A witch bottle used to drive away evil spells has been found with all its contents. More than 200 witch bottles have already been discovered, but this is thought to be the first one with its cork intact. Dr Alan Massey, a retired chemistry lecturer from Loughborough, analysed the contents of the bottle after it was found buried upside-down at a depth of about 5ft by builders at a site in Greenwich, south-east London, in 2004. Like most early witch bottles, it was a bartmann or bellamine, a salt-glazed jar made in the Netherlands or Germany, stamped with the face of Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino (1542–1621).
It probably dates from the last quarter of the 17th century, and contained 12 bent iron nails (one of which pierced a small leather heart), eight brass pins, 10 adult fingernail pairings (not from a manual worker, but a person “of some social standing”), a quantity of hair and urine with traces of nicotine, indicating it had come from a smoker. There were also traces of sulphur, then known as brimstone, and what is thought to be navel fluff. The brimstone recalled the passage in Revelation where the beast and the false prophet were “cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone”.
The witch bottle will be displayed in the Discover Greenwich permanent exhibition, opening at the Old Naval College, Greenwich, in 2010.
Before this discovery, the best example, a glass bottle buried after 1720 in Reigate, Surrey, had been opened years before it could be examined. The bottles were used to cure the sick by turning spells on the witch. The practice continued into the early 20th century.