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

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.

5.1 Marking the construction

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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.

5.2 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.

5.3 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.

5.4 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.