Caution – May Contain Fingernails…

They kept this one quiet, folks. A bizarre artefact dug up back in 2004 in Greenwich has turned out to be a 17th Century Witch Bottle – complete with its frankly unsavoury contents.

It’s no magic lamp. You didn’t rub it for a witch to pop out and grant your every wish; it was more an insurance policy against witches casting evil spells on you.

You got yourself a bottle – this one’s a salt-glazed 9″ job (which I’m informed is a Bellarmine jar – there’s a splendid one in Greenwich Heritage Centre found near the Woolwich Ferry) with a flower and a jolly beardy face stamped into it (it’s either The Green Man – or our very own Rod in a former life*) and filled it up with urine, to represent the witch’s bladder.

Then you added a sprinkling of nails, pins, hair, fingernails – anything that would be seriously uncomfortable to said witch every time she needed a pee.

Recipe complete, you stoppered the whole lot up and gave it a good shake. The witch would be in such agony she’d reverse the spell. Bish-bosh…

As a final precuation, you buried it in the back garden.

Because Greenwich gets all the best finds, ours is the only one ever that’s been found complete with its contents – yup, including that 17th Century wee-wee. Usually they’re found empty – or whoever’s unearthed them has taken one sniff and tipped the whole lot down the sink.

But when the Maritime Trust dug this up, they shook it and it splashed around, despite being sealed, so they did the right thing and sent it Alan Massey, who’s an expert on such things.

The New Scientist’s article tells me that he did some CT scans and X-rays,which revealed urine, bent nails, a nail-pierced leather ‘heart,’ fingernail clippings hair and belly-button fluff. What I want to know is how any one found enough of the latter to know it was naval fluff…


Interestingly, a sample of the 380 year-old urine, after being carefully syringed out (now there’s a job…) showed that whoever supplied it was a smoker, and the nail clippings were manicured, so they were procured from someone who didn’t have to work all day long…

And finally, slooshing around in that lot, was some brimstone, just in case the hell-fire, damnation and naval-fluff didn’t work…

Blimey.

All this puts me in mind of a very strange (and little-known) character called Edward Lovett, who used to hang around these parts, collecting strange folkloric objects, many of which have ended up in the delightfully eccentric Cuming Museum and the equally-curious Wellcome Collection.

Which brings me rather neatly to an event this Sunday (7th) and the following Sunday (14th June, where Ross Macfarlane, who I heard speaking on this very subject a few weeks ago, will be conducting a Medical London Walk around Greenwich.

It’s the one included in the very fine Medical London boxed set and, if the rain holds off, one that I can recommend wholeheartedly.

But I’m going off-topic. For my Londonist friends, I am on the case about exactly where the witch bottle was dug up. It’s not as easy as it first looks – it was found by the Maritime Trust – who look after the Cutty Sark – and I can’t see that they would have been digging 1.5 metres under the dry dock at that time. Or at all for that matter. Breaking seals on dry docks are generally not recommended…

However they were also responsible for the Gipsy Moth IV, which, if memory serves, left Greenwich in 2004. She was in dry dock too; I can’t remember what happened to that, maybe it was demolished. More research is needed…

Update: I have now heard that it was discovered in a cellar and is in posession of the Greenwich Foundation. Just where that mystery cellar is, is still – well – a mystery…

Hopefully more will be revealed when I get my sweaty paws on the full report on ye olde witch bottle in the latest edition ofBritish Archaeology. And I’ve heard that the bottle itself will eventually go on show at the Naval College – in the new Discovery Centre, perhaps?

A tip of the tricorn to Roger for flagging this up…

*Just joshing there, folks. The Hairy One is supposed to be a German civic dignitary, sumbolising prosperity. The name ‘Bellarmine’ was a snigger at the unpopular Cardinal Bellarmine, partially because he persecuted Protestants, but mainly for his opposition to alcohol…


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