Civil War find could be rare ‘witch bottle’

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It seems an unremarkable discovery. But a bottle found by archaeologists on the site of an American Civil War redoubt may have had a supernatural purpose.

Back in 2016, the William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research (WMCAR) conducted a project near Interstate 64 in Williamsburg, Virginia.

A possible ‘witch bottle’ found in a Civil War redoubt near Williamsburg, Virginia. Image: Robert Hunter, WMCAR.
A possible ‘witch bottle’ found in a Civil War redoubt near Williamsburg, Virginia. Image: Robert Hunter, WMCAR.

Among their findings was a green bottle, next to the remains of a hearth built by Union troops at Redoubt 9. This was one of a series of small fortifications erected by the Confederates, but later occupied by Federal troops.

Filled with iron nails, the bottle was initially thought to have been placed there for storage. But Oliver Mueller-Heubach and Robert Hunter, staff members at WMCAR, have theorised that it is likely to be a rare ‘witch bottle’.

Originating in England during the Middle Ages, this type of talisman was introduced to North America by colonial immigrants.

Placed next to a hearth, it was believed the heat would warm the inside of the bottle and trap malevolent forces.

Nearly 200 such bottles have been found in Britain. But fewer than a dozen have been uncovered in the United States.

Although the team cannot be certain about the bottle’s nature, the existence of nails within, as well as the location, suggest their theory is credible.

The area around the Redoubt saw vicious fighting between Union and Confederate troops. For the men, there would have been plenty of ‘evil forces’ to ward off.

‘It’s a good example of how a singular artefact can speak volumes’, said Joe Jones, director of WMCAR.

‘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.’

Other artefacts found on the site include bullets, uniform buttons, and horseshoe nails.

This article was published in the April 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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