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

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.