Archaeologists working on two small Caribbean islands have found artifacts intentionally buried beneath two 18th-century plantation houses.
They appear to have been placed there for their spiritual power, protecting the inhabitants against harm, said John Chenoweth, a professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, in an interview with Live Science.
The discoveries were made recently in the British Virgin Islands, an overseas territory of the United Kingdom. [Photos Reveal Ancient Pirates of the Caribbean]
On one island archaeologists found "grape shot" — iron balls less than an inch (2 centimeters) in diameter meant to be shot from a cannon — buried in two postholes under a sugar plantation house. At this time on the British Virgin Islands "weapons were in short supply, so these bullets would have been likely relatively important," Chenoweth said. Why someone would bury them in postholes is a mystery, as one would need to dig up the house's foundation to access the iron balls, not to mention the balls would corrode over time, Chenoweth said.
That ammunition likely served a spiritual or magical purpose, he said. Supporting that idea, researchers Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud write in the "Dictionary of English Folklore" (Oxford University Press, 2002) that "the power of iron to repel evil is very well attested in Englishfolklore, and throughout Europe — all sorts of domestic objects, and even lumps of scrap iron, were placed in homes, stables and cowsheds as defenses against witchcraft and harmful fairies, or used in counter-spells."
Chenoweth believes that this ammunition was used like a counterspell. Grape shot was intended for warfare and therefore could be magically used to stop violence. "Following the idea of 'like cures like' the grape shot may have beenburied to keep violent attack away," he said in a follow-up email.
The inhabitants of the two-room plantation house had plenty of potential violence to worry about, as historical records show the island government continually warned London the colony was short of weapons and ammunition and was vulnerable to a Spanish attack or slave uprising, Chenoweth said. The fact that the plantation homeowners buried this scarce ammunition makes the find all the more remarkable.
"When they placed them there they had a good reason for doing so," Chenoweth said. (History of Human Aggression: 10 Ways Combat Has Evolved)
The quarters for the plantation slaves have not yet been found.