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Civil War-era ‘witch bottle’ designed to trap evil spirits may have been found in Virginia

Civil War-era artifact discovered near a Union camp along a Virginia interstate could be a ‘witch bottle’ designed to trap evil spirits, archaeologists say

  • The bottle was recovered along Interstate 64 near Williamsburg, Virginia, by a team from the William & Mary Center for Archeological Research
  • The archaeologists were surveying the remains of a fort occupied by Union soldiers during the Civil War
  • Inside the broken green glass bottle was a knot of corroded iron nails
  • Archaeologists have speculated it may have been a ‘witch bottle’
  • The witch bottle tradition dates back to the Middle Ages, when people in Britain would fill containers with items such as nails, pins, hair, nail clippings and urine 
  • The personal items were meant to lure witches and evil spirits into the container, where they’d be trapped by the sharp objects 

Archaeologists have recovered what they believe could be a ‘witch bottle’ – a glass vessel used to trap evil spirits – from a Civil War fort site near Williamsburg, Virginia.  

A team from the William & Mary Center for Archeological Research (WMCAR) came across the green glass bottle in 2016 while surveying the remains of Redoubt 9 – one of a string of satellite forts set up by Confederates and later overtaken by Union troops. 

What remains of the redoubt currently sits in the median of Interstate 64. The Virginia Department of Transportation called in archaeologists to excavate the site before they continued with a project to widen the roadway by eliminating the median.  

The bottle was found under layers of clay next to the remains of a hearth built by Union troops between 1862 and 1865. 

The neck of the bottle was broken, but inside researchers found a knot of square iron nails that had ‘corroded into a ball’, according to WMCAR Director Joe Jones.

‘We thought it was unusual, but weren’t sure what it was,’ Jones said in a press release last week. 

Archaeologists recovered what they believe could be a ‘witch bottle’ – a glass vessel used to trap evil spirits – from a Civil War fort site near Williamsburg, Virginia

The bottle was found under layers of clay next to the remains of a hearth built by Union troops between 1862 and 1865. The neck of the bottle was broken, but inside researchers found a knot of square iron nails that had 'corroded into a ball'

The bottle was found under layers of clay next to the remains of a hearth built by Union troops between 1862 and 1865. The neck of the bottle was broken, but inside researchers found a knot of square iron nails that had ‘corroded into a ball’

The remains of the Union fort - Redoubt 9 - are located in the median of Interstate 64 east of Williamsburg. The Virginia Department of Transportation called in archaeologists to excavate the site before they continued with a project to widen the roadway by eliminating the median

The remains of the Union fort – Redoubt 9 – are located in the median of Interstate 64 east of Williamsburg. The Virginia Department of Transportation called in archaeologists to excavate the site before they continued with a project to widen the roadway by eliminating the median

The archaeologists determined that the bottle was manufactured by a cola company in the 1840s based on raised lettering on the glass. 

The simple conclusion would be that a soldier drank the contents of the bottle and then used it as a container for the nails. 

But two WMCAR archaeologists – staff member Oliver Mueller-Heubach and WMCAR founder Robert Hunter – suggested the much more intriguing explanation that it may have been a ‘witch bottle’. 

The excavation project was led by a team from the William & Mary Center for Archeological Research (WMCAR). The center's director, Joe Jones (pictured), explained the possible significance of the bottle in a press release last week

The excavation project was led by a team from the William & Mary Center for Archeological Research (WMCAR). The center’s director, Joe Jones (pictured), explained the possible significance of the bottle in a press release last week

The witch bottle tradition dates back to the Middle Ages, when people in Britain would fill jugs and other containers with sharp objects like nails, pins and thorns, as well as personal items like hair, nail clippings and even human urine. 

The personal items were meant to lure witches and evil spirits into the container, where they’d be trapped by the sharp objects.   

The tradition was brought to North America by colonial immigrants, where it was still in use in the mid-19th century, historians say.  

‘Witch bottles are the type of things people would use more generally in famine, political strife or feeling under threat,’ Jones explained. 

‘The Union troops were definitely under all those kinds of existential threats or fears.’

‘Given the perceived threat of Confederate attack and general hostility of local residents, [an officer] had good reason to pull all the stops and rely on folk traditions from his community in Pennsylvania to help protect his temporary home away from home.’

WMCAR archaeologists explained that Union soldiers may have relied on folk traditions such as 'witch bottles' during the war because they were constantly under threat. The image above shows the Battle of Williamsburg, which took place near the site where the bottle was found

WMCAR archaeologists explained that Union soldiers may have relied on folk traditions such as ‘witch bottles’ during the war because they were constantly under threat. The image above shows the Battle of Williamsburg, which took place near the site where the bottle was found

Some 200 witch bottles have been documented in Great Britain, but less than a dozen have been found in the United States.

‘It’s a good example of how a singular artifact can speak volumes,’ Jones said. 

‘It’s really a time capsule representing the experience of Civil War troops, a window directly back into what these guys were going through occupying this fortification at this period in time.’

Jones stressed that the witch bottle theory is just that – theoretical – and the real story behind the artifact will likely never be determined.   



Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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