologists to the probability that this was folk magic. It could be a charm or witch-bottle, used to protect and ward off evil.

The bottle was incomplete and damaged and MoLAS specialists were able to examine it and its contents. The bottle contained about 60 very fine bent copper alloy pins with wound wire heads, the remains of rusty nails and what may be a piece of wood or bone. This is in keeping with other hidden bottles that have been found containing deliberately bent pins and nails, human hair and even urine. The charm was designed to cause maximum discomfort to anyone or anything that meant harm.

The practice of protecting a building and its occupants using concealed objects (shoes, mummified cats and particularly witch-bottles), was at its height during the hysteria of the witch hunts and witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries. Whether the witch-bottle worked or not is unclear, but it is said that once the evil-doer was dead, the bottle would break. These are not uncommon finds in buildings of this period and several are known from London, including a near-complete Frechen bartmann jug from London’s Guildhall.

The practice of using charms seems to have continued to the present day, with a small plastic medicine bottle found on the Thames foreshore in 1988. It was recently opened at the Museum of London’s Archaeological Archive by conservators and found to contain a halfpenny, a dime, teeth, a wrapped piece of metal and a small bottle of what may be oil of cloves...

The excavation was generously funded by Transport for London. Particular thanks are due to Jon Colclough (TfL) and Stephen Haynes (Arup).

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