How do you deal with a witch? In 17th century England, the answer was obvious: you prepare a ‘witch bottle’, with contents equally as bizarre as those in the cauldron of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. Witch bottles were white magic devices, that is they were used not by witches, but against witches: you collect some urine from the person who is being bewitched, put it in a bottle (often a stoneware pot or bellarmine) together with sharp objects such as thorns, pins or nails, and the resulting bottle will do ‘grievous harm’ to the witch as she tries to pass water.
Unfortunately, almost every excavated bottle has leaked during the intervening centuries leaving only tantalizing traces of phosphate to hint at a previous presence of urine.
However in 1993, David Williams discovered an intact witch bottle from under a cottage at 12-14 London Road, Reigate, which was demolished 2S0 years ago. This has now given a unique opportunity to study the contents with a formidable array of modern analytical instruments. Although the shape of the green glass wine bottle suggests it was made in about 168S, archaeological evidence points to a deposition date some time after 1720 and this is supported by the large number of impact scars on the bottle rim arising from a long, hard life before burial.
Had the bottle once contained urine? The liquid contained sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, sulphate, phosphate and nitrate ions, but virtually no organic material. The high concentration of nitrate was completely unexpected and it was only much later, after reading historical accounts describing the use of urine to make saltpetre (potassium nitrate) for gun-powder, that we realised nitrate was the final, conclusive indicator of a former presence of ancient urine; whilst the other ions do occur in urine, they could have arisen from other sources.
Urea, the major organic compound in human urine, is rapidly broken down by an enzyme, urease, into carbon dioxide and ammonia; further biological action can then, depending on the bacteria present, convert the ammonia into nitrate. The hiss of escaping gas heard by David Williams when the bottle was first opened was almost certainly due to a pressure of carbon dioxide and residual air.
The bottle also contained nine tiny brass pins, each bent into an L-shape. The very close similarity of the angles, measured from enlarged photographs, proves that all nine pins had been bent as a single bunch in which pins 1(102°), 2 (104°) and 3 (10S0)must have been at the front, pins 4 (111°), S (l1r), 6 (111°), 7 (112°) and 8 (113°) in the middle, and pin 9 (116°) at the back. Pin 9 also had the longest curve at the bend, as would be expected from the congestion caused by its eight neighbours in front. Simulation experiments with nine pieces of wire gave a similar spread of angles on bending and also demonstrated how difficult it was to bend nine pieces simultaneously. Nine was probably the maximum number of stiff brass pins which could be bent by a man (but probably not a woman?) Pins, both bent and straight, have been found in other witch bottles, the numbers varying from half a dozen or so to several hundreds.
Each pin seemed to have traces of black paint on it, but the electron microscope identified this coating as black copper(II) sulphide, CuS, and showed other patchy white deposits to be calcium phosphate. The source of sulphur in the CuS is not immediatelyobvious. However, bacteria (and time) may have released the sulphur from alkylsulphates, cysteine and methionine which are minor components in fresh urine. The copper metal from which the pins were made had been alloyed with both tin and zinc so that they could be referred to, correctly, as being made of either bronze or brass; pin 5 had a hardness of 185 Hv. Pin 9 was analysed using inductively-coupled plasma-mass spectrometry, a technique which samples an area only a few microns in diameter and thus causes no visible damage. The elements are grouped in square brackets to give their rank order of abundance: [Cu] > [Pb] > [Si, Sn, Ag, Na, P, As] [Sr,Mg,Ca,Ni,Fe,Mn] >[Sb,AI,Ge]> [Ti, Se] > [V, Cr]; also detectable were Rb, Cr, Cd, Pd, whilst S, Zn and the lanthanides were not reported on. Chemical wet tests showed that zinc, Zn, was very definitely present and also confirmed the presence of tin, Sn.
The small quantity of brownish solid debris, present at the bottom of the bottle, was shown by infrared spectroscopy and Xray powder diffraction to contain calcite (one form of calcium carbonate), silica and calcium phosphate.
Dried-up witch bottles are also sometimes found to contain human hair, nail-clippings and a piece of cloth in the shape of a heart. Were any of these present? Using the optical microscope it was possible to identify a number of intriguing items amongst the other mainly featureless material. Perhaps the most surprising were tiny fibre fragments of cotton, easily recognisable from the many characteristic twists along their length. Most of them were colourless but some (modern?) still possessed traces of black, blue and reddish-pink dyes; in one or two cases colourless, blue and pink areas could be seen on the same fibre implying that the cloth from which those fibres came had been dyed after it was woven. Wool fibres (one with its root still attached), linen fibres, animal hairs, a few human hairs, short pointed hairs, an insect’s leg and a little grass debris were also apparent. The cloth fibres were of such minuscule size that they may simply represent airborne dust which had settled in the empty bottle before the urine was added or, perhaps, after the bottle was opened.
Certain grasses such as tufted hair-grass (Deschampsia cespitosa) have very spiny leafedges, capable of doing a witch considerable harm when she passed water: possibly such grass material was used in this bottle. Whilst infrared spectra demonstrated that most of the silica in the debris was amorphous, in keeping with such a grass origin, X-ray diffraction showed that tiny amounts of quartz were also present. This crystalline form of silica may have been introduced into the bottle accidentally as sandy soil particles adhering to the grass root system.
The cork may have been coated with beeswax. As the bottle had been buried upside down, any insoluble material would have lain in close contact with the cork for nearly 300 years. The cork itself is now dark brown and, being somewhat brittle when dried, could be ground down into the necessary powder required for infrared spectroscopy.
Whilst much of the adhering solid phosphate proved to be calcium phosphate and calcium carbonate, another component was evident from the occurrence of two prominent bands at 2919 and 2851 cm\ a region of the infrared spectrum which is highly characteristic of compounds possessing an aliphatic carbon chain; the same two peaks occur, less strongly, in the infrared spectrum of the debris. A low resolution mass spectrum of the debris showed peaks corresponding to long-chain fatty acids and long-chain alcohols which might arise from traces of (hydrolysed?) beeswax. Two examples are the peaks at 256 and 284 mass units corresponding to palmitic acid and stearic acid.
In conclusion, may we urge archaeologists to have their materials analysed as soon as possible after exposure to air. Some of the species identified in this work may have arisen from ‘rearrangement’ reactions brought on by oxidation or biological action after the bottle was opened in 1994 (slight fungal growth was evident on some microscope slides). As an extreme example, the soluble components from a witch bottle found in Exton, Rutland, have changed markedly since 1984. The large amounts of (poisonous) oxalate and phosphate originally found in the liquid by Hector and Morgan were shown recently (1999) by our ion chromatograph to have all but disappeared although, unexpectedly, peaks due to sulphate and nitrate (species not expected and, therefore, not tested for in 1984) were present. Perhaps this Rutland bottle had once contained both oxalate-producing plant material and urine, but it is more likely that the small quantities of nitrate and sulphate are derived from decay of the same plant material which produced the oxalate and troscopy. Whilst much of the adhering solid phosphate.
For witch bottles generally see: The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, by Ralph Merrifield (B.T.Batsford).
For the excavation of the witch bottle see:
Surrey Archaeological Society Bulletin 275, January 1993.
Surrey Archaeological Society Bulletin 316, December 1997.