A disturbing find of a purported “witch bottle” in Virginia has experts wondering if some Civil War soldiers were more afraid of witches than anything else. Even in this modern day, some people still believe in the malign power of witchcraft. Far more people believed in witches casting hexes and curses a few centuries ago. In America, there’s hardly a schoolchild who hasn’t at least heard of the Salem witch trials of the 1690s. Witchcraft continued to be perceived as a real threat for at least a century and half after the trials occurred, and many regular people took active steps to protect themselves against evil magic.
According to Smithsonian magazine, proof of those attempts to ward off evil may have been uncovered in Virginia. In 2016, a group of archaeologists were excavating along a stretch of interstate, around a Civil War encampment known as Redoubt 9, in the southern part of Virginia. In the course of the work, they found bits of broken dinnerware and the remains of an old hearth. Near the hearth, they found a bottle made of blue glass, which contained a number of nails. The bottle was made in Pennsylvania sometime between 1840 and 1860.
Although the researchers who found it didn’t have any real ideas about what it meant at the time of its discovery, now experts have concluded that it was a witch bottle, a talisman meant to protect against witchcraft and black magic.
According to a statement put out by William and Mary University, the university’s center for archaeology often works in tandem with the Virginia Department of transportation, excavating proposed roadwork sites to check for archaeological sites before road work commences. It was that team which found Redoubt 9 and the bottle.
The redoubt was originally constructed by Confederate forces, but was used by the Union army after the Battle of Williamsburg in 1862. It was one of a string of 14 mini-forts that was used to help Richmond. Given that it seems likely that Union soldiers had to main the fortification when they thought they would need it, finding a bottle full of nails didn’t seem remarkable, at the outset. If the bottle really was a witch bottle, however, it would one of only a dozen or so ever found in the US.
Such bottles were filled with a variety of items, some of which, such as fingernails and urine, were a little off-putting. Those things were meant to act as a magnet to attract evil spells. The bottles also contained sharp items such as nails, pins, or even metal hooks, whose purpose was to either to capture the evil and keep it contained, or to repel it and turn it back on the person responsible for it.
When the bottles were filled, they were buried upside-down near doorways or hearths as a form of protection. When buried near a hearth, the belief was that the fire would heat the bits of metal, amplifying their effectiveness. The contents of such bottles could vary depending on whether they were created with the intention of breaking a spell that had been cast on the victim, or if it was meant to be a protective measure against future malign acts.
It may be rare to find a witch bottle in the US, but many more have been discovered around the UK. In fact, more than 200 of them have been found in UK, some dating back to the 1600s, when fear of witches was at its highest.
The director for the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research, Joe Jones, noted that such talismans would be more likely to be used in periods of great turmoil, where people were feeling especially vulnerable to outside forces, such as during times of famine or national upheavals. Clearly, a civil conflict would fall into that category, as well. It’s unsurprising that a soldier in Virginia might choose to make a witch bottle to invoke every protection he could to help ensure his and his comrades survival, even arcane ones.
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Since the top of the bottle was broken, any liquid it may have held drained away a long time ago, there’s no real way for the researchers to know for certain if it was, in fact, a witch bottle, or just a handy place for some craftsman to store his nails, but the first answer seems more likely to experts considering the oddity and rarity of storing nails in a glass bottleneck bottle.