6. Conclusion

This article proposed at the outset that access to water was fundamental to human engagement with nature, this encounter taking a significant step forward when society started to employ subterranean sources on a regular basis. The exploitation of such a basic necessity is likely to have embodied ritualistic, as well as functional, elements from the start, as is clearly the case at the core of the Roman Empire with the symbolism of aqueduct supplies. Yet understanding such dynamics at the margins of that empire, and deciding whether they drew on social forces or on pre-Roman influences, is difficult, even when deploying a range of archaeological materials.

We have attempted to investigate such issues with our Heslington evidence by combining assemblage analyses and setting these within the context of depositional history and formation processes (Brudenell and Cooper 2008). In this way, we have sought to explore the comparability of contexts and evidence for patterning in relation to notions of intentionality (Garrow 2012). Our interpretations have important implications for the relationship between ritual activity and material circumstances.

When looking at the assemblages deposited in any well, parallels can be drawn far and wide. For example, we placed the young deer from our feature beside a counterpart at Drapers' Gardens, London (Gerrard 2011), and our dog beside that from Swann Street, Southwark (Beasley 2006). Yet the differences must not be forgotten. The latter animal was accompanied by human skeletons, suggesting a context that is more ritual shaft than water well at Southwark. The Drapers' Gardens feature included unworn coins in its construction and a hoard of twenty or more very prestigious metal vessels in its backfill. These items are seen by Gerrard (2011, 568) as marking some form of 'closure' in this part of Londinium, at the very heart of Britannia (i.e. the capital of Maxima Caesariensis). In contrast, the Heslington East well lacked coins, other metal finds and human bone. Simply having a dog or a deer in common does not mean that these London features convey the same forms of symbolism as those embodied in activities on a hillside outside York.

It is striking that all of the material found in our well would have been familiar to those inhabiting this landscape. Its construction incorporates a finial which, we argue, probably came from the dismantling of a nearby, good-quality structure. The jars circulated here widely, the Huntcliff-type probably being connected directly to water usage. The butchered sheep, cattle and, it can be argued, horse are found in other contexts on the site, albeit not in these forms and proportions. Even the young dog and deer could have come from, respectively, within and fairly near the site. They therefore attest locally derived, well-understood, 'mundane' elements.

Yet sufficient evidence is presented to show that some of this material was deliberately placed in the well as symbolic performance. If we are to understand these forms of routine ritual, we must look not to other places where the odd complete pot or articulated animal skeleton has turned up in a similar feature, but rather to local agricultural cycles and fertility practices, whether at annual, generational or longer-term points of transition. The question of whether such practices belong to a 'Roman' or 'Iron Age' tradition is, perhaps, less important than understanding the specific rural processes, and the associated pressures and social tensions, that may have caused a community to act in the way that it did.


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