In 2016, archaeologists excavating sections of a southern Virginia interstate unearthed dinnerware and a brick hearth at a Civil War encampment called Redoubt 9. Near the hearth, they found a blue glass bottle made in Pennsylvania between 1840 and 1860. Eerily, the vessel was filled with nails.
At first, the team didn’t know what to make of the bottle, theorizing it was perhaps just a place to collect spare nails. Now, however, experts suspect the container may be a “witch bottle”—one of less than a dozen such protective talismans found in the United States to date, according to a statement from the College of William & Mary.
Witch bottles originated in England during the 1600s, when a witch panic was overtaking Europe. Per JSTOR Daily’s Allison C. Meier, the charms were believed to use hair, fingernail clippings or urine to draw in evil spirits that were then trapped in the bottle by sharp objects like nails, pins or hooks. An alternative theory regarding the vessels suggests they were used not to fight bad luck, but to attract good luck, longevity and health.
Placed near a hearth, metal items enclosed in the bottles would heat up, making them more effective. A witch bottle filled with fishing hooks, glass shards and human teeth, for instance, was found in an English pub’s chimney last November.
“Witch bottles are the type of things people would use more generally in famine, political strife or feeling under threat,” Joe Jones, director of the William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research, tells CNN’s Phil Gast. “The Union troops were definitely under all those kinds of existential threats or fears.”
Redoubt 9 was one of 14 encampments comprising the Williamsburg Line, a series of fortifications centered around Fort Magruder. Enslaved individuals conscripted by the Confederacy built the line in 1861. Redoubt 9, manned by the Sixth South Carolina, was taken by Union forces during the Battle of Williamsburg in 1862.
The Union Army’s Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry occupied Redoubt 9 intermittently over the course of the following year, defending the fortifications from repossession by the Confederacy, especially after raids on Union-controlled Williamsburg in September 1862.
“Given the perceived threat of Confederate attack and general hostility of local residents,” says Jones in the statement, “[a soldier] had good reason to pull all the stops and rely on folk traditions from his community in Pennsylvania to help protect his temporary home away from home.”
Moving forward, it remains unlikely that researchers will be able to confirm whether their find is a genuine witch bottle. The first question to ask would be whether there was urine in the bottle, Jones tells Peter Jamison of the Washington Post, but because the top of the bottle was broken off while it was buried, any liquid or other substances are long gone.
Jones, for his part, tells CNN he is convinced the vessel is a witch bottle.
“I think it is a manifestation of that folk practice,” he explains. “It is important to let people know about that.”