Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 4-2 (April 2013)

The biography of wells: a functional and ritual life history

Martijn van Haasteren, Maaike Groot

Keywords: well, biography, lifecycle, Roman, Iron Age, Netherlands, ritual, rubbish, well construction, abandonment


This article discusses the lifecycle of wells in Late Iron Age and Roman settlements in the Netherlands. This lifecycle consists of different phases: construction, taking into use, the period of use, abandonment, and the period after abandonment. During these phases different kinds of objects can enter a well. This can happen in two ways: as a result of functional use or when objects are placed in wells during rituals. It is important to understand the ‘normal’ pattern of finds associated with the functional side of wells to be able to distinguish between lost items, rubbish and ritual deposits.

By discussing ‘special’ deposits in wells from Dutch archaeological sites it becomes clear that the location of the deposit within the well is related to the moment within the well’s life. There are indications that the phases of a well’s lifecycle were marked by rituals. By combining the functional and ritual aspects connected to a well it is possible to write a biography of the well.

The analysis of finds from wells is an important contribution to the discussion about the existence of a division between functional and ritual practices, since both can be recognised in wells.

1. Introduction

A worn shoe sole was found in the fill of a well in a Roman settlement near modern Venray (fig. 1). It was interpreted as waste that entered the well when it was filled after abandonment. A second shoe sole was found in the pit dug for the construction of the same well. The location and the high quality of this sole led to the interpretation that this was a building offering made during the construction (Van Driel-Murray 2000, 166). Two similar objects found in the same feature are thus interpreted in very different ways. We would like to offer an alternative interpretation: the similarity between the objects, and the fact that one entered the well during construction, and one after abandonment, suggests that both were deliberately deposited in the well during two different stages of the well’s life. This paper investigates whether it is possible to write a biography of wells, as has been done for houses and landscapes (e.g. Gerritsen 2003; Kolen 2005). We will discuss the lifecycle of wells and evidence for rituals marking the various stages in this lifecycle.


Figure 1 Location of: 1 Beuningen, 2 Borsele, 3 Breda, 4 Castricum, 5 Coevorden, 6 Deurne, 7 Echt, 8 Emmen, 9 Geldermalsen, 10 Groningen, 11 Heeten, 12 Helden, 13 Kesteren, 14 Leeuwarden, 15 Lieshout, 16 Midlaren, 17 Nederweert, 18 Nistelrode, 19 Oss, 20 Poeldijk, 21 Raalte, 22 Sneek, 23 Susteren, 24 Tiel, 25 Tilburg, 26 Venray, 27 Voerendaal, 28 Voorburg, 29 Wijk bij Duurstede, all The Netherlands.

Ritual in archaeology is still a subject that can lead to lively discussions. Some archaeologists believe that ritual is used too much as a default explanation for anything for which we cannot find a rational explanation, while others feel that, like any other human behaviour, ritual can be identified by explicit criteria (Groot 2008, 115-117; Fontijn 2003; Gerritsen 2003; Hill 1996; Levy 1982). Rituals in settlements have received less attention than rituals in ‘special’ contexts such as sanctuaries and cemeteries, because it is more difficult to recognise ritual behaviour among the remains of everyday life. An early exception is a study by Van den Broeke (1977) which focused on construction or foundation offerings. Later he described deposits of burned material as evidence for abandonment practices (Van den Broeke 2002). Gerritsen (2003) discussed special deposits, foundation offerings and abandonment deposits to create a biography of houses. This biography includes rituals that marked the construction, phase of habitation, abandonment and the phase after habitation (Gerritsen 2003, 31-105). If deposits of materials are clearly related to a house then these can be recognised by archaeologists as deposits connected to, for instance, construction rituals.

A recent paper by the second author focuses on recurring patterns in settlement rituals, and includes a short discussion of deposits in wells (Groot 2009a, 59-64). She points out that finds from wells are usually explained in functional terms. Concentrations of animal bones, especially, are seen as waste, with an abandoned well offering a useful space to dump rubbish. However, the interpretations are not always based on well-funded arguments (Groot 2009a, 50). Several examples are given that demonstrate that not all deposits can be explained in a functional way, and – without denying the use of abandoned wells as rubbish pits – that many finds from wells can be alternatively explained in a ritual way. The idea is proposed that, like houses, wells were perceived to have lifecycles, and that rituals marked the various stages of the lifecycle, such as construction and abandonment (Groot 2009a, 62). This idea was further investigated by the first author in his Master’s thesis (Van Haasteren 2011). The present paper is based on these two studies, and investigates the lifecycle of wells in settlements from the Late Iron Age and Roman Netherlands. By recognising the various stages in a well’s life and the possible ritual deposits connected to these stages, it is possible to write a biography of the well.

Our research questions are:
- What stages can be recognised in the lifecycle of a well?
- What kind of material remains related to the various stages of a well’s life can we find in archaeological excavations?
- Do we find material remains that do not fit within the functional life history of a well? Can these be seen as ritual deposits? How can we distinguish remains of rituals from construction materials, lost items and waste?
- Can ritual deposits in wells be linked to specific rites of passage marking stages in the lifecycle?
- What is the effect of different classifications of finds on our interpretation of the deposits, and our wider understanding of rites related to wells?
- Is it possible to reconstruct the biography of a typical Late Iron Age or Roman well, including functional and ritual aspects?

First, the lifecycle of a well, and the various stages in the lifecycle, will be discussed. The model of a typical well’s life will form the basis of this paper. Second, we will describe what remains and objects can enter a well with functional, non-ritual use during each stage of its life. This will be important to understand the ‘normal pattern’ of material remains associated with the functional side of wells. Third, we will discuss whether it is possible to distinguish ritual deposits in wells from material that was lost accidentally or dumped as rubbish. Fourth, examples of ‘special’ finds from wells will be given, and we will argue that these are intentional, ritual deposits related to distinct stages in the well’s life. Finally, we will attempt to reconstruct the lifecycle of wells, and the rituals marking stages in the lifecycle. Approaching wells in this way will enable us to write biographies of specific wells, and come to a better understanding of the perception of wells in the past.

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.


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.

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).


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.

3. Rubbish, loss or ritual

As we have seen, different kinds of materials can end up in wells during normal, functional use. Some finds seem less likely to represent loss or rubbish. Functional interpretations are not satisfactory in all cases. Objects can also enter wells in the context of a ritual. To recognise this, it is necessary to go into a more general discussion on ritual and recognising ritual in archaeology.

While the term ‘ritual’ is hard to define, it is not as difficult to name a number of aspects of ritual. First, it is consciously carried out. Second, it is intended to have an effect (for instance to placate or ask favours of supernatural powers). To the people carrying out a ritual, there is nothing irrational about it, even if observers may not grasp its meaning. Next, it usually follows a set of rules that is clear to the person carrying out the ritual. Finally, culturally specific symbols are often used to emphasise the special message. In short, ritual is meaningful and intentional (see Groot 2008, 97-115 for a more elaborate discussion on ritual and ritual in archaeology).

So how can ritual deposits be recognised in archaeology? Without written sources, and especially where everyday objects are used in rituals, it is extremely difficult to recognise them archaeologically. Studying funerary ritual or ritual within sanctuaries is less problematic, as here the context itself provides an important clue to the ritual nature of finds. In studying rituals occurring in settlements, we have to separate the material remains of rituals from ‘normal’ settlement rubbish. While this is no excuse for not attempting such studies, it is important to realise that the full set of settlement rituals carried out in the past is likely to elude us.

First of all, the intuition of the archaeologist plays an important role. Although this does not sound very scientific, in fact ‘intuition’ is based on the knowledge and expertise of an individual archaeologist. An experienced archaeologist can thus recognise deposits that differ from ordinary, everyday waste (Groot 2008, 104-106; Lewis 1980, 20). What the archaeologist will notice are special, scarce or valuable finds. It does not naturally follow that it is only ‘special’ finds that have their origin in certain rituals. Every day, common and (to us) worthless items can also have played a role in rituals. Finds like these will be less noticeable to archaeologists than ‘special’ finds.

A more systematic way to identify ritual deposits is to look for patterns within the deposits. Material found more than once in a similar context or deposited in a similar way can indicate a structural way of depositing objects. Rituals often follow traditional rules with little variation, which should mean in theory that tangible remains of ritual should enter the archaeological archive in a certain way (Fontijn 2003, 21; Groot 2008, 106; Hill 1996, 24). However, not every pattern is evidence for a ritual. Other human behaviour, such as crafts or rubbish disposal, may also have followed traditions or habits and resulted in specific patterns. An example of a pattern that seems to indicate a ritual is that of a dog and nearly complete pot buried together (Groot 2009a, 73-75).

A next step in identifying rituals is to examine the location of a deposit. Some locations seem to have been especially meaningful to people. Inside houses, in house ditches or near the entrance of enclosure ditches are all locations where deposits of special finds occur. Complete vessels in postholes and coins in an enclosure ditch near the entrance to the settlement are examples of deposits in meaningful locations (Gerritsen 2003, 63-65; Van Kerckhove 2009, 157, 191; Aarts 2009, 296). In the case of houses, ditches and wells, it is important for our understanding to identify the relation between the deposition and the stage of the feature’s life.

The last step in recognising ritual deposits is the value or usefulness of the deposited material. A complete pot is still useful, and less likely to be thrown away than a broken one. Metal can be reused, and wooden objects, when broken, can be used as firewood. Smaller objects are more likely to be lost than larger ones, although temporary storage – and neglect to retrieve an object – must be considered. The next paragraph will discuss ritual deposits in wells, and apply these steps for recognising them.

4. Ritual deposits in wells

It is generally accepted by archaeologists that ritual deposits occurred in wells. Several rich deposits in wells have been interpreted as ritual, such as half a Roman helmet with an iron ploughshare in Breda, and two wagon wheels with 27 amber beads at Forum Hadriani/Voorburg (fig. 6; Hoegen et al. 2004, 366; Bink & Franzen 2009, 93-95). These deposits were interpreted as ritual because no functional explanation could be given. A complete ceramic pot or wooden tool are also special finds, but are not automatically interpreted as ritual, since these are considered less valuable. By collecting data on ritual deposits and other finds from wells, it should be possible to recognise less obvious ritual deposits, for instance consisting of finds that are understood to be of little value. In this paragraph we hope to recognise any recurring patterns within deposits, by grouping them in different ways. The study that this paper is based on described around 60 deposits in detail (Table 1; Van Haasteren 2011, 25-40). Before going into the actual grouping of deposits we will explain how this data set was collected.


Figure 6 Section through a well in Voorburg, showing two wagon wheels. The amber beads were found between the wagon wheels ( Bink & Franzen 2009 , fig. 9.31 & fig. 5.9; adapted by B. Brouwenstijn).


To make our inventory reports about excavations of Late Iron Age and Roman period sites in The Netherlands have been searched for information on finds from wells. Besides libraries and lists of publications on websites of archaeological companies, the e-depot for Dutch archaeology ( has been an important source for these reports.

Naturally, the deposits were not picked randomly from these reports. If the authors of a report marked a find as ‘special’ or ‘ritual’, it was automatically included in our selection. The selection was expanded by including what we understood to be ‘special’ finds. The criteria for selection are mainly comparable to the ways for identifying ritual deposits discussed above. In the first place deposits with remarkable or valuable objects have been selected. Secondly, deposits with wooden objects and complete ceramics have been added, as well as remarkable deposits of bone, and stone objects. Besides special objects, attention is paid to deposits in which various materials are found together. Finally, the location of the deposit has been an important focal point. As has been said before, to find objects in one part of a well can be more exceptional than in other parts. Furthermore, it is important to note that because of these criteria deposits of fragmented objects have rarely been selected. That does not imply, however, that they cannot be (part of) ritual deposits.

Something that also played a role in the selection of deposits is the way in which wells and deposits have been described in reports. Some archaeological services produce more elaborate reports than others. When features or finds are only briefly mentioned or listed in tables, then the possibility that they were included in our selection decreases. On the other hand, if finds were described in detail, and information on other finds and the find location within the well was included, they were far more likely to be included in our selection.

This inventory focused on identifying potentially ritual deposits from a range of sites in The Netherlands. In the future, a more extensive inventory of all published wells from a selection of sites may provide a useful indication of the extent of special finds in wells.

Grouping of deposits

The deposits have first been grouped according to their material category, since this is usually the way finds are presented in archaeological reports. Moreover, synthetic studies of ritual deposits often focus on one category, such as animal bone or bronze (Groot 2008; Fontijn 2003). As we shall see, the danger involved in splitting up finds according to material properties lies in losing sight of similarities between finds. Depositions of the following materials have been identified: pottery, stone, animal bone, metal, wood, leather and botanical remains. It is mainly rich deposits and deposits of combinations of different types of material that are interpreted as ritual deposits in archaeological reports. Apart from the examples already described above, other ‘rich’ deposits are a ceramic jug found inside a copper cauldron in Geldermalsen-Hondsgemet, two bronze vessels with a quernstone and a wooden animal head from Voorburg, and a concentration of animal bones with a brooch from Heeten (fig. 7; Van Renswoude 2009, 271; Bink & Franzen 2009, 107-108; Kenemans & Van der Velde 2007, 176).


Figure 7 Section through a well in Voorburg showing a quernstone and two bronze vessels in the lower fill, including the bronze bowl ( Bink & Franzen 2009 , fig. 8.43 & fig. 5.21; adapted by B. Brouwenstijn).

There are several arguments for a ritual interpretation of two find categories usually explained in functional terms: wooden ladders and spades. First, some of the ladders were placed in the well upside down. Second, one complete ladder is much too short to have been of any practical use with regard to cleaning the well. Third, a ladder in Midlaren was found together with another special find: a wooden bow. Finally, in an Early Medieval well in Raalte, three spades were found next to each other, indicating deliberate placement (Kooistra & Van Haaster 2001, 327-332; Verwers 1992, 174; Nicolay 2008, 168; Bloo et al. 2007, 190-191).

A second grouping is based on the function of the objects, and distinguishes four categories: containers, tools, clothes and personal items, and food. The aim of this classification was to look at the finds from a different perspective, independent of the used materials. One of the discoveries was that drawing water is unlikely to have been the primary use of the containers found in wells. Cooking pots, salt containers, pots containing cereals, wicker baskets and a wooden bowl have all been found in wells (Hoegen 2004, 255; Vos 2002, 59-60; Sier 1999, 67; Hiddink 2005, 288-291). Self-evidently, a wicker basket would be useless for holding water, and pots with contents were also clearly not used for drawing water. While these could represent waste (e.g. moldy grain), this would only make sense if the well had already gone out of use. Tools include the ladders and spades, which have already been mentioned, as well as ploughshares, which were found in several wells (fig. 8). Even when damaged, ploughshares could have been remade into other objects, so they are unlikely to represent waste. The category food includes deposits of animal bones and plant remains. An example is a deposit of three rare medicinal plants from Helden; the plants are said to have had a ritual significance among the Germans (Van der Meer 2008, 9).


Figure 8 Ploughshare and helmet from a well in Breda ( Koot & Berkvens 2004 , fig. 14.9 & 14.10).

A problem with a non-material classification is that there are many different ways to define categories. For instance, ‘containers’ could be seen as part of a category ‘kitchen and cooking utensils’, which would include deposits with quernstones. Food could also be seen as part of a wider category. Bradley discusses deposits of ‘animated materials’, which are objects that contained life (Bradley 2005, 52). It is indeed interesting to separate this category of ‘animated materials’. Apart from animal bones and seeds and fruits, human bones and (unworked) wood also belong to this category. No examples were found of deposits of human bones in wells during our inventory. Examples of deposits of wood are a piece of maple wood together with two ceramic pots, a piece of oak wood, and an oak plank with the skull and front legs of a horse (Hoegen 2004, 257-258; Van Putten & Ter Wal 2006, 37-38; Groot 2009b, 398). The ‘flow stakes’, which have been described earlier, may also be attributed to this category, if it is indeed true that they did not improve the flow of water.

A final way of classifying deposits is according to their location within the well, and as such, their relation to its lifecycle. Within a well, finds can be found in different locations, such as on the bottom, in the fill or top fill, but also in the construction pit or deconstruction pit. Some types of materials are more likely to be found in some locations rather than others. Finds from the construction pit of a well are less likely to represent rubbish, since the chance of rubbish entering the construction pit are small due to the short time period in which a well is constructed. It is more likely that refuse ends up in the top fill, because of its effect as an artefact trap. The locations which we have distinguished are – in order of the life cycle – the construction pit, the bottom of the well, the fill, the deconstruction pit and the top fill.

Examples of deposits in the construction pit are a Roman helmet found with an iron ploughshare (fig. 8), a leather shoe sole, a wicker basket and three deposits of a wooden spade. These spades show different degrees of wear. On the bottom of wells, deposits were found of several complete pots (fig. 9), pots with cereals, ladders, and several pieces of wood, such as a heavy pointed beam with wooden pins (Nicolay 2008, 154). The deposits of vessels seem to form a pattern. Although in some cases it can be ruled out that they were used for drawing water, we should still consider this explanation for other cases. However, if the ladders were indeed used for cleaning wells, and this task was frequently carried out, we should ask ourselves why these vessels were not recovered.


Figure 9 Section through a well in Breda with two complete ceramic pots in the lower fill ( Koot & Berkvens 2004 , fig. 11.44).

Examples of deposits within the fill include a heavy tuff stone pedestal, a concentration of pottery including a storage vessel containing the bottom of a jug, wagon wheels with barnstone beads, a concentration of bones from six cattle together with skulls of a horse and a ram, several deposits of complete eared pots with remains of rope in combination with manure, bone and pottery, and two large concentrations of wood (Van der Kamp & Polak 2001, 22; fig. 5; Bink & Franzen 2009, 87, 93-95; Groot 2009b, 401-4; Kenemans & Van der Velde 2007, 176; Waldus 2000, 37-38, 42-44; Niekus 2002, 20-21). Only one deposit is known to have come from a deconstruction pit. This is the find of two bronze brooches from Geldermalsen-Hondsgemet (Van Renswoude & Roessingh 2009, 592-595). The fact that the deposit consists of two brooches is an argument for a deliberate deposit and against accidental loss. Losing two brooches at once is unlikely to have gone unnoticed by the owner.

The final category consists of deposits in the top fill. These fills often contain many finds, mostly small fragments of rubbish, since such depressions function as artefact traps. Small, isolated items are therefore difficult to interpret as either rubbish or a ritual deposit. However, some finds are clearly deliberate or non-rubbish, such as a small complete amphora, a complete dog skeleton, the bottom part of a hand quern and a group of four complete dog skeletons (Berkvens 2004, 136-137; Groot 2009b, 401-403; De Wit 2000, 18-19; Kooistra 1996, 134-135, 180-181).

Possible patterns consist of complete pots on the bottom of wells and dog skeletons in the top fill. However, these patterns can also be explained from a functional point of view, as lost containers for drawing water, and the convenience of using an existing depression to bury a dead dog. It is details such as the unsuitability of some of the containers for drawing water and the presence of ritual deposits in the fill of wells with dog burials at the top that lead to an alternative conclusion of these finds as ritual deposits. Many of the finds from the fill also seem to be deliberate deposits of material.

The first method of classifying deposits -- by material -- has demonstrated that it is usually deposits of remarkable items (helmet, ploughshares) or of combinations of various items that can be interpreted as ritual. The classification by function has shown that less remarkable objects, such as containers, as well as items which are valueless, such as wood and twigs, were also used in ritual deposits. This is based on recurring patterns or the lack of a functional explanation for the presence of objects in the well. What did not become clear from these classifications was the reason behind the deposits. It is the location within the fill that tells us the moment of deposition with regard to the life of the well, and so indirectly the reason behind the deposit. For instance, deposits found in the construction pit can only have been placed there during the construction of the well. Finds from the bottom of a well relate to the period of use, while deposits higher in the fill have either been placed there when the well was no longer in use, or at the moment when the period of use was ended. The next paragraph will discuss deposits in relation to the lifecycle of wells.

5. Rituals surrounding the life of a well

Now that we have discussed the variety of deposits, we can look at the rituals leading to these deposits. We have already suggested that the deposits can be related to a distinct moment within the life of a well: the construction, the moment the well is taken in use, the period of use, abandonment and post-abandonment. In this paragraph, we will explore this idea further.

Marking the construction

Deposits found in the construction pit form the clearest indication for the ritual marking of the construction of a well (and indeed for marking stages in the well’s life). The wooden spades found several times in the construction pits of wells have a direct relationship with the construction of the well (fig. 3). Although the spades could have been ‘lost’, it seems unlikely that useful tools would be left behind. Although the spades are not big, they are also not small items that would easily be overlooked and left behind by accident.

Marking the building of the well or reaching the groundwater level are both important landmarks that may have required rituals including the deposition of objects. In Iron Age England, deposits at the bottom of storage pits have been interpreted as offerings to thank the underground gods for protecting the stored cereals, or to propitiate them for entering their domain (Cunliffe 1993, 22-23). In a similar way, deposits in wells may also have served to appease the gods, or to thank them for providing water. Whether the spades were actually used for digging the well pit is not important. Broken or worn spades or unusable representations of the tools that were actually used worked just as well (Glob 1951, 132; Bradley 2005, 85).

An Early Medieval example found in Raalte, where three spades were buried at an equal distance from each other, and from the centre of the well, strengthens a ritual interpretation. Loss is clearly not a satisfactory explanation in this case, as the spades seem to have been deliberately placed. The archaeologists who excavated this well claim that there are more examples of spades in Early Medieval wells (Bloo et al. 2007, 191). This forms an indication for the continuity of certain practices, such as burying a spade during the construction of a well.

A deposit of an iron ploughshare, a helmet and bucket can also be linked to the construction of the well because of its location. Examples of ploughshares in the construction pit are also known for the Iron Age (in Groningen and Breda; Daleman 2007, 10, 21; Kranendonk et. al. 2006, 609-613), and again this suggests long-term continuity of ritual practices as well as a widespread occurrence within the Netherlands.

Taking the well into use

Deposits on the bottom of a well could indicate the moment when the well is taken into use. It seems no coincidence that such offerings would consist of pots (fig. 9). Although some of the pots could have been used for drawing water, Kok believes that the large number of pots found in wells and the combination with other materials is evidence for offerings (Kok 2008, 176-179). Gerritsen also describes the use of pots as offerings, although not in wells but in houses, where complete ceramic containers are the most common building offering (Gerritsen 2003, 74, 95-98). Gerritsen believes that the pots contained fluids or food, and names an example of a pot with barley found in a wall ditch of a house. A similar deposit was found at the bottom of a well in Castricum (Sier 1999, 67). The fact that some of the pots were useless as water containers is another argument for a non-functional interpretation. Just as there is a relationship between offer and occasion for the marking of the construction, in the same way the taking into use of the well is marked by an obvious offering of a container, either for drawing water or holding food.

Other objects may also have played a role in rituals marking the taking into use of wells. The category of ‘animated materials’ is important in this respect. Bradley believes that animated materials were used in deposits in new houses to give life to the house (Bradley 2005, 52). Something similar may have taken place with wells. A deposit of ´living material’ on the bottom of a well may have given life to the well. Fresh animal bones (or animal parts) are not a good choice for such offers, since they will rot and contaminate the water supply. For house offerings, this problem did not occur (Bradley 2005, 52; Gerritsen 2003, 74). Unlike animal parts, plant materials were suitable for giving life to wells, and deposits of cereals, nuts and seeds have been found. Another example is the deposit of medicinal plants. According to Van der Meer, one of the three plants, St John’s wort, represents the blood of the god Wodan to the Germans (Van der Meer 2008, 9; De Cleene & Lejeune 2000, 983-984).

Apart from plants, larger pieces of (unworked) wood may have been offered in the same spirit. In a Late Iron Age well in Oss-Ussen a long oak plank was found. It was carved in the shape of a stylised anthropomorphic figure and is seen as a tutelary deity of water. The statue rested against a large pointed wooden beam that was driven through the bottom of the well (Schinkel 1998, 139; Van der Sanden 1986, 73-78). Kok points out as well that not only certain plants, but also certain species of wood such as oak and alder were associated with gods and blood (Kok 2008, 166-169). The above mentioned ‘flow stakes’ can be seen in this respect as well. The doubts about their practical function and the above mentioned find of a deity statue with a flow stake strengthen a ritual interpretation.

Ritual deposits within the fill

Deposits within the fill may have been placed there to mark the end of the period of use of the well. Some deposits would have made it impossible to use the well any longer, such as those of a stone pedestal from Beuningen, complete wagon wheels and deposits of fresh animal skulls at Tiel-Passewaaij (Van der Kamp & Polak 2001, 22; Groot 2008, 129). Deposits consisting of butchery and settlement refuse could have been used for the same purpose. The fact that such waste often includes still usable or special items, such as a brooch or several animal skulls, makes a ritual interpretation more likely. Of course, it is possible that cases like these represent the merging of functional and ritual behaviour. Placing the special objects in a well together with a concentration of waste materials would mark the moment with an offering while the waste would end the practical usefulness of the well.

Deposits in the top fill

The final category is that of deposits in the top fill of the well. Explanations for such deposits are not straightforward. One possible explanation is that the deposit commemorates earlier deposits in the well, or the well itself. An example is the skeleton of a dog at Geldermalsen-Hondsgemet. This animal was buried in the top fill of a well. A large deposit of cattle bones was found lower in the fill of the same well. This concentration contained remains of six cows and skulls of a ram and a stallion. A second explanation is related to the fact that filled-up wells are visible as depressions, and may have been wetter than the surrounding area. Deposits in such depressions could be similar to deposits in wet contexts (Kok 2008, 176-178). A possible example is a small Roman amphora from Breda-Huifakker (Berkvens 2004, 136-137). Finally, the depression may have been considered as a convenient location to bury things, for whatever reason.

The strongest argument for the hypothesis that the life of a well was punctuated by rituals is formed by the deposits from a single well. We return to the example with which we started this paper: the shoe soles found in a well in Venray. One shoe sole was of high quality and found in the construction pit. This shoe sole was interpreted as ritual. Van Driel-Murray believes -- and we agree -- that this shoe sole should be seen as a construction offering, with the high quality of the shoe strengthening the interpretation as an offering (Van Driel-Murray 2000, 164-166). The second shoe sole was worn and found in the fill. This shoe sole was thrown in the well several decades after the first deposit, and interpreted as refuse. It seems to us more likely that the occurrence of two shoe soles in this well is not coincidental, but that the second one marked the end of the well’s life, at the same time commemorating the earlier deposit, with which the life of the well began. Even the choice of a worn shoe sole could be deliberate, since the shoe’s life, like that of the well, had reached its end. An explanation as refuse is less likely, since the fill contained few other finds. If a well was used to dump rubbish, we would expect to find more of it (Krist 2000, 61). The deposits in this well mark both the beginning and the end of the period of use of the well, and thus complete the well’s lifecycle.

This paragraph has shown that the different life stages of a well could be marked by rituals. Deposits in the construction pit were placed there to mark the building of the well, reaching the ground water level or propitiating the underground gods. Deposits on the bottom of the well could have given life to the well, or marked the start of the period of use. The end of the well’s useful life could be marked by deposits that made it impossible to use the well any longer, or more symbolically by throwing an object in the well. Earlier deposits and the well itself were commemorated by deposits in the top fill, which could occur decades later.

Of course, these interpretations of deposits in wells are not valid for all finds in wells. Accidental loss is always possible, and wells were certainly used as convenient locations for dumping rubbish. However, using a well as a ‘rubbish bin’ does not mean that the well’s lifecycle was not marked in some way. Functional and ritual behaviour may have gone hand in hand in some cases.

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.


We would like to thank the following people for allowing us to use their illustrations: Bert Brouwenstijn (VU University Amsterdam), Henk Hiddink (ACVU-HBS), Harry Fokkens (Leiden University), Maaike Sier (BOOR), Laura Kooistra (BIAX), Otto Brinkkemper (RCE), „Mariëtte de Rooij & Eddy Smits (BAAC), Hans de Kievith (municipality of Breda), Miranda de Wit (ARC).


Martijn van Haasteren


Maaike Groot

VU University Amsterdam



Submission: 15/2/2012

Revision: 24/8/2012

2nd submission: 22/12/2012


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Table 1 Inventory of ‘special’ deposits.