Civil War-Era ‘Witch Bottle’ Used to Keep Evil Spirits at Bay Discovered in Virginia

Robert Hunter
Robert Hunter

When people think of Civil War artifacts, they may picture cannonballs or 19th-century rifles. An item recently dug up from the ruins of a fort in Virginia isn't a weapon, but it was likely viewed by Union soldiers as a source of protection. The artifact—a glass jug filled with rusted nails—is believed to be a witch bottle, or a talisman used to ward off evil spirits, Live Science reports.

Archaeologists uncovered the so-called witch bottle during a dig organized by the Virginia Department of Transportation at Redoubt 9, a Civil War-era site that sits in the median between exits 238 and 242 on Interstate 64. The fortification was constructed by Confederate soldiers in 1861 and taken over by Union troops later in the war. The glass bottle was made in Pennsylvania, which indicates it was probably left there by a Union soldier from the Pennsylvania cavalry that likely occupied the site.

It's easy to mistake the bottle for trash. Archaeologists found it near the fort's hearth and initially assumed it had been used by soldiers to store nails for repairs. But to someone familiar with old English superstitions, the artifact tells a much more interesting story.

In 16th and 17th century England, it was common for people to use witch bottles to protect themselves from curses placed on them by the witches that were feared to be everywhere at the time. The "cursed" would fill a glass or ceramic container with bent pins or nails and even add urine and human hair in some cases. They would then bury the bottle near the house's hearth, the idea being that the heat would cause it to shatter, thus breaking the witches spell.

This type of practice was much less common in Civil War-era America, but the artifact shows that the superstition introduced to the country by British immigrants had survived into the 19th century. It also illustrates the fear soldiers must have felt at the height of the war and the lengths they took to ease those worries.

“There were a lot of casualties and fear during this period," Joe Jones, the director of the William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research, which works closely with the Virginia Department of Transportation on archaeological work, said in a statement. "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.”

According to the WMCAR, this witch bottle is one of fewer than a dozen that have been discovered in the United States.

[h/t Live Science]

More Than 350 Franklin Expedition Artifacts Retrieved from Shipwreck of HMS Erebus

Drone image above the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Drone image above the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

From a shallow Arctic gulf, a treasure trove of objects from the HMS Erebus shipwreck has been brought to the surface for the first time in more than 170 years. The items could offer new clues about the doomed Franklin expedition, which left England in 1845 to search for the Northwest Passage. All 129 people perished from still-uncertain causes—a mystery that was fictionalized in the AMC series The Terror in 2018.

Marc-André Bernier, head of underwater archaeology at Parks Canada, said in a teleconference from Ottawa that this year’s research season was the most successful since the discovery of the HMS Erebus shipwreck in 2014. Parks Canada divers and Inuit located the HMS Terror, the second ship of the Franklin expedition, in 2016.

Parks Canada diver at HMS Erebus shipwreck
A Parks Canada diver retrieves a glass decanter at the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

From mid-August to mid-September, 2019, the Parks Canada and Inuit research team began systematically excavating the large and complex shipwreck. “We focused on areas that had not been disturbed since the ship had sunk,” Bernier said. “Right now, our focus is the cabins of the officers, and we’re working our way toward the higher officers. That’s where we think we have a better chance of finding more clues to what happened to the expedition, which is one of the major objectives.”

Over a total of 93 dives this year, archaeologists concentrated on three crew members’ cabins on the port side amidships: one belonging to the third lieutenant, one for the steward, and one likely for the ice master. In drawers underneath the third lieutenant’s bed, they discovered a tin box with a pair of the officer’s epaulets in “pristine condition,” Bernier said. They may have belonged to James Walter Fairholme, one of the three lieutenants on the Erebus.

HMS Erebus shipwreck epaulets
A pair of epaulets, which may have belonged to third lieutenant James Walter Fairholme, was found at the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

In the steward’s pantry, where items used to serve the captain were stored, divers carefully brushed away sediment to reveal dozens of plates, bowls, dish warmers, strainers, and more— about 50 serving pieces total. Bernier said some of the most exciting finds were personal objects that could be linked to individuals, such as a lead stamp with the inscription “Ed. Hoar,” for Edmund Hoar, the 23-year-old captain’s steward. They also found a piece of red sealing wax with a fingerprint of its last user.

Dishes at HMS Erebus shipwreck
Divers found dishes in the steward's pantry at the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

Other intriguing items brought to the surface include a glass decanter, found in the officers’ mess area on the lower deck, which may have held brandy or port; a high-quality hairbrush with a few human hairs still in the bristles; and a cedar-wood pencil case. All of the artifacts are jointly owned by the Government of Canada and Inuit.

Hairbrush from HMS Erebus shipwreck
A hairbrush discovered at the HMS Erebus shipwreck still had a few human hairs in the bristles.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

The extensive recovery was made possible by a new research barge, which was moored over the shipwreck and provided hyperbaric chambers and hot-water suits. While wearing the suits, divers were able to stay in the frigid waters for about 90 minutes at a time; they spent over 100 hours examining the wreck this year.

The HMS Erebus’s size and excellent state of preservation mean there’s much more to discover, Bernier said. The Erebus is 108 feet long, and though the upper deck has collapsed, there are 20 cabins on the main deck. They’ve examined only three so far. “There are tens of thousands of artifacts still there,” Bernier tells Mental Floss. “We’re going to be very focused and save what needs to be saved, and go to places [in the wreck] where there are good chances of finding the most information that is valuable for the site.”

Parks Canada and Inuit archaeologists
Parks Canada and Inuit archaeologists set up instruments near the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

As with the findings from previous research seasons, many questions about the shocking demise of the Franklin expedition remain unanswered. How and when did the HMS Erebus sink after both ships were abandoned in spring 1848, having been trapped in ice since September 1846? Which officers and crew were among the 24 men who had died by that time, and why so many?

Bernier tells Mental Floss there’s even a new mystery to solve. Near Edmund Hoar’s items, divers found another artifact that also bore the name of a crew member—mate Frederick Hornby. “Originally, when the ships set sail, he was not on Erebus, he was on Terror,” Bernier says. “So this object jumped ship at one point. How did that happen? Was Hornby transferred to Erebus; did they abandon one ship and put everybody on the other one? Was it something somebody recovered after he died? Was it given to somebody? With one object, we can start to see [new] questions. Hopefully, by piecing all of this together, we can actually start pushing the narrative of the story in some interesting direction.”

Demolition of a Condemned Pennsylvania Bar Reveals 18th-Century Log Cabin

taviphoto, iStock via Getty Images
taviphoto, iStock via Getty Images

Many unusual things have been discovered in the structures of old buildings. When contractors began demolishing a bar in Washingtonville, Pennsylvania, they didn't expect to find a separate building concealed within its paneling.

The log cabin uncovered in the bar was built as far back as the 18th century, Newsweek reports. Contractors were in the process of tearing down the condemned establishment when they noticed antique, exposed beams inside the building additions. As they removed more panels, a whole log cabin began to take shape.

The structure consists of two stories and spans 1200 square feet. The beams appear to be made of ax-cut hickory wood, but beyond that, little is known about the cabin or where it came from. A borough map from 1860 depicts a larger building where the cabin would be, indicating that the first additions were built onto it more than 150 years ago. The bar built at the site has been closed for around 12 years and condemned for more than three.

Washingtonville council president Frank Dombroski says the cabin is salvageable, but taking the necessary steps to preserve it will be difficult. The community lacks the funds necessary to rehabilitate it where it stands and keep it as a historic landmark. Instead, the council has decided to disassemble the structure piece-by-piece, number and catalog it, and reconstruct it someplace else. Until then, the building in its exposed state will remain in its original location on the corner of Water and Front Streets.

[h/t Newsweek]

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