William & Mary archeologists believe this bottle full of nails is a kind of talisman for warding off evil spirits.
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At first, when archaeologists unearthed a cloudy blue bottle full of broken nails at a Civil War-era site in York County, Virginia, they didn't think much of it.

"It was this glass bottle full of nails, broken, but all there, near an old brick hearth," Joe Jones, director of the William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research (WMCAR), said in a statement. "We thought it was unusual but weren't sure what it was."

The bizarre artifact was discovered at a site called Redoubt 9, a former Confederate fortification complex. The fort was one of string of 14 "mini-forts" between the James and York rivers intended to protect Richmond, though it fell to Union troops in the Battle of Williamsburg in 1862.

Today the remnants of the fort sit in the highway median between exits 238 and 242 on I-64. The 2016 WMCAR dig, done in partnership with the Virginia Department of Transportation, preceded an interstate widening project.

"The Union troops were likely tasked with holding and repairing the fortification whenever they had reason to expect Confederate assault," Jones explained. "They were building up a fortification, so we just assumed they needed a place to keep their nails and used a bottle."

But, given the artifact's contents and context, WMCAR staff member Oliver Mueller-Heubach and WMCAR founder Robert Hunter had a suspicion that it was more than that. The duo believe that the nail-filled vessel is likely a rare ritual item known as a "witch bottle," a kind of talisman for warding off evil spirits.

Witch Bottle 2
Credit: Robert Hunter

As Jones explained, a person would bury the bottle under or near their hearth, with the belief that the heat from the hearth would energize the nails into breaking a witch's spell.

"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."

While nearly 200 witch bottles have turned up in Great Britain, less than a dozen have been found in the United States.

Sadly, there's no real way of knowing whether it's a charm to ward off evil spirits or just a bottle full of nails. According to Jones, most witch bottles contain relics of those who buried them, like nail clippings, or locks of hair. Because this bottle recovered was broken at the top, it's practically impossible to know who made it and why.

But, if you ask us, the mystery around it makes it even cooler.