It’s a familiar trope: A priest holds a crucifix in front of a possessed person, a vampire recoils at the sight of garlic, but can objects that are considered good truly protect us from evil entities? People have used inanimate objects as protection since antiquity. Amulets and talismans are widely known, but what about witch bottles and smoked cats? I discuss these two horrific archaeological discoveries in my upcoming book, Evil Archaeology, available April 1st. Below is an excerpt from the book on witch bottles and smoked cats, just in time for Halloween.
Witch Bottles and Smoked Cats
One horrific find that archaeologist uncover more often than you might expect is the witch bottle. The practice of making witch bottles and burying them as a charm to ward off evil originated in England in the late Middle Ages but continued well into the twentieth century both in England and the United States (Manning, 2014). There were many different reasons people used witch bottles, but the one most often cited is bewitchment. These bottles were not like the ones used to trap jinn; that would not be horrific. Instead, these bottles contained urine and other bodily fluids mixed with insects, pins, and sharp objects that were meant to magically injure the witch and make it too painful for her to urinate. It was an oddly specific way to punish a witch.
In addition to punishing the witch, by burying a witch bottle at you home, you could prevent an evil witch attack or curse. In 2014, archaeologist unearthed a beautifully preserved glass witch bottle in Newark-on-Trent in the United Kingdom. The six-inch-tall green bottle was buried at a building complex known as the Old Magnus Buildings to protect the area from evil spirits and witches. The bottle dated to around 1680 CE. Historical evidence suggests most witch bottles used a similar recipe, but in England, some witch bottles were a little different. Some of the materials found in English witch bottles include leather hearts pierced with needles, human hair, fingernail clippings, sulfur, tallow, bone, pages from books, and written spells. Sometimes, English witch bottles are found with unidentified liquids that have remained unidentified because they have not undergone a chemical analysis. Witch bottles can be found in old homes and buildings behind walls, around chimneys, and under floorboards. If you have a very old home, you could have one buried somewhere, especially if you live in New England. Lucky you!
Possibly for similar reasons, cats described as “smoked” have been found buried around homes. The gruesome and sad practice is thought to be even older than burying witch bottles. The amount of these smoked cats found in standing stone structures in the British Isles and north-central Europe “suggest[s] a possible Anglo-Saxon or Norse origin for the custom” (ibid.). In Germany, archaeologists have recorded almost one hundred of these poor kitties. There were even seventeen found in Australia, with many more expected worldwide.
Although there was skepticism about whether these cats were intentionally mummified and entombed in buildings, archaeologists more often find that the cats in these burials are pinned or tied in various poses, along with rodents or birds positioned as if they were in the “midst of an attack or chase, or positioned with their prey in their mouths” (Sheehan, 1990). There is some disagreement as to whether these cats were buried alive, but it seems more likely that they were buried after death.
Unlike witch bottles, research into the ritual concealment of cats in buildings is often overlooked, even though there have been identified nearly forty cases of dried cats in US buildings in the Mid-Atlantic region. Workers renovating the Ohio Statehouse found a shoebox dating to the nineteenth century that contained the skeletal remains of a cat behind the plaster wall in the cupola at the top of the rotunda. The difficulty reaching the location indicates it was clearly a deliberate act (Manning, 2014). One theory to explain the rationale behind this practice is that it was a way to ward off vermin, as a sort of sympathetic magic. This theory makes some sense considering the fact that numerous cats were posed in aggressive postures, often with prey. However, some archaeologists argue this may have been a ritual sacrifice to the building in exchange for structural safety.
To read more on the more on the history of witches, evil, and gruesome archaeological discoveries, be sure to check out Evil Archaeology. It is available for pre-order at Amazon and Barnes & Noble and will be available everywhere on April 1st.
Manning, M. Chris. “The Material Culture of Ritual Concealments in the United States.” Historical Archaeology 48, no. 3 (2014): 52–83. doi:10.1007/bf03376937.
Sheehan, John. “A Seventeenth Century Dried Cat from Ennis Friary.” North Munster Antiquarian Journal 32 (1990): 64–69