MOLA Finds Specialist Nigel Jeffries inspects a 'witch bottle' found during excavations at Holywell Priory (c) MOLA

What should you do if you find a 17th–century ‘witch bottle’?

Nigel Jeffries

Working with Professor Owen Davies and Dr Ceri Houlbrook from the University of Hertfordshire, MOLA Finds Specialist Nigel Jeffries is leading a three year AHRC-funded project aimed at recalibrating understandings of the phenomenon of mid-late 17th century ‘witch bottles’. Over a hundred examples are already known, but the ‘Bottles concealed and revealed' project team are on the lookout for more, especially those in private ownership. So how can these bottles be identified, and what should you do if one (quite literally) falls down your chimney? Nigel tells us in this blog.

PLEASE NOTE: Archaeology doesn’t always involve digging, and ‘witch bottles’ found in historic buildings (or elsewhere) should be treated as archaeological artefacts, not moved and reported to your local Finds Liaison Officer before alerting the ‘Bottles concealed and revealed’ project team – find out how below.

Bulbous, bearded and brown

What does a 17th century ‘witch bottle’ container look like? Most are durable German-made Bartmann stoneware jugs or bottles, which tend to be brown, bulbous and decorated with characteristic bearded facemasks and applied roundel medallions. These vessels, made in Frechen close to the city of Cologne, were the most common and widely traded pottery type of early modern Europe. Later in the 17th century similar vessels made by the first English stoneware pothouses, like this one found under the floor of Holywell Priory, were also used.

There is also a small but varied group of a dozen or so glass vessels which have been interpreted as possible ‘witch bottles’ based on their contents or concealment (like this glass bottle from Reigate, and this example from Lutterworth). However, some are more likely medicinal and homeopathic phials filled with liquids and found and reported on during the Victorian period. Whether these vessels count as ‘witch bottles’ requires further research.

Filled and concealed

So-called ‘witch bottles’ can contain a tremendous diversity of everyday objects and substances added as the ingredients of a ‘prepared cure’ against witchcraft before being stoppered or sealed; most commonly urine, and varying quantities of metal nails and pins (which are sometimes bent).

What also marks these vessels is where they are found. Most are encountered during private restoration work of historic buildings, like this example from Greenwich. ‘Witch bottles’ have been recovered from inns, colleges, and domestic dwellings in both rural and urban settings and even ecclesiastical places. They are always found alone, and almost exclusively in one of three locations in the building:

  1. Beneath a floor
  2. Under a threshold or doorway
  3. Up or around a chimney or hearth.

So keep a look out!

Others have been recovered from archaeological excavations, and a few have been recovered from ditches, or next to watercourses including examples from the banks of the River Thames in London.

What should you do if you find a 17th century ‘witch bottle’?

The term ‘witch bottle’ gives the impression that there is a ‘witch’ inside a bottle. Don’t worry: you are not about to be cursed! Here are a few pointers on what to do if you find a 17th–century ‘witch bottle’ during the restoration of a historic building:

  • ‘Witch bottles’ are covered by the Portable Antiquities Scheme, so most importantly, please contact your local Finds Liaison Officer based at your county museum and await their advice.
  • Treat it as an archaeological find: if you can, please don’t move it - keep it in situ until it has been validated and reported. Record the position it was found in, take photographs and resist cleaning it.
  • Similarly if it is corked or stoppered then please don’t remove this. As described, a bottle may have contents.
  • If it has already been moved or un-stoppered in the past, we would still be really interested in hearing about it.
  • Report your find to the ‘Bottles Concealed and Revealed’ team

The ‘Bottles concealed and revealed’ project will be the most comprehensive synthesis of evidence relating to the 17th-century ‘witch bottle’ phenomenon to date, and we will be grateful to hear from anyone with something to contribute.

As it stands, the practice has never been fully contextualised, with previous scholarship portraying ‘witch bottles’ as random and individual acts to ward off or trap ‘witches’. We hope to elevate ‘witch bottles’ and their known contents from a limited data set to a comprehensive national collection. Find out more about the 'Bottles concealed and revealed' project here.

  • From the experts
  • Artefacts
  • Research
  • Post-medieval
  • Built heritage

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