Bottle Magic at the Museum of London

Examining the Shoreditch bottle. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

Last week the Inner Lives team was invited to the Museum of London stores by Nigel Jeffries, post-Roman pottery specialist, and James Wright, built heritage specialist. Following conversations on Twitter about ‘witch-bottles’ (i.e. bottles that have been deposited in a variety of contexts containing such items as pins, nails, urine, etc.), Nigel was eager for us to see the museum’s large collection – and we were even more eager to take him up on his offer!

However, before I describe our trip, a disclaimer: ‘witch-bottle’ is a loaded term and one that we try to avoid, unless we’re certain that the bottle in question was used to repel witchcraft or counter a witch’s curse via notions of, for example, sympathetic magic. Fortunately there is some contemporaneous literature describing their functions, such as nineteenth and early twentieth-century news articles relating to local customs and legal cases. This has been explored by Owen Davies and Timothy Easton in Ronald Hutton’s book Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain (2015) (which also includes a paper by Brian Hoggard specifically about these bottles – see his website). These sources provide us with some insight into the purposes of such bottles – and many do appear to have been concealed within a building as a counter-magical device.

But not all of these deposited bottles had something to do with witchcraft. Some, for example, were employed as love-charms or as cures for physical ailments, such as warts. While the purposes of deposited bottles that have been found empty remain a mystery to us – as do the ones that contain items other than pins and nails, such as this glass bottle built into the wall above a doorway in a farmhouse in Normandy, which contains a feather. This is why we don’t lump all deposited bottles together under the term “witch-bottle”, but prefer to treat each one individually.

Glass bottle containing a feather found above a door in Normandy. Courtesy of Danny Rippon.

The Museum of London has an impressive collection of deposited bottles that illustrates just how different these finds can be. Taking two examples that demonstrate this:

The first one we looked at was the more common stoneware vessel known as a bartmann (or colloquially as a ‘bellarmine’, probably named after Cardinal Bellarmine), particularly popular during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Museum of London has a large collection of bellarmines, easily recognizable by their round shapes, the motif of the bearded face, and, for later examples, the inclusion of a medallion in the middle of the body. Most of them were used as simple vessels, with no ritual or magical function, but some of them were found deposited with unusual fillings.

Just some of the bellarmines in the museum. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

The example we looked at was a slightly later one, dating to 1670-1710, and was found buried under the floor of an eighteenth-century house just off Shoreditch High Street in London. It was clear that the red brick floor tiles had been removed, a hole dug, the bottle deposited, and then the tiles re-laid, showing that quite a lot of effort went into its concealment. As was common with concealed bottles, this one contained pins – sixty of them, all bent – along with the remains of rusty nails and a possible piece of wood or bone. We believe that the pins were intended to cause pain to a witch or whoever had cast a spell.

The Shoreditch bottle. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

The sixty bent pins from the Shoreditch bottle. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

And now for something completely different: a small, brown, plastic bottle, instantly recognizable as a late twentieth-century medicine bottle, which was found in the Thames foreshore in 1988.

The small medicine bottle from the Thames foreshore. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

Photographing the twentieth-century bottle deposit. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

If the bottle had been empty then it probably would have been disregarded as rubbish – but it wasn’t empty. It contained a tiny bottle of oil of cloves, associated with toothache; two coins – a 1982 halfpenny and a US dime; an unidentified piece of metal; and forty human teeth.

The bottle of oil of cloves. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

Forty human teeth from the Thames foreshore bottle. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

Was this a late twentieth-century example of sympathetic magic, with the practitioner depositing teeth in order to cure their own toothache? Were the coins a form of offering or payment; a mode of ritual exchange? And what was the significance of deposition in the Thames?

This bottle certainly poses more questions than answers, but it also clearly shows us two very important things. Firstly, not all bottle deposits are the same, and so they shouldn’t be treated the same. And secondly, belief in ‘bottle magic’ didn’t disappear in the eighteenth, nineteenth, or even twentieth century, but simply continued in a different form, such is the malleability of magic.

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