Theorising Roman wells and their contents: beyond structured deposition

Organiser: James Gerrard (Newcastle University)

Wells are ubiquitous features on many Roman period sites but their ubiquity and the ease with which they are identified has left them languishing. Traditionally the interpretations of wells have either been functionalist (emphasising their role as infrastructure) (for instance Hodge 2000), historicist (associating the creation or more usually disuse of wells with historical events) (for instance Müller and Lange 1977), or situated within the broad and sometimes unenlightening church of ‘structured deposition’.

Recent work in the Netherlands has emphasised wells as features with biographies or life-cycles (van Haasteren and Groot 2013). This offers a useful approach to consider the different stages of a well’s use and disuse that allow us to separate out different interpretive threads. The use of these approaches can allow us to consider wells from new theoretical perspectives.

Wells can be seen as proxies for changing attitudes to purity and consumption, or as proxies for economic growth and recession, or even as indicators of population size. Such approaches, while relevant, limit the interpretive value of wells. Two wells at Rudston (Yorkshire) (Stead 1980) and Tarrant Hinton (Dorset) (Graham 2006) provide useful case studies. Both were hacked through nearly a hundred feet (30m) of chalk to supply water to late Roman villa establishments. These well shafts embody control and exploitation of labour and resources and the daily back-breaking labour of drawing of water emphasises this point. Cross-cultural comparisons from the Classical Mediterranean, Medieval Europe and the contemporary developing world allow us to see wells not simply as infrastructure but as arenas for social discourse where power, control, social status and cosmology become intertwined. By exploring these interpretive elements we can better contextualise and understand the sometimes complex deposits that were placed within wells at critical points in their ‘life-cycles’.

Some of the themes that we hope to critically engage with include: inequality (who controls the water?), status and gender (who draws the water?), cosmology (why are particular wells suitable for ‘special deposits’ and does this link into cosmological beliefs?) and conflict (why are wells abandoned in the way that they are?). The intention is to showcase a series of multi-facetted theoretical approaches that allows wells and their contents to be interpreted as more than simply a ‘water supply’ or a ‘ritual act’.

References:

Graham, A. 2006 Barton Field, Tarrant Hinton, Dorset: Excavations 1968-1984. Dorchester, Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society Monograph 17.

Hodge, A. 2000 ‘Wells’, in O. Wikander (ed.) The Handbook of Ancient Water Technology. Leiden, Brill, 29-38.

Müller, N. and Lange, G. 1977 ‘Ein Menschliches Skelett aus dem Brunnen einer Villa Rustica bei Frankfurt a.M.-Schwanheim’. Fundberichte aus Hessen 15, 315-326.

Stead, I. 1980 Rudston Roman Villa. York, Yorkshire Archaeological Society.

van Haasteren, M. and Groot, M. 2013 ‘The biography of wells: a functional and ritual life history’. Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 15(1), 25-51.

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