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Artifact of the Month: Cauldrons
Witch's Brew or Pirate Stew?

For Halloween, we are looking at cauldrons found on the shipwreck.

Author: Elise Carroll, Lab Manager

Illustration of cauldron from QAR
Large cauldron from site 31CR314

October can be a very spooky month, with the chill in the air, leaves changing colors, and ghost stories shared around campfires. This month, we wanted to share one of our spookier objects found on site, and why it may have been on the ship. No, we are not talking about the ghost of Blackbeard, because he did not fight his final battle on QAR, remember? We are focusing on something more tangible. Nope, not bones or medical instruments either, and we have not found any broomsticks or witch’s hats… but have found cauldrons!

The use of cauldrons has been woven through human history for thousands of years, dating all the way back to the Bronze Age. They are associated with feasts and providing for communities. Because of this, cauldrons have been linked to the practical nature of food preparation, to significance in religion, and beliefs within societies. They are incredibly useful, utilitarian tools but also possess an air of mystery that has been evident in their appearance in folklore.

Witches and cauldron
Witches concocting a brew

One of the most influential scenes affecting the modern interpretation of cauldrons is from William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth: Act 4, Scene 1: Song of the Witches. The sonnet begins with three witches creating a potion in an eerie scene chanting:

“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble."

The rest of the sonnet describes a scene much like how cauldrons are depicted in popular media today, boiling solutions with creepy ingredients to make a witch’s brew. In the movie Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, there is even a version of the sonnet as a catchy song sung by the Hogwarts choir at the welcome feast!

Iron cooking vessel
Iron vessel with long legs from site 31CR314

While modern media usually shows them in association with witchy brews, cauldrons have a more utilitarian history than that. Cauldrons were historically domestic vessels referred to as kettles or pots and utilized for many mundane activities. They are containers used to heat up their contents over a fire and withstand and disperse a large amount of heat. Cauldrons were used for laundering clothing, melting pitch for repairing a leaky ship, cooking meals, or brewing beverages.

There are multiple examples in the archaeological record of both copper and iron cauldrons having been aboard vessels, and we have found both iron and copper cauldron fragments on our site. Two distinct iron cooking vessels have been identified, along with fragments from a riveted copper cauldron that was likely either for cooking or for melting pitch. However, as stated above, cauldrons have many different practical uses, not just for stews on a ship or brews from a witch.

If you want to see the cauldrons and other artifacts from the Queen Anne’s Revenge/La Concorde, visit the permanent exhibit at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort.

Copper cauldron
Copper vessel from site 31CR314

-Bratten, John R. 2018. “What They Left Behind: The Artifact Assemblage,” in Florida’s Lost Galleon: The Emanuel Point Shipwreck, edited by Roger C. Smith, pgs:141-144. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
-Dungworth, David & Nicholas, Matthew. 2004. “Caldarium? An antimony bronze used for medieval and post-medieval cast domestic vessels,” Historical Metallurgy 38(1):24-34.
-Horrell, C.E. 2017. “Analysis of the Mardi Gras Shipwreck Ship’s Stove,” Historical Archaeology 51(3):359–378.
-Joy, Judy. 2014. “‘Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble:’ Iron Age and Early Roman Cauldrons of Britain and Ireland,” Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 80:327-362.
-McIlvoy, Karen E. 2021. “‘Take Heede When Ye Wash:’ Recognizing the Labor of Enslaved Laundresses on Southern Plantations,” Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage 10:1-26.
-Shakespeare, William, and Rex Gibson. 2005. Macbeth. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

-Iron cauldron from the QAR site. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
-Molitoris, Ulricus. 1489. De laniis et phitonicis mulieribus Teutonice vnholden vel hexen, (Reutlingen: Otmar), fol. 15r. {{PD-old-100}}
-Iron cooking vessel from the QAR site. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
-Fragment of riveted copper vessel from the QAR site. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.


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