The archaeology of counter-witchcraft
and popular magic
One aspect of the study of witchcraft and magic, which has not yet been absorbed into the main stream of literature on the subject, is the archaeological record of the subject. Objects such as witch-bottles, dried cats, horse skulls, shoes, written charms and numerous other items have been discovered concealed inside houses in significant quantities from the early modern period until well into the twentieth century. The locations of these objects within houses, and primary literary sources relating to witch-bottles in particular, indicate that at least some of these artefacts were concealed to ward off witches and other perceived 'evil' influences such as ghosts and demons. The following discussion presents the results of a survey of United Kingdom museums and archaeological establishments, and introduces the current facts and theories about these artefacts.
The material record makes up a substantial body of evidence and provides unwitting testimony to the beliefs and practices of the past, many of which were never recorded at the time. When studying periods when levels of literacy were poor, physical artefacts represent one of the few direct links with the actions and beliefs of the silent majority. In the case of dried cats, horse skulls and other practices it seems that the physical record is the only record we have that these practices went on. By studying these objects we can learn about their distribution and frequency, and also some idea of the level of effort, and by association maybe the depth of belief, involved in the act of depositing these ritual objects. Their analysis also provides additional clues and signs of practices which have never been recorded on paper before, giving us tangible, physical evidence in ways which the written archive does not. Viewed in conjunction with the written archive, this physical resource could contribute greatly to what is known about witchcraft, fear of witchcraft and counter-witchcraft. With the notable exception of Ralph Merrifield's 1987 book, The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, work on this subject has been largely confined to small journals, magazines and newspaper articles.1 Excepting Merrifield's book, these papers tend to focus either on individual finds