Friday, October 28, 2011

Archaeological Evidence of Witchcraft in PA?

Just in time for Halloween, this week’s blog is going to discuss one of the more spooktacular items in our collection, a probable 18th century “witch bottle”, uncovered at Governor Printz State Park, Essington, PA by M.J. Becker in 1976. Witch bottles are ceramic or glass bottles containing a variety of ritual objects. They are created and used as protective charms to counter afflictions thought to be the product of a witch’s curse or to ward off evil spirits from a house and its inhabitants (Merrifield 1955).

Belarmine Stoneware Jug on display in The State Museum of PA's  Archaeology Gallery

Belief in the supernatural and the connection between everyday human struggles and the cosmic war between God and the Devil were part of the common lexicon in England and the British Colonies in America during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Historians cite the proliferation of Church decrees, sermons, and published essays on the topic of witchcraft, the increased prevalence of legal complaints involving allegations of sorcery, and anti-witchcraft legislation as documentary proof of these commonly held beliefs (Merrifield 1955, 1987; Becker, 1980, 2005; Demos, 2008- podcast). The production and ritual deposition of Witch bottles are part of the material culture of this period. They provide evidence of popular folk beliefs and customary use of “white magic” to safeguard persons and their property from the metaphysical ill intent of others.

Whether it is 17th century eastern England or 20th century Newfoundland, Canada, the general superstition associated with Witch bottles as a form of counter-curse are as follow (Merrifield, 1955; Reiti, 1997). If a person believes his or her current misfortune is the result of an evil spell, the act of “bottling a witch” can serve to identify the witch and turn the curse back on the alleged attacker. Bottling a witch is a form of sympathetic magic; it was believed that the victim has somehow been tainted by a witch’s blood in the form of a curse (Merrifield, 1955). Bottles are filled with symbolic items—pins, nails, and other representational objects of the victim’s physical ailment or financial misfortune—and, in most cases, bodily fluids, typically the victim’s urine. The logic follows that the victim’s fluid also contains the blood of the witch, by trapping this in a bottle with items representing the painful symptoms of the affliction (pins, nails, etc.), and performing ritualized actions with this bottle, the victim can redirect suffering back on the witch. After sealing and often heating the contents to a boil, the victim would choose to bury, toss the bottle into a stream, or heat the bottle until it explodes. Burying or casting the sealed bottle into a stream will give the witch a slow and painful affliction (usually some form of urinary blockage). However, this counter-affliction can be lifted if the bottle is somehow unsealed. On the other hand, exploding the bottle in a fire will create more immediate, violent and irrevocable results.

Merrfield (1955) traces the first recorded documentation of the “witch bottle” to eastern England in the late 1600s. This coincides with the production and widespread export of Bellarmine jugs from Germany to London and throughout the English countryside from the mid-1500s to the early 1700s. Bellarmine bottles, decorated with the severe face of a bearded man were the apparent bottles of choice to perform “white magic” rituals of counter-curse or to create charms to ward off malicious spirits. Of the 200 documented witch bottles found in England, 130 are Bellamine jugs (Merrifield, 1987). Examples of glass bottles including Pershore phials, wine flasks, such as the Essington witch bottle, and others have also been discovered.
Essington witch bottle from  Printz Park (36De3)

Few historical examples of witch bottles were recovered as a result of systematic archaeological investigations. However, Merrifield (1955, 1987) has compiled documented discoveries of cached witch bottles throughout England and Scotland and surmises that most bottles found in their original contexts are placed upside-down under thresholds, hearthstones, or inside walls. Merrifield contends that entrances, exits and fireplaces are vulnerable locations in a house to the spiritual world. Witch bottles placed in these contexts were more likely used for protective, rather than counter-cursing properties. Numerous witch bottles have also been recovered from secondary contexts in London along the Thames and its tributaries.

contents and associated artifacts found with the Essington witch bottle

The Essington bottle, the first potential witch bottle identified from an archaeological excavation in North America, was discovered upside-down in a cache pit on Tinicum Island, just outside the foundation of a structure that Becker believes may have been the Printzhof, the home of the New Sweden Colonial Governor, Johan Printz (1643-1653). The bottle, pictured here, is a dark green squat bottle, with a date of production between 1730 and 1740 (Becker, 2005). Based on this date, Becker associates the cache with British Colonial Era in Pennsylvanian, when Tinicum Island was owned and conferred between members of the Taylor family. He conjectures that the transfer of ownership in 1748 from Israel Taylor Jr., who was bequest the land on his father’s death in 1725, to his cousin, John Taylor and his wife, may indicate that the couple, moved into the dwelling at this time. Further, that a member of their household is most likely responsible for the ritual deposit of the bottle on the premise. The bottle contains six straight pins and was sealed with a whittled wooden plug. Also found in the small pit was a redware ceramic sherd and a medium-sized bird bone. (Becker 1977, 1980, 2005).

In a recent publication (2005), Becker argues for the recognition of five additional witch bottles found throughout the northeastern United States from archaeological endeavors. Finding cached witch bottles in datable contexts provides evidence of the persistence and spread of supernatural folk beliefs and customs in colonial North America and potentially into the 19th century. Perhaps even into the 21st century… So be careful who you trick this Halloween…. Or there may be a bottle with your name on it!

Don't forget! Just one week to go until the Workshops in Archaeology at The State Museum of PA. Click here for program details and registration form.

Works Cited, Further Reading and Suggested Podcasts:

Marshall J. Becker
1977. A witch-bottle excavated in Chester County, Pennsylvania: archaeological evidence for witchcraft in the mid-eighteenth century. Manuscript on file at The State Museum of Pennsylvania

1980. An American Witch Bottle. Archaeology Vol. 33:2:18-23.

2005. An update on colonial witch bottles. Pennsylvania Archaeologist. Vol. 75:2:12-23.

Ralph Merrifield
1955. Witch Bottles and Magical Jugs. Folklore Vol. 66:1:195-207.

1987. The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. Batsford, London.

Barbara Reiti
1997. Riddling the Witch: Violence against Women in Newfoundland Witch Tradition. In Undisciplined women: tradition and culture in Canada. Ed. Greenhill & Tye. 77-86.

John Demos
September 7, 2008. Religion and Witchcraft in Colonial History. Gilder Lehrman Institute Podcast.

2008. The Enemy within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

Friday, October 21, 2011

Three Dimensional Mapping of Artifacts

Mapping in the 1970s, dig it man.

This week we return to the ABC’s of archaeology. We are down to the last three letters - X, Y and Z and we are going to use them all at once. Archaeology is all about mapping and X, Y, and Z represent the grid and datum coordinates used in mapping. These coordinates represent the three dimensional location of an artifact also known as provenience.

State Museum Section of Archeology volunteer Melanie mapping an FCR cluster at Fort Hunter (36Da159)

Archaeology is the scientific study of past cultural behavior through the systematic recovery and analysis of artifacts and features. The basic assumption is that artifacts and features are not randomly distributed. Their distribution or patterning is affected by a variety of cultural and natural factors. These patterns can only be revealed and understood through mapping – specifically three dimensional mapping or piece plotting. This type of excavation utilizing mapping and spatial analysis is a powerful tool in the identification of artifact patterns and their relationship to past cultural behavior.

In most upland sites, situated on residual soils, the artifact patterns have been altered through modern farming practices. Piece plotting in a plowzone is of little value. However, in alluvial settings, where artifacts are stratified, there has frequently been little post-depositional movement and artifacts are very near their original location. This is where piece plotting is important. However, mapping takes time. In today’s world dominated by compliance archaeology (for which I am a strong supporter) where time is money, many prefer to excavate in meter or half meter units using shovels, only mapping tools or very large artifacts (if they don’t end up in the screen). Some argue that post-depositional movement of artifacts is always a significant factor and piece plotting is a waste of time.

I would like to present two examples that demonstrate the contribution of three dimensional mapping of artifacts. One of the earliest cases in Eastern North America of piece plotting was conducted at the Thunderbird site in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. This is a stratified Paleoindian through Early Archaic site associated with a jasper quarry. The site was first tested in 1971 using three inch arbitrary levels within natural levels and ten foot squares. Initially, these were shovel skimmed. These units were producing between 800 and 1200 flakes and tools per arbitrary level. This was not surprising considering the site’s proximity to the quarry. It was assumed that these flakes represented a variety of tool making activities although the specifics were unknown. The damage to flakes due to shovel skimming or even digging with trowels was extensive and early in the first season, there was a switch to piece plotting. The use of this method was unprecedented at the time.

Hand drawn map of chipping feature at Thunderbird site (44Wr11)

 By the end of the season, several patterns were revealed that clearly document the significance and the contribution of this method. They were able to identify the types of tools that were being made, the specific flint knapping techniques being used and, in some cases, the number of flint knappers involved. Although the number of artifacts between squares did not vary greatly, piece plotting revealed that the artifacts occurred in concentrations or chipping features. Several types of chipping features were identified that were significant in understanding community patterning and stone tool manufacture. In addition, by piece plotting the artifacts, it was discovered that flakes could be refitted – cores and tools could be put back together like three dimensional jigsaw puzzles.

The most interesting feature type consisted of approximately 1500 flakes or less. These were organized into a large concentration two to three feet in diameter and a smaller pile separated by several inches of open space. The space between the two clusters represents the individual flint knappers leg print while they were sitting on the ground. The identification of chipping clusters representing one individual making a single tool (in this case a fluted projectile point) allowed archaeologists to analyze how fluted points were made and the nature of stone tool manufacture during the Paleoindian period. The piece plotting of artifacts enabled archaeologists to identify cultural patterns in the apparent chaos of thousands of flakes.

Map of Feature 75: Thunderbird site (44Wr44)

The second example of the importance of three dimensional piece plotting comes from research conducted at the Abbott Farm Complex, near Trento New Jersey. Here, fire crack-rock (FCR) was found in large quantities and mapped in great detail. The prevailing interpretation at the time was based on research conducted by Fred Kinsey in the Upper Delaware River Valley. He hypothesized that FCR was the result of large cooking hearths or fish drying racks and it was most frequently associated with the Transitional period. Again, three dimensional piece plotting demonstrated that the explanation was not that simple. There were several different patterns to the horizontal distribution of FCR. Some were tightly packed, similar to Kinsey’s scenario but others were more widely spread out. As in the chipping feature example, the mass of FCR could be divided into a series of separate events. Experimental archaeology was demonstrating that different cooking techniques produced different types of FCR. For example, stone boiling (placing heated rocks in a skin lined hole in the ground to boil water) produced a smaller more rounded FCR than roasting hearths. Also, FCR resulting from stone boiling is usually more mixed and dispersed horizontally than FCR used in cooking hearths. Again, archaeologists were able to identify separate events and different types of activities on a living floor that otherwise appeared to be a mass of artifacts.

10cm grid over FCR cluster at the City Island site (36Da12)

My point with this week’s blog is that recording the X, Y, and Z coordinates of individual artifacts can be a very useful tool in the analysis of living floors. Archaeologists have been collecting flakes and making approximate counts of FCR for over 100 years but other than their presence, not much was known about the activities they represent. To better understand these activities, their spatial arrangement and the social implications, we must apply different field and laboratory methods . If we keep collecting data in the same old way, we are not going to learning anything new. Piece plotting may require more time in the field (although the use of a total station greatly reduces that time) but the benefits far outweigh the time element in adding to our understanding of past cultural behavior.

FCR cluster resulting from hearth feature: 2011 field season Fort Hunter (36Da159)

Don't forget, just to weeks to go until the Workshops in Archaeology at the State Museum of Pennsylvania!  Click here for the program and registration form and join us for a fun and informative event Saturday, November 5th.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

Friday, October 14, 2011

Fort Hunter 2011 Excavations Come to a Close

Rain filled our plastic tarps which cover the excavation area too many times to count this year.

We are starting to sound like a broken record with this rain, but once again we had a wet week of excavations at Fort Hunter. Today was our last day at the site, but mother nature took control and we were rained out this afternoon. What do you expect when Harrisburg broke the record for the wettest year on record? The good news is that we were able to speak with a lot of visitors, further investigate the well and re-visit the cobble feature on the east side of the mansion.
One of the many visitors at Fort Hunter this week.

Last week we had removed the rocks at grade with the ice house and were looking to remove another layer from the well structure to aid in determining if the ice house and well were built at the same time or if one predates the other. We removed another course and further exposed the corner of the ice house.
Steve Warfel and Kurt Carr examine the foundation of the ice house.

Several visitors viewed the well construction this week including an architectural historian from the PHMC, Joe Lauver. The general consensus was that the well was constructed prior to the ice house. The small rocks that appear to be slumping are interpreted as fill put in after the pebble layer eroded out of the builders trench. The puzzling question is why the ice house was built so close to the well? Additional research of historic documents this winter may provide some of the answers to this question.

View of the well and rocks which intrude into the builders trench of well.

The well shaft was augured to a depth of fourteen feet before we encountered either rock or compacted shell. Unfortunately this test produced mostly ash and shell. Further investigations next year will hopefully provide tangible evidence which will aid in dating the well to one of the site occupants.

Augering the well shaft to 14 feet.

Mapping of the fire-cracked rock in the northwest corner of our unit was completed this week- yipee! This feature produced over 250 pieces of fcr representing a prehistoric hearth about three thousand years old. We have had a tremendous amount of fcr over the past few years from this area and are sure to encounter more as the excavations continue.
Andrea and Melanie mapping the fire cracked rock feature.

The ditch or trench discovered last year was reopened this week and the cobble floor exposed. The expanded trench adjacent to this feature produced a similar cobble layer which would create an area wider than expected for a road. We are anticipating a geomorphologist, Dr. Frank Vento, to visit the site on Monday and assist in the interpretation of this feature.

The dugout canoe made another journey this weekend to Gifford Pinchot State Park. Our faithful followers may recall our blog last year which included video of the dugout on the lake. If you missed it just do a search of our archived posts and you can view it from this website. The heritage canoeists love the dugout and welcomed Kurt Carr and his presentation on the construction of dugout canoes by Native Americans.

Remember that this is Archaeology Month in Pennsylvania and there are multiple programs around the state for those of you interested in learning more about the importance of archaeology in our lives.
 We will be at the State Capitol on Wednesday, October 26th for Archaeology Day and don’t forget to register for the Archaeology Workshops on Saturday, November 5th. Workshops brochure link

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

Friday, October 7, 2011

Did you find gold yet?

Enthusiastic visitors at Fort Hunter excavation. 

Sorry folks, we have not found gold at Fort Hunter, nor do we expect to find any. We have had a steady stream of visitors to the site this week and we love it. Archaeologists get excited when we can share with the public and excite them about archaeology and our new discoveries. We have repeat visitors that come out every year and faithfully encourage us, enthused to hear what we’ve discovered this year. They have patiently observed the process of excavating the well and the surrounding prehistoric levels. Yes, some have raised the question about the discovery of gold, but most know that we are in this for reasons much more important than gold.

What is more important than discovering gold? Gathering archaeological evidence from the soils, identifying the artifacts, analyzing these artifacts and piecing together the picture of the daily activities of a frontier fort or a colonial homestead is far more important and interesting! Take this a step further and think about the prehistoric period. Prehistory means before the written record, so basically anything before about 1550 in Pennsylvania. The lifeways of Native peoples has been gleaned almost entirely from the archaeological record. From the hearth features with fire-cracked rock and flakes we can paint a picture of peoples cooking and processing animals and plants. Sitting around these fires they likely sharpened some of their points, leaving small flakes as evidence of this activity. Some of the larger flakes we’ve recovered may have been used to cut meat or scrape a hide. Archaeologists are able to provide a window to the past through excavation and analysis, creating a picture of the daily life of Native peoples to modern man.

View of the top of the well at grade with ice house.

Our more recent occupants of Fort Hunter have been written about in historical documents, but the details of daily activities are missing. Letters and journals don’t describe the method of construction employed for the well. Documentation doesn’t even tell us when the well was built. The only way for us to answer the questions of “how old is the well?” and “who built the well?” is to carefully remove the stone layers of the well and excavate the surrounding soils. This week we made great progress on the well and hopefully next week we will have some answers as to when and by whom the well was constructed. We all agree that whoever built the well was skilled and strong. Some of the rocks have been as much as eight inches thick and 18 to 24 inches across. The artifacts recovered have consisted of animal bone, window glass and a few redware sherds. Nothing that we found is considered a useful tool for dating the period of construction. Rocks on the corner of the ice house appear to intrude into the well, but they also seem to be intentionally laid as part of the ice house construction- or could be part of a sagging wall- but we just don’t know. Further investigations next week will hopefully reveal the answer.

Stone slump at corner of ice house wall.

View looking down on corner of ice house.

A mix of artifacts continues to come out of the trench on the side of the house. This area is clearly fill, but sorting out the time period of the fill through analysis of the artifacts will be an activity for the winter months. We have one more week to examine this unit further and determine if our cobble feature from last year is a road bed or not. Part of the motivation for archaeologists is the anticipation of learning something new with the next layer of evidence or the discovery of an artifact that dates to one of the various site occupants.

Trench excavation in side yard. Changes in soils clearly indicate a fill episode in this area.

We are scheduled to finish at Fort Hunter on October 14th, one more week. If you’ve been thinking you wanted to come see what an archaeological site looks like, or you are just curious about the site- don’t wait. We will be on site from October 11th-14th,  between 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .