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

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.