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.
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!
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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.
Available online: www.archaeology.org/online/features/.../witch_bottle.html
2005. An update on colonial witch bottles. Pennsylvania Archaeologist. Vol. 75:2:12-23.
1955. Witch Bottles and Magical Jugs. Folklore Vol. 66:1:195-207.
1987. The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. Batsford, London.
1997. Riddling the Witch: Violence against Women in Newfoundland Witch Tradition. In Undisciplined women: tradition and culture in Canada. Ed. Greenhill & Tye. 77-86.
September 7, 2008. Religion and Witchcraft in Colonial History. Gilder Lehrman Institute Podcast. http://www.gilderlehrman.org/historians/podcasts/podcast.php?podcast_id=508
2008. The Enemy within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World.