PREVIOUS   NEXT   CONTENTS   HOME 

2. Water Supply, Ritual Activity and Structured Deposition

2.1 Water and ritual

Access to water, alongside food acquisition and shelter, is fundamental to human existence, being arguably the most critical engagement between 'culture' and 'nature'. Thus how this was organised in past societies has been, unsurprisingly, of considerable interest to archaeologists for a long time (Clark 1944). A significant stage in this process occurred when people started to make use of subterranean, rather than surface, sources via digging wells. This required technical knowledge e.g. depth of water table, the ability to revet the sides of any intrusion and make equipment such as ropes and containers. It also implies control of the well's immediate landscape setting, and is thus likely to correlate with increased social complexity and perhaps sedentism (Thomas 2003).

These relationships are clearest in desert regions such as Arabia (Al-Thenayian 1999, 101ff) and the Sahara (Mattingly 2003, 235ff), which lack surface water. However, they can be equally important in other contexts, for example the Yorkshire Wolds near our site, where dew ponds and other artificial features have greatly influenced settlement and movement of animals from prehistory onwards (Fenton-Thomas 2005). Many studies of water access have focussed on technological matters (Wikander 2000) but a symbolic element is often apparent in creating, using and curtailing supplies.

In the Roman period, social control of water was clearly of general significance (Ellis 1997), although most studies have focused on the use of aqueducts (Hodge 1992). Creating these hugely expensive systems in the city of Rome itself, for example, was of decisive interest to those remaking its image during the age of Augustus (Favro 1996) and later. Elsewhere, in Pompeii, the arrival of pressurised water from aqueducts had considerable social impact, fountains being set up in the streets to give inhabitants a sense of district identity (Wallace-Hadrill 1994) and piped water used in the 'House of the Vestals' to increase, and express, the social status of the owners (Jones and Robinson 2005): water clearly mattered to Rome.

Our knowledge of the core of Empire and its elite has influenced expectations of how water and society interacted in more peripheral regions and at lower social levels. Thus general commentaries on archaeological evidence from towns in the marginal province of Britain list places where there are good grounds for the use of aqueducts (Dorchester, Leicester and Lincoln) and others where such features can be postulated on the basis of evidence for bath-houses or related infrastructure: fountains, sewers, distribution pipes etc. This has led at least one author to expect aqueducts in 'quite small towns and villages' (Wacher 1976, 100). In reality, however, their impact seems limited in British civilian contexts (Stephens 1985), such restricted supplies explaining, for example, the rarity of water-features in townhouse gardens (Perring 2002, 182).

Where major urban centres have been intensively investigated, it is quite clear that wells fulfilled most needs. Thus in York, adjacent to our case study, a bath-house and associated sewer system within the fortress, plus possible fountain base and lead pipes beyond, have led to the suggestion that the town must have been supplied by an aqueduct, leading to speculation on possible sources in the region (Whitwell 1976, 29). However, even that author admits that there have been no archaeological finds to support this notion, an absence reinforced by a similar lack of evidence in a recent synthesis of findings from 30 years of work in the city (Ottaway 2011). What we do find in York are wells, ranging from the very simple (and thus difficult to distinguish from pits) to the much more sophisticated, for example the fine timber-lined feature at Skeldergate (Carver et al. 1978) inserted as part of a development involving a riverside road and terracing of the hillside to allow construction of good-quality townhouses.

Elsewhere in Britain, recent work in the centre of Silchester (Eckardt 2006; 2011) shows that wells existed in some profusion in association with properties developing there over time . Even London, the provincial capital, used timber-lined wells (Wilmott 1982; 1984, Williams 2003), although the city did invest in sophisticated bucket-chain mechanisms to raise that water in specific contexts (Blair et al. 2006). If this was the case in large towns, such features must have been even more common in the countryside. Thus in order to explore the symbolic associations of water supply, and decide whether they were influenced by the trickle-down of core practices or the continuation of pre-Roman approaches, it is to wells that we must turn.


 PREVIOUS   NEXT   CONTENTS   HOME 

Internet Archaeology is an open access journal. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

University of York legal statements

File last updated: Fri Jun 21 2013