The remains of some 2,000 people lie beneath Scotland's East Kirk of St. Nicholas church, but an iron ring set in the stone pillar of the chapel could link directly back to a spookier past: the documented trial and execution of 23 women and one man accused of witchcraft during Aberdeen's "Great Witch Hunt" of 1597. "I was skeptical, to be honest—the ring is not all that spectacular, but it is actually quite genuine," Arthur Winfield, project leader for the UK's OpenSpace Trust, which is restoring the chapel, tells Live Science. The executed "witches" were not found at the site, likely buried in "unhallowed ground." Because witch trials were sanctioned and carried out by royal commissions under the king's order, the city's archives hold "meticulous" documentation of the trials, even including payments to a local blacksmith for the iron shackles and rings that imprisoned the accused, as well as the cost of the rope, wood, and tar used to burn convicts at the stake.
Aberdeen is continuing its history of careful record-keeping by archiving all findings for public display, the BBC notes. It was this wave of witchcraft persecutions that reached the Americas in the 1600s and led to the Salem witch trials nearly 100 years after Aberdeen's. Archaeologists say they also found evidence of buildings beneath the existing church that date back to the 11th century, as well as the graves of nine babies, who may have been victims of an epidemic, laid near an 11th-century wall. The "prison for witches" in the chapel will be redeveloped as a "contemplative space," Winfield says. "That space will be kept as an area of peace and tranquility—essentially, it is going to be respected for the chapel that it was, and will be again." (Researchers have recently confirmed where the Salem "witches" were hanged.)