Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 1-2 (November 2009)Maaike Groot: Searching for patterns among special animal deposits in the Dutch river area during the Roman period
7 Recognising patterns

Non-bone deposits

No one doubts the ritual context of deposits of certain objects in wells, such as a beautifully decorated part of a helmet found in a well outside the castellum of Leidse Rijn-De Woerd ( This metal object was deliberately bent, making it unfit for further use. The excavators see the deposit of this object in a well as an offering. A well in the temple compound at Empel contained several remarkable finds: a complete helmet, a shield boss and the partial skeleton of an eagle owl (Roymans & Derks 1994, 25; Seijnen 1994, 164, 171). The two metal objects were interpreted as offerings and I would suggest a similar explanation for the exceptional bird remains. An axe, complete with handle, and fragments of a wooden lid and bowl were found at the bottom of the pit dug when the well was constructed. These objects must have been left there during the construction (Hiddink 1994, 63, figs. 7 and 8). While finds such as this are often interpreted as accidental loss, the recurrence of tools found associated with wells is suspicious (see below).

While these deposits are from wells in non-rural contexts (military, temple), remarkable but somewhat less spectacular finds are known from rural settlements. Some of the wells at Roman sites near Breda also contained remarkable finds. An iron ploughshare, the bronze rim of a bucket and a bronze helmet were found in the pit dug during the construction of a well (Hoegen 2004, 253-254; Hoegen et al. 2004, 366-367). In another pit containing a well a nearly complete salt container was found (Van Enckevort 2004, 347). Two complete pots were found in the fill of a third well (Hoegen 2004, 258). They were interpreted as accidental losses during water collecting or cleaning of the pots (Van Enckevort 2004, 346). A small amphora was seen as an intentional deposit because it was found in a depression left by an Iron Age well (Van Enckevort 2004, 346).

The most remarkable non-bone find from a well at Geldermalsen consists of a complete bronze vessel and a ceramic jug (fig. 8). The vessel was repaired at least three times and must have been in use for a long period of time. The jug was placed inside the vessel before being deposited in the well. This find was interpreted as an abandonment deposit (Van Renswoude 2009c, 271).


Fig. 8 A complete jug and bronze vessel from a well at Geldermalsen-Hondsgemet (photo: ACVU-HBS).

Wooden ladders have been found in wells at several Roman sites throughout the Netherlands, such as Kesteren-De Woerd, Deurne-Groot Bottelsche Akker, Geldermalsen-Hondsgemet, Midlaren-De Bloemert and Den Haag-Uithofslaan (fig. 9; Kooistra & Van Haaster 2001, 327-332; Hiddink 2008, 185-189; Kooistra 2009, 427-428; Hänninen 2008, 453-454; De Hing & Van Ginkel 2009, 73). Wooden ladders, especially when they are broken, are easily discarded as rubbish. A ladder is not perceived by archaeologists as a surprising find since wells had to be cleaned occasionally. It is assumed that people would not bother to remove a broken ladder from a well. Hiddink sees the small effort needed for the quick construction of the ladder from Deurne as a reason for abandoning it (Hiddink 2008, 189). When seen from another perspective, this is strange, since even a broken ladder could be repaired or reused, if nothing else as firewood. The ladder from Kesteren is complete and of a height that is much too short to provide access to a well and is more likely to have been used to access granaries. An additional reason for not interpreting the ladder as abandoned after a cleaning operation is that it was found upside down (Kooistra & Van Haaster 2001, 331; pers. comm. L.I. Kooistra).


Fig. 9 Wooden ladder in a well at Deurne-Groot Bottelsche Akker (photo: ACVU-HBS).

The location of a wooden spade from Deurne-Groot Bottelsche Akker indicates that this is not simply an abandoned object. The oak spade was found at the bottom of the pit that contained the well, outside the wooden lining and left there when this lining was constructed (fig. 10; Hiddink 2008, 185). This is reminiscent of a foundation deposit. Both location and material type ('tool') are similar to the axe from Empel. Another wooden spade was found in a well at Nederweert-Rosveld, but in this case in the fill (Hiddink 2005, 169-170). Wooden bowls have also been found in wells. Two examples are broken and therefore interpreted as rubbish (Hiddink 2005, 169; Kooistra 2009, 428). As with the ladders, throwing away wood when this was the main source of fuel seems strange.

Another category of wooden objects found in wells are wagon wheels. When deposited at the bottom of a well, a wheel can play a functional role in the construction. However, wheels or parts of wheels are also found in the fill of wells (for instance at Weert, pers. comm. H.A. Hiddink; and the Roman town of Forum Hadriani, Kooistra & Kubiak-Martens 2007, 18-20).


Fig. 10 Wooden spade deposited on the outside of the wooden lining of a well at Deurne-Groot Bottelsche Akker (photo: ACVU-HBS).

The examples above are not an exhaustive list. Every field archaeologist probably knows some examples. While former wells were certainly used for dumping rubbish, some of the finds cannot be explained in purely functional terms. Remarkable finds from wells seem to be common in Roman sites. Like farmhouses, the construction and abandoning of wells seem to have been surrounded by rituals. Finds in the pit outside the core or wooden lining of the well, such as the wooden spade from Deurne and the ploughshare and bronze finds from Breda, should be seen as foundation deposits, left during the construction of a well. Finds in the fill may be considered as abandonment deposits. The bronze vessel from Geldermalsen is the best example but some of the animal deposits may also be understood in this way. A third category of deposit is found in the upper fill of a well or in the depression left when a well was filled up and went out of use. The depression may have been merely considered as a convenient location for deposition but in some cases earlier ritual may have been commemorated.