Archaeology at Salem Says We’re Thinking About Witches and Witch Hunts All Wrong

Much of Americans’ conceptions about witchcraft were born in the year 1692, when, in the midst of a frontier war and refugee crisis, 20 people were executed one summer after refusing to confess to practicing witchcraft. Their trials still capture the American imagination, inspiring a flurry of complaints from powerful men that they or their friends are the targets of “witch hunts.”

There isn’t a whole lot archaeologists can do with the witch trials themselves. Many of the buildings associated with the events of 1692 are gone, and the remains of the victims have long been lost. But think about witchcraft not as hysteria and political crisis, but instead as a ubiquitous protective measure, and suddenly there’s plenty of archaeological evidence to study in the form of charms and symbols left around people’s homes.

At the time, believing in magic was completely normal. "It was not superstition," Emerson Baker, an archaeologist at Salem State University, told Newsweek. "Everyone knew witches were real." Witch trials, like the ones that flourished in Europe and occasionally popped up in America both before and after the events at Salem, were simply a way to try to adjudicate society out of the problem, and a way that many people considered unreliable. "Here's the problem, if we know witches are real and you can't convict them, what do you do?" Baker said. "You protect yourself."

10_27_salem_witches_halloween Particularly during October, Salem is overrun by witch enthusiasts. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

That protection took the form of countermagic, evidence of which has been found at sites across New England. Baker excavates homes that were burned during the violent border skirmishes of King Philip’s war about 15 years before the witch trials, eventually feeding the political and financial crisis that fostered the accusations. "It gives us this frozen moment of what their lives were like," Baker said of the sites. And within that snapshot are hints of how people tried to harness magic to heal, protect and find what has been lost.

That countermagic wasn't just to protect people against the key characteristic of Salem's witch hysteria: spectral evidence, when a spirit appeared to someone. At the time, witchcraft accusations encompassed a much broader range of activities—from cursing livestock to summoning lightning to destroy crops or ships.

Excavating sites like these has shown that colonists were particularly concerned with entrances to the house—doors, windows and chimneys that the devil could sneak in through. At these weak points, archaeologists find artifacts like horseshoes, stockings, and iron weapons like eel spears (meant to mimic the devil’s pitchfork) and axes. Sometimes, they’re accompanied by carved daisy wheel symbols of nested circles.

"The one I would really like to find is this thing called a witch’s bottle," Baker said. That’s the term for a little stone bottle filled with boiled urine—from a dog or from the human who seemed afflicted—metal pins and a heart-shaped piece of felt. The practice was meant to drive away evil. "I'm also thinking the smell of boiling urine in your house would drive off lots of things, including your neighbors," Baker said. A dozen or so have been found intact in England, but none so far on this side of the pond.

10_27_salem_witch_marker A grave marker for one of the 20 victims of the Salem witch trials. Darren McCollester/Newsmakers

But whether or not Baker ever succeeds in his quest for a witch’s bottle, he's already made one key contribution to Salem's archaeological landscape by helping to officially determine the precise ledge that was the site of the executions—and that the soil was too thin to be hiding victims.

This summer, the site was formally commemorated by the city, which owns the ground. Nevertheless, after the public announcement, a neighbor opened the door to find a stranger with a shovel asking permission to dig. "No one goes to Valley Forge or Gettysburg with a shovel," said Baker.

Salem itself has a complicated relationship with the prevalence of its own witchy legacy, Baker said. While the town dubbed itself “Witch City” in 1892 and has capitalized on tourism ever since, it has also sought to find ways to recognize the victims and to prevent witch hunts from happening again. "Everybody's welcome in Salem," Baker said. "We learned once the hard way what it was like to rush to judgment."

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