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

6. Conclusion and suggestions for future research

This paper has examined the lifecycle of wells in Late Iron Age and Roman settlements in the Netherlands. Deposits of ‘special’ finds in wells formed the basis of the discussion. It has become clear that deposits in different locations within a well related to different moments within the well’s life. Thus, the life of a well was punctuated by rituals.

By combining the functional and ritual aspects it is possible to reconstruct a biography of wells from the Late Iron Age and Roman period (fig. 10). The life of the well starts with the digging of the construction pit. Objects can be buried in the construction pit to mark the beginning of the well’s life, and can be related to the building of the well, reaching ground water, or propitiating the gods. In some cases, the function of the offered object has a clear relation to the moment in the lifecycle.


Figure 10 The biography of a well: schematic representation (Illustration: B. Brouwenstijn).

After the digging of a pit, the construction was placed, consisting of a wooden lining. Above ground, a construction may have been built to protect the well or to ease the drawing of water. Offerings on the bottom of the well marked the beginning of the period of active use. The frequent occurrence of vessels on the bottom of wells could be connected to this moment. In some cases, wells were initiated or ‘given life’ by placing large pieces of wood or other botanical materials at the bottom of the well. During the period of use, water was of course drawn from the well, and the well will have been maintained to some extent.

When a well went out of use, the lining was sometimes dug up. The well would have been filled up naturally or deliberately. The end of the period of use was marked by placing deposits in the fill that obstructed or spoiled the well, or more symbolically by throwing objects into it. The soil of the fill would compress over time, which resulted in a depression on the ground level. Earlier deposits and perhaps the well itself could be commemorated by new deposits in the upper fill or depression.

The aim of this paper was to argue for a more systematic investigation and interpretation of finds from wells, and to suggest the possibility that some finds represent specific rituals linked to the lifecycle of wells. Some questions remain to be answered. We have not looked into the possible relationship between the type of construction and ritual deposits. Also, deposits may have been placed at the time of repairs, which we have not considered yet. The relationship between the type of object selected for deposition and the ritual or occasion also deserves more attention.

The occurrence of deposits in the upper or top fill of wells, which sometimes occurred decades after earlier deposits lower in the well, suggest a long communal memory of rituals. Another remarkable finding is the long-term survival of some rituals, from the Iron Age to the Middle Ages. It would be interesting to extend this research into later periods and cover a wider region.

By careful excavation and analysis, it is possible to write a biography of a well, including the construction, practical use and abandonment, and rituals related to the various stages of the well’s life. This will lead to a better understanding of the position of wells in Late Iron Age and Roman settlements, and go beyond a mere functional consideration.