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

5.1 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.