Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 4-2 (April 2013)Martijn van Haasteren; Maaike Groot: The biography of wells: a functional and ritual life history

2. The lifecycle of a well: the functional side

Before we can look into rituals surrounding wells, it is important to understand the functional elements and life stages of a well. The following stages can be distinguished: construction, period of use, abandonment and post-abandonment. For each stage, we will discuss what materials can be expected to enter the well. This forms the basis for a later separation between rubbish and lost items on the one hand and ritual deposits on the other.

2.1 Construction

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The construction of a well starts with the digging of a pit. When a well is lined, a wide construction pit is dug to a level below that of the water table, followed by the placing of the wooden lining and the filling of the space around the lining (fig. 2). When a well does not have a lining, a construction pit is not necessary. In that case, the pit is wide at the top and narrows towards the lower end. This way, the well acquires a funnel shape.


Figure 2 Schematic representation of a section through a typical Roman well (Illustration: B. Brouwenstijn).

It is likely that the pit was dug with a spade. Examples show that digging spades from the Iron Age and Roman period were often quite narrow, comparable to modern spades (Hiddink 2005, 169). In several excavations, however, short wooden spades with a wider blade were found in wells (fig. 3; Jansen & Van Hoof 2003, 59-61; Kooistra et al. 2008, 41-42; Hiddink 2005, 169). Archaeologists disagree about the use of these spades. Hiddink, for instance, writes that a wooden spade from Deurne would not be strong enough to dig a deep pit in hard soil. This may have been possible if a metal edge was attached to the blade, but no evidence – such as attachment points – was found on this spade (Hiddink 2008, 185). If not for digging, this type of spade could have been used if the soil was first loosened with other tools (Hiddink 2005, 169). Contrary to Hiddink, the excavators of the site Raalte-Boetelerenk believe that the short spades found at this site would be especially suitable for digging narrow pits such as wells (Bloo et al. 2007, 191).


Figure 3 Wooden spade found in the construction pit of a well in Deurne ( Hiddink 2005 , fig. 18.41 and colour plate 13A).

Wells are often provided with a lining to improve their stability. Various types of lining can be recognised. Schinkel has developed a classification for the linings of the wells at Oss-Ussen (Schinkel 1994). He distinguished constructions of horizontal or vertical beams and planks, hollowed-out tree trunks, wattle and reused wine barrels. This classification is useful but incomplete. Variations on the types that are mentioned exist, as well as combinations of the various types, but also entirely different types, such as layered sods or reused canoes (Sier 1999, 61; Bink & Franzen 2009, 104-106).

Another regularly recurring phenomenon in the construction of wells and water pits is the occurrence of a wooden stake at the bottom of a well. Such stakes are often pointed and driven through the bottom of a well at an angle (fig. 4). Schinkel believes that these ‘flow stakes’ guaranteed a good flow of water (Schinkel 1994, 183). However, some people have raised doubts about this proposed function. Experiments have shown that a pointed stake in the bottom of a well does not affect the rise of water at all (Jansen & Van Hoof 2003, 44; Wesselingh 2000, 200). Another possibility is that the stakes served as ladders to go down into the well (Jansen & Van Hoof 2003, 44). This also seems unlikely, since stakes are also found in narrow, deep wells, where they cannot have been used as ladders. The function of these objects thus remains unclear. However, below other explanations will be suggested.


Figure 4 Section through a water pit in Oss-Ussen, showing the position of the ‘flow stake’ ( Schinkel 1998 , fig. 313).

In some wells, wagon wheels were placed horizontally on the bottom as part of the construction (Sier 1999, 61; a medieval example can be found in Hiddink 2009, 102). The hub and spokes of the wheel were removed, partly in order not to hinder the flow of water, and partly because they had iron parts and may have been greasy.

Apart from the lining underground, constructions will often have been built aboveground. The lining itself will certainly have continued to the ground surface. Nicolay mentions historic examples where the lining was built to knee height, to prevent people and animals and probably also stray rubbish to fall into the well (Nicolay 2008, 151-152). A high lining would also have made it easier to close the well. Hiddink states that the water in wells that were not closed would quickly have become polluted and therefore less suitable for human consumption (Hiddink 2008, 100). Apart from closure with a lid some wells were protected by a well house (Bink & Franzen 2009, 99; Heirbaut & Jansen 2007, 634). Next to constructions for the protection of the water quality, constructions are also known that facilitated the drawing of water, such as pulleys and swipes.

The materials related to the construction of a well will largely consist of wood from the lining. This includes wooden planks, posts and beams, barrel staves, parts of hollowed-out tree trunks, wattle and wagon wheels (with the hub and spokes removed). The degree to which it is clear that wood belongs to the construction can vary. Often, parts of the lining will be found in their original place. In other cases, isolated pieces of wood are found in the fill, which makes it less certain that this is construction material. Furthermore, isolated pieces of wood could be so-called flow stakes, which have been described above. Finally, not only material from the construction itself can be found, but also tools that were used during the construction, such as the spades that have already been mentioned.

2.2 Period of use

After the construction of a well was completed, the period of use begins. Not only was water drawn from the well, but the well may have been cleaned regularly, and where necessary, repairs were made to the construction.

Material entering the well during this stage will mainly be related to these activities. Several types of containers could be used to draw water from the well. Objects have been found in wells that can perhaps be related to this function, such as (parts of) a bucket, metal cauldrons and other vessels, ceramic bowls, pots and jugs, and wooden bowls (Hoegen 2004, 253-255; Bink & Franzen 2009, 107-108; Vos 2002, 59; Hiddink 2005, 288-291). Of course, some vessels are more suitable for drawing water than others. For maintenance, it was necessary to go down into the well. Ladders have been found in wells at several sites (fig. 5; Kooistra & Van Haaster 2001, 327-332; Verwers 1992, 174; Hiddink 2008, 185-189). Hiddink believes that these ladders were used during cleaning of the well (Hiddink 2008, 102). The previously mentioned spades may also have been used during cleaning. Although they were less suitable for digging in hard soil, they may have been used to remove soft debris from the bottom of the well. In that case, the short handle would have been an advantage in the cramped space.


5 Ladder found in a well in Kesteren-De Woerd. The ladder was placed in the well upside down (After Siemons 2001, fig. 4.12 and Kooistra & Van Haaster 2001 , fig. 10.4; adapted by B. Brouwenstijn).

Furthermore, during the time of use, all sorts of material could have been accidentally lost in the well. We should mainly think of objects that can be lost when bending over a well to draw water, or during cleaning or making repairs, such as brooches or other personal items carried on the body. Besides loss it is also possible that some objects were deliberately placed in a well. Animal bones, for example, are sometimes placed in a well to contaminate the water in times of feuds or war (Van den Broeke, personal comment).

2.3 Abandonment

After a certain period of time, a well falls out of use. This can be for the simple reason that the well has dried up. Other possible reasons can be pollution of the water, or moving away of the users (Schinkel 1994 II, 180). A fourth reason is when the well construction caves in. When a well falls out of use, part of the construction, if still of good quality, may be dug up for reuse. When a well has collapsed, then it can sometimes be repaired.

When a well is no longer used, it will fill up sooner or later. This can happen in different ways, for instance slowly by natural causes, quickly by deliberate filling up, or suddenly when the well collapses. The fill layers often reveal the way in which a well is filled. The top layer of a well – the top fill – is of a later date than the rest of the fill, whether the well has filled up slowly or quickly. This is a result of the compaction of the main fill, resulting in a depression at ground level. Such a depression can last for years, but will eventually be filled up as well.

The chance of materials entering a well after it has fallen out of use is high. First of all, materials can enter the well when the construction is dug up. The most obvious examples are parts of the construction or tools, but other items can also end up in the pit. An example consists of two brooches found in a deconstruction pit in Geldermalsen (Van Renswoude & Roessingh 2009, 595). Furthermore, when the construction has been dug up, and the well is no longer closed off or protected in other ways, all kinds of stray rubbish can fall in the shaft, such as pottery sherds, animal bones, charcoal and stone. At this moment, small animals can also fall into the well. Examples are known of wells or steep-sided pits with large amounts of remains of frogs and mice that were unable to climb out of the well.

Finds can also enter the well when it is filled deliberately. This can either be accidental (stray rubbish or lost items) or on purpose. In some cases, wells were not only filled with soil, but also with rubbish. A well that has fallen out of use can be used secondarily as a rubbish pit. In that case, the shaft is also filled up with rubbish, but the filling of the well is not the primary goal; moreover, the filling up would take place over a longer period of time. Most archaeologists have no doubts about former wells being used as rubbish pits, but there is uncertainty about how to recognise a rubbish pit (Therkorn & Besselsen 2008, 243). It seems likely that a rubbish pit contains large amounts of settlement rubbish of all kinds, such as pottery sherds, building debris, stone, glass, wood and animal bones. Rubbish should be broken or fragmented and no longer of use (Groot 2009b, 390).

Finds from the top fill seem to constitute a separate category. As described above, the soil in the fill of a well is compressed over time, causing a depression on the ground surface. Such a depression will function as an artefact trap: stray rubbish will end up in the depression and remain there. This depression can exist for decades, and collect all sorts of materials. For instance, pottery from the Middle Roman period and Early Middle Ages was found in a well in Breda, which dates to the late Middle or early Late Iron Age (Berkvens 2004, 132-133). In this case, the depression lasted for centuries. Finds can also be placed in the top fill on purpose. In Geldermalsen, for example, a dog was buried in a depression left by an old well (Van Renswoude & Roessingh 2009, 596). A practical reason for this could be that it was more convenient than digging a pit, although the dog still had to be covered with soil.

In this discussion of what kinds of materials can end up in wells, a functional explanation has been the basis, and only the objects that can be expected to enter wells during normal use have been discussed. Below, we will offer an alternative explanation for many of these finds. Before we can look at more special finds from wells, and discuss whether these should be interpreted as rubbish, accidental loss or as ritual deposits, we must discuss how we can make this distinction.