An Introduction to Witch Bottles: Decoys, Spirit Traps or Counter – Witchcraft Measure? by Wayne Perkins

The witch bottle is one of the most immediately recognizable magical objects found among the repertoire of intentionally concealed items. Archaeologists are now systematically recording ritual deposits comprising stoneware bellarmine (or bartmaan) jugs from ancient buildings contexts. Witch bottles are often found buried in the inverted position either under the fireplace hearth or under the principal threshold of 16th and 17th century buildings.

Their squat, anthropomorphic form, accentuated by the fearsome bearded face (or mask) gives the bulbous salt-glazed jug an almost human appearance.

Their contents, often comprising human urine and nail cuttings – combined with bent pins and nails – have all the hallmarks of a non-Christian, even heretical ‘ritual’ act. However, closer examination of their contents has shown that there is a far greater variety of constituent ingredients than hitherto appreciated. And it is the contents which provide a clue as to the agency behind their intended use…

The nature of the contents and the processes involved suggests that their creation would not have been undertaken lightly and it is likely that it would have required the engagement of a local cunning man or wise woman to do so.

Their association with the ritual protection of the house is clear – but was the intent that they were meant to act as a decoy to divert evil influences, to function as a spirit trap or to work as a counter-witchcraft measure designed to fend off the possibility of psychic attack or bewitchment?

This illustrated talk will act as both an introduction to the current understanding of their use as well as outlining a number of different ways in which they were deployed over time


Wayne Perkins has been an archaeologist for over 22 years, seven of those spent excavating in France. He is a member of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists.

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