Archeologists Unearth 17Th Century Anti-Witches Flask
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ARCHEOLOGISTS UNEARTH 17TH CENTURY STONE FLASK, BURIED 380 YEARS AGO TO WARD
By Paul Harris
June 4, 2009
It is guaranteed to strike fear into the evil heart of any passing witch.
But a far worse fate would follow if the bizarre contents of this ancient
stone flask did the job for which they were intended.
The witch would immediately convulse in screaming agony -- and the spell she
cast would be turned back upon her for evermore.
Well, that's the theory at least. But around 380 years after this so-called
witch bottle was buried upside-down in a secret pit, no one can tell if its
magic -- and particularly those painful looking nails and pins -- ever did
What is certain is that someone went to enormous trouble to compose the most
powerful anti-witch potion known to 17th century man.
And in doing so, their message in a bottle gave modern archaeologists a
fascinating glimpse into the sorcery and superstitions of another age.
The 9-inch tall stoneware bottle was hailed today as the most important
discovery of its kind -- the only one ever found complete and unopened.
It contained not just sharp objects designed to inflict pain on the witch,
but human hair and urine, some fingernail clippings, and, curiously, some
One of the bent iron nails appears to have been used to pierce a
heart-shaped piece of leather. Then the entire mixture was sprinkled with
that customary seasoning so beloved by opponents of evil -- brimstone.
The bottle was placed in a 5ft pit and covered with earth in what was
probably undeveloped land at the time.
It stayed there until builders excavating in Greenwich, South London,
uncovered it in 2004.
To the unaccustomed eye, the glazed and decorated flask might have looked as
if it contained the finest wine the 17th century could afford.
But archaeologists and scientists immediately recognised it for what it was
-- a vessel hidden by the ill or dying when they believed they were being
persecuted by a witch.
A long and painstaking investigation then began to establish precisely what
Although other witch bottles have been discovered elsewhere over the years,
none has given analysts such a perfect and intriguing specimen.
They have either been damaged or empty, or the contents have been
contaminated or destroyed when the inquisitive finder pulls out the cork.
Medical-style CT scans and x-rays of the Greenwich find showed nails and
pins clustered in the neck, suggesting it had been buried inverted.
Liquid was drawn through the cork with a syringe, and lastly, the contents
were removed under laboratory conditions.
Of particular interest were the fingernails -- perfectly manicured, like
those of a gentleman, rather than torn and snagged like a labourer's.
Nicotine in the urine suggested that whoever put it there probably smoked a
But it was the final discovery which underlined the bottle's association
with the occult.
Retired chemist Dr Alan Massey, who led the analysis, established that there
had been sulphur in the mixture.
In other words, the bottle contained brimstone, perhaps the most powerful
deterrent a witch could encounter in a period when they were being burned at
According to the Bible, remember, false prophets and those possessed by the
devil were 'cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone'.
Dr Massey said: 'In those days, witch bottles were a matter of life or
death. If you had a very serious illness you would quite often think it had
been caused by a witch's spell. There was a genuine fear of witches. It was
believed the bottle would reflect the spell on whoever cast it, and inflict
excruciating pain on them when they passed urine.'
Details of the Greenwich bottle analysis are being published in the
July/August edition of British Archaeology magazine.
Editor Mike Pitts said: 'This find is remarkable on two counts. Firstly that
the people who discovered it had the presence of mind not to open the bottle
and, so to speak, let the scientific genie out.
'The second is the nature of the bottle and the contents, which are pretty
bizarre. They serve to remind us of the strong belief in witchcraft that
persists in society.'
Even today, instructions on how to make a witch bottle are readily available
on the internet <http://bit.ly/Kmgv1>. So is it all mumbo-jumbo, or do they
really work? Dr Massey prefers science to speculation. But he adds that
another ancient bottle was discovered some years ago in a coffin. The
occupant was still clutching it to his chest.
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