Highlighting the age-old adage that one man's junk is another man's treasure, a creepy artifact known by researchers as a witch bottle was discovered near an old 19th-century encampment hearth off Interstate 64 near Williamsburg, Virginia.
Recovered from a Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) archaeological dig at the historic Civil War site of Redoubt 9, this seemingly innocuous blue-green glass vessel filled with rusted, broken iron nails is a strange curio that hearkens back to a more superstitious era.
The exact location of its unearthing is familiar to locals as the area covering exits 238 to 242 of I-64 in York County, which was a former fortification complex built by the Confederates, yet occupied by Union troops following the Battle of Williamsburg in 1862. It was one of a network of 14 mini-forts created along a line between the James and York rivers to thwart Federal assaults on Richmond using the Peninsula.
“It was this glass bottle full of nails, broken, but all there, near an old brick hearth,” said Joe Jones, director of the William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research (WMCAR) in a statement. “We thought it was unusual, but weren’t sure what it was.”
The dig was originally conducted in 2016 prior to the recent widening of the highway, led by former WMCAR project archaeologist Chris Shephard in partnership with VDOT.
“The Union troops were likely tasked with holding and repairing the fortification whenever they had reason to expect Confederate assault,” Jones said. “They were building up a fortification, so we just assumed they needed a place to keep their nails and used a bottle.”
However, the real use of the odd jug was first hinted at by WMCAR staff member Oliver Mueller-Heubach and WMCAR founder Robert Hunter. Taking into consideration the bottle's weird contents and the dire conditions that existed back then, with Redoubt 9 occasionally occupied by the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry between May 1862 and August 1863 during violent Confederate raids, the two scholars theorized that the nail-filled artifact is most likely a rare ritual item known as a “witch bottle.”
Jones explained that witch bottles were types of talismans to fend off evil spirits, with an afflicted person burying the nail-stuffed bottle beneath or beside their hearth, with the notion that heat from the fire would radiate and energize the nails into snapping a witch’s spell. They're exceedingly rare to find, and less than 200 of the superstitious relics have been documented in Great Britain, and no more than a dozen ever found in the United States.
“It’s a good example of how a singular artifact can speak volumes,” Jones said. “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.
“There were a lot of casualties and fear during this period. The Union troops were an occupying force in enemy territory throughout most of the war, so there were plenty of bad spirits and energy to ward off.”
With witches all the rage in popular culture right now due to Netflix shows like The Witcher and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and the new Gretel & Hansel feature arriving this week, this witch bottle is an intriguing cultural find whose ultimate maker or purpose might remain a mystery forever.