The witch in a bottle

Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford is old fashioned and dark with heaps of fascinating and very curious objects. When I was working in Oxford, I would often visit this museum during the lunch hour and would discover something new every time. The museum is free and can be best experienced alone, in my opinion. I have been visiting a lot of museums this year, mainly because of the terrible weather but this is one museum that I am always happy to return to.

The museum is part of the University of Oxford and was started due to the donation of nearly 18,000 objects by General Pitt Rivers to the University. The museum currently has over 300,000 objects. You can spend hours in here, getting lost in these intriguing objects. The museum provides torches as it is purposely kept dark to protect the displays. Keeping with the spirit of the museum, the information about some objects is displayed in tiny hand written notes.  Every space within the museum has been utilised  – there is a tall totem pole placed against one wall, a raft hangs from another and if you happen to look up to the ceiling of the first floor, you can see numerous paddles attached.


Given below is a list of some of the enthralling items that are hidden in this museum. A word of warning – some macabre images are displayed below so if you are easily disturbed then stop reading right now.

Shrunken heads

Killing of the enemy and then displaying the head was part of a ritual commonly practised in the upper Amazon. Heads were taken in order to use the energy of the soul.  The process of shrinking the heads started by first skinning the head and  removing the brain and the skull. The skull was then immersed in hot water and hot sand was poured in. This process was repeated over several months. To prevent the soul from escaping and taking revenge on the killer, the face was often blackened with vegetable dye and the lips were closed with string. Sometimes the face was reshaped. Over a series of rituals conducted over a period of time, the soul was taken and eventually considered to be a part of the group. It was believed then that the energy had been harnessed. Thankfully this ritual of shrinking the heads is no longer carried out and was stopped in 1960. The museum displays actual shrunken human heads and faced an ethical dilemma on whether it was appropriate to display human remains in this fashion. The museum took the decision to display the human remains in order to convey the educational and cultural importance of these objects. It has ensured that the displays are treated with respect. Out of the numerous objects on display, around 2000 of them are human remains.



The Witch in a bottle

Charms and amulets were used as a form of prevention against evil and witchcraft. The Tesophenyu, for example, was a charm, which when released caused disturbing and evil events. It was made up of the hair of the witch who made it, the mud from the grave of a man killed by a tiger and a woman who died in child birth among other things. The Witch in a bottle belonged to an old lady in Sussex who said “They do say there is a witch in it, and if you let ‘un out there’ll be a peck o’ trouble.” This is one of the displays that most fascinates the kids.The small silver jar in the second picture contains the witch in a bottle.

The first picture shows a collection of canine teeth of a leopard along with claws of a large bird, together believed to be a protection against drowning.


The following picture shows a wolf’s tooth, which was hung around a child’s neck to prevent convulsions during fever.


This picture shows a policeman’s amulet from France. It was made with a piece of hangman’s rope and skin from a sadistic murderer. It was believed that rope from a criminal who has been hanged had curative properties and bought good luck.


Animal mummies

Animals were mummified for three reasons:

  • Household pets were mummified for sentimental reasons
  • Animal mummies were often placed in human mummies to keep the humans company and also as a source of food in after- life
  • For religious reasons, as offerings

Offerings of mummified cats were often presented at temples in the hope of getting something in return. Visitors paid for having cats mummified and presented at temples. Several cat cemeteries have also been found at various places in Egypt. The picture shows a mummy of a human child, a cat, a bird and a crocodile.


Treatment of enemies after death

I think that the pictures speak for themselves in this case.

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Jewellery made from claws, teeth and bones

Photos show necklaces made from bear and tiger claws

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Musical instruments used in the past

Picture shows a musical instrument from India.


Games and puzzles from the past

Playing-cards from different countries




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