Annie Thwaite Witch Bottles

When archaeologists opened these jars, they found them full of human hair and urine. Here’s why.

Yes, this 400 year-old jug looks pretty jolly. Indeed, these Bartman Jugs would probably have originally contained beer or wine which, along with their bulbous bellies, bearded faces, fancy-looking crests and so-stern-it’s-actually-amusing expressions, would once have caused great merriment to the average 17th century drinker. And yet, inside these particular ones, archaeologists found something much more sinister…

Some time after their original contents had been drained, someone stuffed it with eleven rusted, mangled pins and nails, human hair, nail clippings, and a mouldy, heart-shaped piece of cloth. Why oh why would anyone do that? As it turns out, these jugs are actually witch-bottles.

The contents of witch bottles, which have been found mentioned in historical sources since the 1600s, varied enormously, from urine, pins and cloth hearts to human hair and even fingernails. Sometimes the gruesome concoctions were heated until they exploded. Other times, they were placed into the walls, floors or grounds of a home.

bartman-jug-contents

Contents of one of the witch bottles, now at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Photo: Annie Thwaite

But they all had one thing in common; the aim was to cure someone who had been bewitched and, like the jug itself, it had two purposes: to alleviate the patient’s disease, but also to exact revenge.

Take, for example, these dress pins. Scores of them can be found washed up on the Thames, but find them inside a witch bottle along with some urine and you can be pretty sure they were once intended to make the witch suffer great pain when he or she went to the loo.

Annie Thwaite Witch Bottle Pins

Pins and needles from a witch bottle. Photo: Annie Thwaite

But it wasn’t just witch bottles that were used to create cures. While the anthropomorphic form of these Bartmann Jugs made them ripe for re-use, many other everyday objects that started out as something pretty mundane could also, by a simple act, quickly became something much more potent – at least in the minds of their 17th century owners.

Pins and coins were bent, hung around the neck or taken to a significant place. By doing so, they were bestowed with something unique that was believed to turn them into a specific remedy or a more general preventative medical measure.

In fact, reusing everyday objects, by placing them inside a jar, bending them or by otherwise marking them out, or changing their original state, was a pretty common way in which people tried to create their own medical cures for everything from toothache, to fevers, to falling-sickness (what we now know as epilepsy).

Generally overlooked as the folkish, uneducated charms of the poor, in reality, they were actually as much the preserve of the wealthy and they’re as likely to be found in the households of the elite, in urban as well as rural areas, as they are in the households of the non-elite. Or even just as fragments washed up on the shores of the River Thames.

So, don’t let those innocent-looking objects deceive you! You never know what they might be…

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Annie Thwaite

Annie Thwaite

Annie is doing a PhD at the department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge. She works on magic and the material culture of healing in early modern England, and supervises a course on early medicine. But it's not all dark and mysterious. Annie also loves include green tea, sunny days, dogs and the Yorkshire hills.

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