September 23, 2007


Lately, I have been thinking about the 'powers' we humans invest into seemingly inamimate objects...during my research, I came across this very interesting article on WITCH-BOTTLES...I have some other ideas about this subject that I am working on for superdigit, so keep your ear to the the meantime, check this out.

The practice of concealing witch-bottles appears to have started in the sixteenth century. Almost invariably in the 16th and 17th centuries a grey stoneware bottle colloquially known as the ‘bellarmine’ was used. It got its name (after the practicebegan) from a Cardinal called Bellarmine who published much anti-Protestant literature. These bottles are pot bellied and have masks stuck onto them of a grim looking bearded man. The bottles are mostly of German stoneware and are known as bartmann bottles.

This bellarmine witch-bottle was discovered beneath the hearth in an old cottage in Felmersham, Bedfordshire in late 2001. After being x-rayed, photographed and examined it was found to contain hair, pins, and it tested positively for urine.

During and after the 16th and 17th centuries glass bottles were also used for the practice, although, based on the current information in the archive, the practice appears to have been generally less popular after this period. See the photo below of the two Pershore glass phials - they were part of a 19th century hoard of concealed items.

Witch-bottles are usually found concealed beneath the hearth or threshold but sometimes beneath the floor and in walls. Of around 200 English witch-bottles on record, 130 are ‘bellarmines’. The contents of these bottles are fascinating and appear to constitute a kind of spell. Of the contents which are identifiable, by far the most common was iron pins or nails (95%). The second most common was human hair (25%). Another ingredient which is very difficult to test for if the bottle has leaked at any point is urine. Roughly 25% of those with contents have been tested for the presence of urine and all proved positive. So, we have iron, urine and hair as the most common ingredients. Other ingredients such as small bones, thorns, pieces of wood and, in a few cases, pieces of fabric cut into the shape of a heart are sometimes found.

This bottle was found in Reigate, Surrey and is thought to have been deposited somewhere between 1700-1750. It was discovered corked containing liquid and nine bent pins in a disturbance adjacent to the chalk floor of a 17th century building being excavated in London Road. Dr Alan Massey published his analysis of the contents in ‘The Reigate Witch-Bottle’, Current Archaeology, no 169, 2000, pp34-6.

This bottle is a good example of a glass bottle of an early period. The Pershore phials, see below, are also glass and were discovered with toys and three childrens shoes which provide evidence that the hoard was concealed in the mid-19th century. The phials contained a resin like substance, possible from a pine tree.

The locations in which these bottles are found is significant. There is an emphasis on placing these objects at entry and exit points of the building. The hearth was and is always open to the sky and represented a major security worry where supernatural entities were concerned. The doorway was naturally the other place that would need protecting as it would be opened and closed at regular intervals day or night. The use of iron pins in the bottles is significant as it had always been regarded as a magical metal.

The effort which went into concealing these bottles was large. How fearful of supernatural intrusion into your home would you have to be before you'd consider lifting your hearthstone, digging a hole and inserting a bottle filled with pins and urine?

Further reading:

Ralph Merrifield, ‘The Use of Bellarmines as Witch-Bottles’, Guildhall Miscellany, no 3, February 1954, offprint.
Ralph Merrifield, The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, 1987, Batsford, London.

above info and images from