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Boffins boil down witch-repelling brew

Take one bottle of urine, insert iron nails, navel fluff, sulphur...

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A raft of modern scientific tests has revealed the contents of the first "witch bottle" discovered with its cork intact - a late 17th-century vessel buried by the owner's front door and designed to thwart the evil intentions of ill-wishers.

According to the Times, the salt-glazed stoneware bottle was unearthed in Greenwich. It's among 200 such witch-busting devices which have come to light, but the only one to still demonstrate just what was required to trap hexes and even send spells back to the caster.

Alan Massey, a retired chemistry lecturer from Loughborough, revealed that the recipe for success in this case comprised "a small heart-shaped piece of leather, a handful of iron nails, eight brass pins, a lock of hair, some nail clippings, a pinch of navel fluff" and, essentially, a pint of urine.

Over 12 months, Massey first subjected the bottle to X-ray and CT scan analysis, then extracted a sample of its liquid content with a syringe. This was the aforementioned urine with traces of nicotine which "indicated that it had come from a smoker".

The brew also contained sulphur, and suspected navel fluff. The nail clippings were adult, and Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology, said: “From their size, they probably came from a male and they were well manicured so he was from a higher social class. It is possible that we could one day identify him from DNA analysis and the location of the discovery.”

Pitts, whose magazine has published the findings, added: “This is a relic of early modern Britain. There is documentary evidence of how people were advised to make witch bottles but this is the first that has been subjected to rigorous scientific analysis.”

Witch bottles were traditionally stoneware Bellarmine jugs named after the Catholic Inquisitor, Robert Bellarmine. Their embossed decoration featured a scowling bearded face intended to ward off evil.

The owner's urine, nail clippings and hair were used as a decoy for hostile spells, while bent iron nails and pins would trap the enchantment. Tangled sewing thread, thorns or fishing hooks were also used for the same purpose. ®

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