In 1981, four complete ‘bearded man’ or Bartmann bottles were discovered during work for a British Telecom exchange building in Duck Street, Abbots Ann. Anne Leaver, who lived opposite the site and suspected it to be the location of two cottages, alerted members of the Andover Archaeological Society when mechanical removal of the surface layers began and they they noted the existence of brick flooring and footings. A flint-lined well was also revealed, and one of the bottles was found in a temporary section alongside this feature, deposited in an upright position under a brick floor and hearth.
The removal of the hearth exposed a second bottle, this one inverted. Nearby were two others, one upright and the other inverted. It was not clear whether all four bottles formed a single deposit, or were placed singly or in pairs. Each bottle had a cork bung. The two upright bottles contained a coil of hair and each inverted vessel contained three bent bronze pins. All were complete except one, which was broken across the middle with some small pieces missing. The inner surface of this vessel was coated with yellow powder. It turned out that another complete Bartmann bottle had been found five years earlier in another house in the village, buried in a chalk floor immediately in front of the hearth and chimney stack.
Bartmann bottles (also known as greybeards and bellarmines) are made of salt-glazed stoneware and decorated with a stylised bearded (and frequently malevolent) face mask. Vessels of this design originated in the Rhineland in the early 16th century. Examples from the 17th century are commonly found in England (there are dozens of fragments from Basing House, for example) and some, like those from Abbotts Ann, are stoppered and embedded in upright or inverted positions beneath the threshold or hearth.
This is the traditional place for protective charms, and contemporary accounts indicate that the purpose of such bottle burials was as an antidote to witchcraft (hence the name ‘witch bottles’). Typical contents included bent bronze pins, bent nails, human hair, nail clippings and urine. It is assumed that the deposits were intended to throw back an evil spell on the witch who had cast it by using the sympathetic power of the hair or urine of the supposed victim. In 1671 Joseph Blagrave of Reading described how to counteract the malevolence of a witch: “Another way is to stop the urine of the Patient, close up in a bottle, and put into it three nails, pins or needles …: if you let it remain long in the bottle, it will endanger the witches life”. The practice was described in various accounts in the late 17th century, no doubt stimulating its rapid spread.
Bellarmine: Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542 – 1621) was an important figure in the Catholic Church, but was involved in a number of contentious issues that made him unpopular in some quarters. The nickname ‘bellarmine’ was therefore bestowed on bottles with malevolent faces. But he was far from bad, giving all his worldly goods to the poor, and dying a pauper himself.
Masks and roundels: The first Bartmann vessels had friendly faces, but as the masks degenerated (the two on the left) it may have encouraged their use as ‘witch bottles’. Roundels were often present, bearing town, family or royal coats of arms. The example on the right is exceedingly rare. The medallion has the initials ‘W K’ and the date 1672. ‘W K’ is probably Captain William Killigrew of Chelsea, who attempted to manufacture stoneware in England with the help of Symon Wooltus, a Dutch émigré. Their first bottles were made at Southampton.
“Four bellarmine stoneware ‘witch bottles’ from Abbotts Ann, Hampshire”,
David Allen, in Custom and Ceramics, Elizabeth Lewis (ed.) (1991)
The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, Ralph Merrifield (1987)
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, with help from Stacie Elliot.