Witchcraft: The Folklore That Provoked Fear and Mass Hysteria

More than three hundred years after New England occupants executed twenty people accused of witchcraft, the Salem Witch Trials continue to haunt American history, inspiring books and plays such as The Crucible and capturing public imagination. These infamous trials, as well as many other cases of witchcraft accusations throughout England, exemplified a widespread belief in magic during the early modern period. The fear of witchcraft prompted colonists to fight against the presumed existence of these witches, through murder and unjust hangings (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The grave marker for Mary Parker, who was executed for witchcraft at Salem during the witch trials. Photograph by Darren McCollester.

Although the world mainly focuses on what happened at Salem, belief in witchcraft existed long before the crisis in the “Witch City” occurred (Baker 2015). In England, more than 200 people accused of being witches were executed between 1645 and 1647. Concern over the presence of witches in England soon spread to the colonies, where they began to investigate cases of witchcraft. Underlying all of the arising chaos, anxiety plagued various communities, due to the public fear of rebellions, governmental and communal conflicts, and other distressing events (Drake 1968).

People grasped onto the idea that witchcraft caused the community’s problems. Witchcraft accusations were associated with illness and death, especially among children and animals. In one case, after a woman fondled a child that wasn’t hers, the child changed color and died soon afterwards. The child’s nurse accused her of practicing dark magic, leading to the woman’s execution. However, the parents later testified that their child died because of the nurse’s neglect (Drake 1968). This case embodies how witchcraft was often used to explain unusual events such as unexpected deaths, and also to justify the murder of the accused, even if they were innocent.

The public fear of witches extends into the archaeological record; artifacts found in houses dating to the time of the trials connect to the prevalent belief in witchcraft. People would often hide material objects, like horseshoes and witch-bottles, in their homes to ward off witches, demons, and other evil spirits (Hoggard 2004). These artifacts indicate the practice of counter magic, or magic used for protection against evil.

When construction workers were dismantling a New England house built in 1681, they found an iron horseshoe on the site. The horseshoe, and its location nailed to the house near the hearth and the outside door, represented an attempt at protecting the home and its owners from witches (Baker 2015:131). People also used witch-bottles (Figure 2). Like the horseshoes, witch-bottles protected its owners against dark magic and witches; these glazed stoneware bottles contained symbolic items, like pins, nails, urine, and animal remains, that warded off witchcraft (Hoggard 2004).

Figure 2: The witch-bottles were used as a means of defense against witchcraft. Photograph from Kerry Sullivan.

The widespread presence of these items displays the extensive effects of folklore and witchcraft. The eagerness of families to practice counter magic reveals the panic of these people, desperate to protect themselves from any harm at a time of great tension in society.

Further Reading:

The Discovery of the Site Where the Executions Took Place:


The Connection Between the Salem Witch Trials, Witch Hunts, and the Red Scare:



Baker, Emerson W.

2015  A Story of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience. Oxford University Press, New York

Drake, Frederick C.

1968  Witchcraft in the American Colonies, 1647-62. American Quarterly. 20(4): 694-725

Hoggard, Brian

2004  The archaeology of counter-witchcraft and popular magic. In Beyond the Witch Trials, edited by Owen Davies and Willem de Blecourt, pp. 167-186. University of Manchester Press, Manchester


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Sutton Hoo: How Burials Can Form Images of a Society Without Physical Remains

When Edith Pretty hired archaeologist Basil Brown in 1937 to excavate the large mounds on her property, they discovered Europe’s richest ship burial to date. Sutton Hoo is home to a magnificent burial dating back to seventh-century AD, the grave of an Anglo-Saxon king who was buried with a ship full of grave goods (Knight 2019). This archaeological site in England provides a bountiful supply of information about Anglo-Saxon society.

In 1939, Brown excavated the largest mound at Sutton Hoo. He eventually uncovered the remains of a large ship (Walker 2017). At more than twenty-seven meters, the Anglo-Saxon rowing boat had been hauled up from the river and buried on land (Knight 2019). Unfortunately, not everything buried there 1,400 years ago still remained. The ship functioned as a water-repellent body, causing any water that seeped through the soil to build up. The soil turned acidic, dissolving any organic remains. (Sutherland 2018). Therefore, the wooden ribs of the ship rotted away over the centuries. Although the tangible remains of the ship had deteriorated, the ship left an intricate imprint (Knight 2019); the impression of the ship shaped a picture of what the ship looked like (Figure 1), despite the absence of physical remains.

Figure 1. The remains of the grand burial ship as they are excavated from the largest mound.

So, who was buried at Sutton Hoo? Like the boat, the body that was buried in the mound dissolved due to the soil’s acidity (Walker 2017). However, even when there are no physical remnants, evidence of human remains can still persist (Renfrew 2018). Tests done on the soil revealed traces of residual phosphate, a chemical that a body leaves behind when it decomposes (British Museum 2010). The big mystery surrounds the individual’s identity. The top theory is that the burial belongs to King Rædwald of East Anglia, who died in 624 AD (Walker 2017).

In the largest mound, Brown found an array of impressive relics. These 263 artifacts formed an image of beauty and sophistication. The most famous item found is the iconic metalwork helmet (Figure 2). The goods originated from diverse places; for example, coins from Merovingian France and a silver dish from Constantinople were found among the goods (Knight 2019). The diversity in places of origin of these items display the extensive trade connections that the Anglo-Saxons had with other European communities in the ancient world.

Figure 2. The astonishing metalwork helmet, made of iron and covered with panels depicting various scenes.

Before the burial’s discovery, a common belief about Anglo-Saxons depicted them as “crude folk… who lived crude lives and left little of value behind” (Knight 2019). The sophistication and intricacy of the artifacts found in the burial disprove these misconceptions about the Anglo-Saxons, showing they were more complex and worldly than people gave them credit for. The burial also displays the importance of grave goods and afterlife in this society’s beliefs. The artifacts emphasize the significance of burying respected or loved figures with valuable items that will travel with them as they move to the afterlife.

Additional Reading:

Additional information about Sutton Hoo from the National Trust:


About the connection between Sutton Hoo and the epic Beowulf:



British Museum

2019 “British Museum – Who was buried at Sutton Hoo?”. https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo/features/the-royal-burial-mounds-at-sutton-hoo ed. Vol. 2019,

Knight, Sam

2019 “Revisiting Sutton Hoo, Britain’s Mythical Burial Ground.” https://www.newyorker.com/news/letter-from-the-uk/revisiting-sutton-hoo-britains-mythical-ship-burial ed. Vol. 2019,

Renfrew, Colin and Paul Bahn

2018 Archaeology Essentials. 4th Edition. Thames & Hudson, New York.

Sutherland, A.

2018 “Sutton Hoo Ship Bural and Famous Helmet That Could Belong To Raedwald, King Of All Kings Of Britain”. http://www.ancientpages.com/2018/01/09/sutton-hoo-ship-burial-famous-helmet-belong-raedwald-king-kings-britain/ ed. Vol. 2019,

Walker, Verónica

2017 “The Ghostly Treasure Ship of Sutton Hoo.” 
ed. Vol. 2019,


Figure 1: http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/sutton_hoo.html

Figure 2: