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

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.