"Witch Bottle" Used To Ward Off Evil Spirits Found At US Civil War Fort

Researchers think this glass bottle may have been a “witch bottle” used to ward off evil spirits. Robert Hunter/William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research.

If you ever stumble across an old bottle filled with rusty nails, be sure you don’t annoy any sinister spirits. 

In 2016, archaeologists were carrying out a dig at Redoubt 9, a Civil War-era fort built by Confederate troops and then taken by Union forces in York County, Virginia. Among the ruins of a brick-lined fireplace, they discovered an unassuming glass bottle.

“It was this glass bottle full of nails, broken, but all there, near an old brick hearth. We thought it was unusual, but weren’t sure what it was,” Joe Jones, director of the William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research (WMCAR), said in a statement.

The significance of the artifact remained unknown for some time until two researchers at the WMCAR came across a curious folk tradition that involved using bottles as talismans to ward off evil spirits. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, many people in Britain would commonly place a nail-filled bottle under or near their hearth. It was placed at the base of the chimney, supposedly the entry of choice for witches, where the heat of the fire would energize the nails and provide a protective force against witches. 

The team estimates that nearly 200 so-called “witch bottles” have been documented in Britain, but less than a dozen have been found in the US. It’s a folk tradition that is thought to have started in East Anglia, a hotspot of Britain's witch panic, and was brought to North America by colonial immigrants.

“It’s a good example of how a singular artifact can speak volumes,” Jones continued. “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.”

People would also commonly added nail clippings, locks of hair, and urine to witch bottles, just to give it that extra kick. However, the bottle discovered at Redoubt 9 was damaged at the top, so it’s unclear what other relics it might have once had hidden inside. It’s also uncertain of whether it truly is a witch bottle, but given the context of the find, the researchers say it’s a pretty solid theory. 

Besides, who could blame these soldiers for feeling a little on edge? Redoubt 9 was one of 14 mini-forts constructed on a line between the James and York rivers in Virginia. After the fort was captured by Union troops in 1862, it was only occupied by the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry intermittently between May 1862 and August 1863. The WMCAR says it was only occupied during “periods of strife,” such as under the threat of an incoming Confederate raid. 

With all of that on your plate, the last thing you’d need is trouble from a malicious spirit. 

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