Tuesday, 10 April 2012
It is probably the oldest item in our collection.
Our jar dates from around 1680 and was discovered underneath the cellar of "The Ship" public house in Wardour St. in the mid 1980's.
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Bellarmine jars transported wine from north Germany to England in the 16th/17th century and were often reused as 'witches bottles' where they were filled with urine, hair, fingernails and iron nails and buried to protect against the witches curse.
A rare insight into the folk beliefs of 17th-century Britons has been gleaned from the analysis of a sealed "witch bottle" unearthed in Greenwich, London, in 2004.
Witch bottles were commonly buried to ward off spells during the late 16th and 17th centuries, but it is very rare to find one still sealed.
"So many have been dug up and their contents washed away down the sink," says Alan Massey, a retired chemist formerly at the University of Loughborough, UK, who has examined so-called "magical" artifacts and was asked to analyse the contents of the bottle.
"This is the first one that has been opened scientifically."
During the 17th century, British people often blamed witches for any ill health or misfortune they suffered, says Massey.
"The idea of the witch bottle was to throw the spell back on the witch," he says. "The urine and the bulb of the bottle represented the waterworks of the witch, and the theory was that the nails and the bent pins would aggravate the witch when she passed water and torment her so badly that she would take the spell back off you."
The salt-glazed jar was discovered 1.5 metres below ground by archaeologists from The Maritime Trust, a Greenwich-based charity that preserves historic sailing vessels. When it was shaken, the bottle splashed and rattled, and an X-ray showed pins and nails stuck in the neck, suggesting that it had been buried upside down.
Further computed tomography scans showed it to be half-filled with liquid, which later analysis showed to be human urine.
The bottle also contained bent nails and pins, a nail-pierced leather "heart", fingernail clippings, navel fluff and hair. The presence of iron sulphide in the mixture also suggests that sulphur or brimstone had been added.
"Prior to this point, all we really knew about what was in witch bottles was what we read from documents from the 17th century," says Brian Hoggard <http://www.apotropaios.co.uk> , an independent expert on British witchcraft who helped analyse the bottle. These texts suggest "recipes" for filling a witch bottle, but don't tell us what actually went into them.
Sulphur is not mentioned in any recipe Massey has seen, although a previously discovered bottle seemed to contain the remains of some matches, he says. "If you think about where sulphur came from in those days, it spewed out of volcanic fumaroles from the underworld.
It would have been the ideal thing to [kill] your witch, if you wished to."
Further analysis of the urine showed that it also contained cotinine, a metabolite of nicotine, suggesting that it came from a smoker, while the nail clippings appear quite manicured, suggesting that a person of some social standing created the bottle.
"It's confirming what 17th-century documents tell us about these bottles, how they were used and how you make them," says Owen Davies, a witchcraft expert at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, UK.
"The whole rationale for these bottles was sympathetic magic – so you put something intimate to the bewitched person in the bottle and then you put in bent pins and other unpleasant objects which are going to poison and cause great pain to the witch."
Many thanks to Mike Janulewicz for finding information on this object.
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