Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Archaeology of Witch Bottles and Other Magic

One of the headlines today was "17th Century Urine-Filled 'Witch Bottle' Found". Witch bottles were protective charms, made of iron nails or pins (often bent), fingernail parings and/or hair, urine, and usually a heart-shaped object, sealed in a bottle that was then buried. The purpose was to protect against witchcraft; the nail parings/hair/urine would be of the person who was to be protected. Several examples of 17th and 18th century Witch Bottles are known (200+), mostly from the UK. This particular example is notable in that it still retained it's urine. Apparently, the fabricator of the witch bottle was a smoker.

Although the article above does not indicate the specific context of the find, charms like this are often found at thresholds or other liminal/transitional places -- by or in chimneys, buried under hearths, in building foundations, ditches, doorways, etc. Other ritual and magical objects often found buried or concealed include shoes, other clothing, cats, skulls, and ritual marks.

If you can find a copy (it has long been out of print), I highly recommend Ralph Merrifield's 1987 Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. Although focusing on the UK, the book includes a good overview of things to be aware of. These include offerings in water (wells, rivers, springs); witch bottles; concealed items; ritually killed offerings; written spells/charms (includes carving into wood, lead tablets, onto knife blades, etc.); etc. Merrifield writes in his preface,

Ritual and magic were foremerly part of everyday life, but by association with fantasy fiction and occultism they have now acquired an aura of sensationalism that has discouraged investigation... These may be defined as practices intended to gain advantage or avert disaster by the manipulation of supernatural power, whether derived from the impersonal forces of magic or from the intervention of supernatural beings. In recent years [the material manifestations of these practices have] received serious attention from prehistorians, but [are] often neglected by those working in the historic periods, except when it occurs in a manifestly religious or mortuary context (p. xiii).

Merrifield kept notes throughout his career when he came across such material evidence of magic, but didn't publish until the late 1980s, as he was retiring from the field.

There is increasing evidence, in the form of growing databases of examples (see below), that it was not at all uncommon for people to use charms or wards with material manifestations (i.e., that leave artifacts). People who renovate old houses are becoming more aware also; see here and here. The trick to identifying them is to know what they look like, and then, quite simply, to pay attention. Since many examples of these charms and wards are not found in the ground, we need to also look for material evidence of human activity in other places; if the site being investigated still has a standing structure, check around the chimney and in the eaves.

Some sites of interest:

Apotropaios (formerly Folk Magic in Britain) by Brian Hoggard. Brian is documenting examples of concealed items, including witch bottles, shoes, skulls, and ritual marks dating from 1200 to 2005. In addition to kudos for tackling such a long period of time, this survey is notable for tracing examples into the 21st century (before you scoff, how many of you have a horseshoe for luck over your door, knock wood, throw salt, or have a lucky rabbit's foot?)

The Deliberately Concealed Garmets Project via the Textile Conservation Center at the University of Southampton, UK. The practics of purposefully concealing or buring clothing within buildings dates back to the Middle Ages. Although this project may no longer be being maintained, the database is searchable. Tons of photos and detailed item information.

The Mummified Cat-A-Log. This site details mummified cats that have been found concealed in buildings. Yes, sometimes cats get trapped places and expire; but there are also very clear instances of purposful concealment.


Bavardess said...

I live in a very old house with a long-disused fireplace. I should check for charms. What is the significance of shoes as a charm? My Irish mother still brings me a piece of coal and some salt every time I move house.

Digger said...

Both Merrifield and Hoggard suggest they act as a sort of spirit trap, perhaps associated with John Schorn's famous trapping of the Devil in a boot. Schorn was Rector of North Marston from 1290 to 1314, a period Hoggard identifies as the same as the oldest known concealed shoes.

Merrifield also notes that shoes may be left for "sentiment rather than superstition" (he gives an example of a fashionable lady's boot buried in the foundation of a new shoe factory, and of a pair of slippers that, by deed, could not be removed from a locked grille in a dining room of a house. They had belonged to a child who had lived, and died, in the house in the eighteenth century). These do not, as Merrifield points out, explain why most concealed shoes are singles (not pairs) and often are extremely worn out, occasionally showing evidence of being ritually killed. He summarizes examples of "lucky" shoes, including throwing one after someone to ensure a safe journey (now we tie them to the backs of cars of the newly-married); association with fertility (the old woman who lived in a shoe). Apparently, shoes taken from a dead man were especially lucky, and may, Merrifield suggests, stand in for a human sacrifice if placed in foundations.

In an article linked by Hoggard, June Swann describes most shoes coming from chimney/fireplace/hearth contexts, as well as attic eaves. These are all transitional/liminal places, further arguing, to me anyway, that these are protective rather than sentimental charms.

Interestingly, Swann notes examples of shoe concealment into the late twentieth century. Apparently, people do it quite a bit, but don't care to talk about it!

squadratomagico said...

Fascinating post! Thanks for the links, too.

I'm familiar with Merrifield's book and found it to be very enjoyable. So much of medieval (and other) history is based upon "intentional" representations like texts, artworks, and architecture. Merrifield's work directed my attention to material artefacts that are NOT primarily meant to communicate something to a third party or an observer. Rather, they are side effects of rituals, and therefore have value as instruments, rather than as representations (though of course they do have elements of that as well). Anyway, I found that book fascinating insofar as it dealt with such a different kind of evidence than the usual.

Digger said...

Squadrato~ I think the whole topic is fascinating. In a curious twist, shortly after I posted this, I got a project where we might just find concealed ritual objects. Perhaps I should write about winning the lottery? ;)

I think in some cases, ritual caches are meant to communicate something to a third party -- for example, where they are placed to repel witches or other malevolent spirits, the witches/spirits are the target audience. The cache is a "Keep Out" sign. Whether or not we think witches or spirits are real, the people who placed the caches thought they were real enough to address directly.

The inclusion in witch bottles of nail pairings, hair, and urine of the person to be protected suggests protection from a particular threat. I'm curious if tests would show contributions from several individuals in creating these bottles -- for example, to protect a household, rather than an individual.

Other target audiences of ritual magic may be other members of the household or the community, if they are aware that the cache has been placed and what is in it. Generally, our culture doesn't like to talk about magic, but I don't know about other cultures/other times.

Some magic doesn't have a particular entity/spirit as a target. For example (despite the New York Lottery's recent "Little Bit Of Luck" campaign), a good luck charm like a rabbits foot or horseshoe is intended to draw the force, or stuff of luck to you. Then again, she *is* Lady Luck.

Thanks for the note; you got me all thinking out loud!