In 1983, National Park Service archeologists conducted a survey of the City Point Unit of Petersburg National Battlefield in Hopewell, Virginia. The excavation included a series of test trenches dug throughout the site, as well as a thorough investigation of the remains of a pre-1763 dwelling. According to the field notes for one unit at the dwelling site, bellarmine fragments were found in the area of the chimney foundation at the top of Stratum D. Perhaps this find did not seem extraordinary to those who excavated it. To me, as someone who has researched ritual concealments, this information presented an exciting possibility.
Witch Bottles as Ritual Concealments
Most artifacts recovered during an archeological excavation were discarded or lost by those who once used them. Consider old, broken dishes that were replaced by a new style, animal bones from last night’s dinner, or coins that fell through a worn pocket. The bulk of artifacts from an archeological excavation often come from the privy, which was basically used as a trash can or dump site during the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. Occasionally, however, an archeologist may encounter an object that was purposefully left behind for more mysterious reasons. Commonplace objects like coins, bottles, or shoes were sometimes ascribed spiritual meaning when concealed in certain places and under certain circumstances.
Ritual concealments were one way people in pre-modern times attempted to exert some control over forces and events that shaped their lives. Lacking the scientific knowledge that we have today, people hundreds of years ago attributed unfortunate events like sickness, crop failure, and house fires to witches and evil spirits. Ritual concealments were meant to appease these spirits, or, in some cases, to deter them.
One example of a ritual concealment is a witch bottle. Witch bottles were created out of glass bottles or, commonly, bellarmines, as a means of reversing a witch’s evil spell. Literature from the 1600s provided advice as to the creation and use of witch bottles. The “recipe” involved adding human hair, nail parings, and urine to the bottle, as well as bent pins or nails and heart-shaped pieces of felt. The bottle was then stopped and buried, often inverted, near a threshold or hearth. People believed that this act would throw the spell back onto the witch who had cast it, by making her unable to urinate, and subsequently causing her demise. Another option was heating and exploding the bottle, which would also destroy the witch. Central to the ideology of the witch bottle was the belief that by casting a spell, a witch linked herself to her victim, so that she could be killed by an injury to her victim’s body (represented by the materials in the witch bottle).
Is it a Witch Bottle?
When determining whether a bottle may have been used as a witch bottle, ask three questions. Where was the bottle found? What kind of bottle is it? And, is there evidence of the associated ritual elements that are commonly found inside of witch bottles?
Certain locations in a structure were considered vulnerable points where spirits could easily enter. These included doorways, windows, and especially chimneys and fireplaces. (Even today, popular folklore still invites a friendly spirit down the chimney every Christmas Eve.) Chimneys and fireplaces were extremely popular locations for ritual concealments.
One type of vessel that was commonly used to create witch bottles was the bellarmine, or bartman. A bellarmine is a type of Rhenish stoneware bottle manufactured in and around Frechen, Germany from about 1550 until about 1700. It is decorated with a human or semi-human face sprig-molded onto the neck, and usually has one or more medallions molded onto the body. Early bellarmines exhibit a detailed, bearded face with a paternalistic expression, while the decoration on later examples is more irregular and crude.
Warding off Witches at City Point?
When I read about the bellarmine fragments found near the chimney foundation at City Point, I wondered immediately if they could be the remains of a witch bottle. The location was perfect; the vessel type fit as well. Could the inhabitants of the dwelling house have been practicing white witchcraft? I surveyed the artifacts from the excavation unit in question to see if there were any pins or nails found alongside the bottle. There were in fact two nail fragments found in the same unit and stratum. Because of the fragmentary state and poor condition of the nails, it is unclear whether or not they were bent. The other common elements of a witch bottle – human hair, nail parings, and urine, as well as heart-shaped felt fragments – were not recovered during this excavation. This is almost to be expected, however, considering the organic nature of these materials and the high likelihood of their complete decomposition in the soil over time.
It is also possible that these bellarmine fragments represent a more casual example of this practice, wherein someone concealed the bottle for ritual purposes (hence the significant location), but did not go so far as to create an actual witch bottle containing all of the suggested ingredients. Many ritual practices evolved over time into more secular habits performed as tokens of good luck, instead of for specific ritual purposes. (Perhaps you have tossed a coin into a wishing well or crossed your fingers for luck good luck.)
We will never know for sure if the bellarmine fragments from City Point are the remains of a witch bottle. But the evidence points to this possibility. If you are an archeologist conducting an excavation at a domestic site, or a homeowner rehabilitating an old fireplace, and happen to come across a bottle in a chimney foundation, take a closer look. There may be more than meets the eye.
Geisler [Costello], Jessica. Tracing the Footsteps of Ritual: Concealed Footwear in Quincy, Massachusetts. University of Massachusetts-Boston, Master’s Thesis, 2003.
Hume, Ivor Noel. A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969.
Ibid. If These Pots Could Talk: Collecting 2000 Years of British Household Pottery. London: Chipstone Foundation, 2001.
Merrifield, Ralph. The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1988.
Orr, David, Brooke Blades, and Douglas V. Campana. The City Point Archaeological Survey: Completion Report. Division of Archaeology, Mid-Atlantic Regional Office, National Park Service, 1983.