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
2. The lifecycle of a well: the functional side

2.1 Construction

The construction of a well starts with the digging of a pit. When a well is lined, a wide construction pit is dug to a level below that of the water table, followed by the placing of the wooden lining and the filling of the space around the lining (fig. 2). When a well does not have a lining, a construction pit is not necessary. In that case, the pit is wide at the top and narrows towards the lower end. This way, the well acquires a funnel shape.


Figure 2 Schematic representation of a section through a typical Roman well (Illustration: B. Brouwenstijn).

It is likely that the pit was dug with a spade. Examples show that digging spades from the Iron Age and Roman period were often quite narrow, comparable to modern spades (Hiddink 2005, 169). In several excavations, however, short wooden spades with a wider blade were found in wells (fig. 3; Jansen & Van Hoof 2003, 59-61; Kooistra et al. 2008, 41-42; Hiddink 2005, 169). Archaeologists disagree about the use of these spades. Hiddink, for instance, writes that a wooden spade from Deurne would not be strong enough to dig a deep pit in hard soil. This may have been possible if a metal edge was attached to the blade, but no evidence – such as attachment points – was found on this spade (Hiddink 2008, 185). If not for digging, this type of spade could have been used if the soil was first loosened with other tools (Hiddink 2005, 169). Contrary to Hiddink, the excavators of the site Raalte-Boetelerenk believe that the short spades found at this site would be especially suitable for digging narrow pits such as wells (Bloo et al. 2007, 191).


Figure 3 Wooden spade found in the construction pit of a well in Deurne ( Hiddink 2005 , fig. 18.41 and colour plate 13A).

Wells are often provided with a lining to improve their stability. Various types of lining can be recognised. Schinkel has developed a classification for the linings of the wells at Oss-Ussen (Schinkel 1994). He distinguished constructions of horizontal or vertical beams and planks, hollowed-out tree trunks, wattle and reused wine barrels. This classification is useful but incomplete. Variations on the types that are mentioned exist, as well as combinations of the various types, but also entirely different types, such as layered sods or reused canoes (Sier 1999, 61; Bink & Franzen 2009, 104-106).

Another regularly recurring phenomenon in the construction of wells and water pits is the occurrence of a wooden stake at the bottom of a well. Such stakes are often pointed and driven through the bottom of a well at an angle (fig. 4). Schinkel believes that these ‘flow stakes’ guaranteed a good flow of water (Schinkel 1994, 183). However, some people have raised doubts about this proposed function. Experiments have shown that a pointed stake in the bottom of a well does not affect the rise of water at all (Jansen & Van Hoof 2003, 44; Wesselingh 2000, 200). Another possibility is that the stakes served as ladders to go down into the well (Jansen & Van Hoof 2003, 44). This also seems unlikely, since stakes are also found in narrow, deep wells, where they cannot have been used as ladders. The function of these objects thus remains unclear. However, below other explanations will be suggested.


Figure 4 Section through a water pit in Oss-Ussen, showing the position of the ‘flow stake’ ( Schinkel 1998 , fig. 313).

In some wells, wagon wheels were placed horizontally on the bottom as part of the construction (Sier 1999, 61; a medieval example can be found in Hiddink 2009, 102). The hub and spokes of the wheel were removed, partly in order not to hinder the flow of water, and partly because they had iron parts and may have been greasy.

Apart from the lining underground, constructions will often have been built aboveground. The lining itself will certainly have continued to the ground surface. Nicolay mentions historic examples where the lining was built to knee height, to prevent people and animals and probably also stray rubbish to fall into the well (Nicolay 2008, 151-152). A high lining would also have made it easier to close the well. Hiddink states that the water in wells that were not closed would quickly have become polluted and therefore less suitable for human consumption (Hiddink 2008, 100). Apart from closure with a lid some wells were protected by a well house (Bink & Franzen 2009, 99; Heirbaut & Jansen 2007, 634). Next to constructions for the protection of the water quality, constructions are also known that facilitated the drawing of water, such as pulleys and swipes.

The materials related to the construction of a well will largely consist of wood from the lining. This includes wooden planks, posts and beams, barrel staves, parts of hollowed-out tree trunks, wattle and wagon wheels (with the hub and spokes removed). The degree to which it is clear that wood belongs to the construction can vary. Often, parts of the lining will be found in their original place. In other cases, isolated pieces of wood are found in the fill, which makes it less certain that this is construction material. Furthermore, isolated pieces of wood could be so-called flow stakes, which have been described above. Finally, not only material from the construction itself can be found, but also tools that were used during the construction, such as the spades that have already been mentioned.