MOLA Finds Specialist Nigel Jeffries holding bent pins from inside a 'witch bottle' found during excavations at Holywell Priory (c) MOLA

‘Witch bottles’ concealed and revealed

Project partner: 
University of Hertfordshire, Arts & Humanities Research Council
Date: 
April 2019 - April 2022

‘Bottles concealed and revealed’ is a three year project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to recalibrate understandings of the phenomenon of mid-late 17th century ‘witch bottles’. The project is led by MOLA Finds Specialist Nigel Jeffries as Principal Investigator in collaboration with Co-Investigators Professor Owen Davies and Dr Ceri Houlbrook from the University of Hertfordshire, who specialise in the study of magic, witchcraft, and popular medicine.

‘Witch bottles’ is the name given to 17th–century glass and stoneware vessels believed to have served as objects for ritual protection or as the containers of a ‘prepared cure’ against witchcraft. Their contents most commonly include pins and nails, but sometimes also urine, nail clippings and thorns. They have been found concealed in a range of contexts: placed in hearths or beneath the floors of historic buildings, or on archaeological sites, in churchyards, ditches and riverbanks.

The ‘Bottles concealed and revealed’ project is the most comprehensive synthesis of evidence relating to 17th-century ‘witch bottles’ to date. For the first time, all known examples that survive in museums and other collections around Southern and Eastern England (the apparent geographical extent of the phenomenon) are to be surveyed first hand or through literature review and critiqued along with their contents.

The project also involves extensive research to situate the practice in its full historic context, including its origins, how ‘bottle magic’ spread and was adapted in subsequent centuries, the types of locations in which it is found, and its relationship to early modern medicine and popular magic and how these were practiced and understood.

It is hoped that the resulting publications, catalogue and datasets and the insights they reveal will benefit not just historians and archaeologists of the period, but engage and inform museum and folklore curators, and those outside of academia for whom the subject of witchcraft resonates.