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 .

1 comment:

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