Location: Langton Matravers.
Message in a Bottle
found under a stone wall
near Langton Matravers.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth Century it was common practice for those who possessed the knowledge of counteracting the effects of an evil spell or bewitchment of concealing a Bellarmine Jar (grey stoneware bottle) or a glass bottle underneath the floor boards, the hearth stone or in the cavity of walls of a dwelling. Inside the bottle there would be placed a number of items that were believed to do harm to any witch that placed a hex upon the household.
These items consisted of a number of bent iron nails, thorns, human hair and nail clippings, plus substances of blood, saliva and morecommonly, urine.
Once the objects and substances had been placed in the bottle, the vessel was placed near an open fire, and allowed to boil overnight. This would draw the culprit to the scene to be identified, or alternately cause the witch so much agony that he or she was obliged to lift the curse.
In the Dorset Echo 27th October 2005, there was a story about a historic find that was made two years previously, and was going on display at the Castle View Visitor Centre at Corfe Castle. The find was an unusual bottle discovered buried upside down on National Trust land under a wall near Langton Matravers.
“Experts believe that the rare find is a 'witch bottle' used to fend off evil spirits which were thought to cause horned cattle distemper. The bottles contents was dark brown syrup and is one of only four bottles discovered in the UK with liquid still inside.
Since then, a series of tests has revealed the liquid contained 30 different components including a salt solution - known as holy water at the time - covered with a layer of decayed animal fat.
National Trust archaeologist Nancy Grace, who is based at Corfe Castle, said:
"It is possible in this period that when livestock suffered ill health which was inexplicable to its owner, witchcraft was identified as the cause. "It may be that this fear led someone to fill this bottle with a mixture of animal fat and holy water to kill the evil spirit." Parish reports of the mid-1700s show horned cattle distemper existed for 12 years in the counties around Dorset.”
For more information about the history and superstitions that surround folk charms. Visit APOTROPAIOS. It also includes a page on Folk Magic in Dorset. An inventory of concealed finds from the county compiled by Jeremy Harte.