Waterholes and wells

There are comparatively few examples of wells known from Iron Age Britain, particularly from rural settlements, so waterholes and natural watercourses must have sufficed in many instances for people and livestock. Many would have continued in use during the Romano-British period. Deep well shafts with timber or stone linings were largely a post-conquest development, however.

Five waterholes have been excavated at the FARRRS and i-Port investigations on low-lying land around Potteric Carr south-west of Doncaster. At FARRRS, the waterhole was originally subcircular in plan and up to 3m across but only 0.96m deep, with a bowl-shaped but slightly irregular profile (Daniel 2017: 17, fig. 9). It was probably dug in the later Iron Age and silted up in the early Romano-British period (see above); and was re-cut by a later boundary ditch. The finds and palaeo-environmental information from it are described below. At Rossington i-Port, four waterholes were investigated, the largest subrectangular in plan and 6.6m long, 4.7m wide and 1.7m deep, with quite steep sides and a flat base. Two also acted as sumps and were cut into underlying ditches (Daniel, Harrison and Powell 2014a: 18, 2014b: 6, figs 2, 4, 8). Roman pottery and stone finds were recovered from these, along with palaeo-environmental evidence (see below).

Two ‘ponds’ recorded at Finningley might also have acted as waterholes. One was up to 5.5m across and 0.95m deep; and was steep on three sides but had a more gradual slope on its northern edge for access. It was gently concave at its base and produced a relatively large amount of 2nd century Romano-British pottery and large pieces of timber, mostly tree branches but one interpreted as a step into the feature (MAP 2006a: 34-5, figs 23, 32). It also yielded a leather one-piece Roman shoe (see below). A second feature was of similar dimensions but did not produce any finds.

A slightly more complex feature was also excavated at Finningley Quarry. This was subcircular in plan and up to 5.4m across, with gradually sloping sides forming a cone or funnel. At a depth of 0.8m a square timber lining began, continuing to a depth of 1.6m (MAP 2006a: 35-6, fig. 32, plates 43-52). The near-vertical shaft continued to a depth of 3.25m. It produced 2nd century Romano-British pottery and stone fragments. Some Romano-British wells were relatively simple features. In one area of West Moor Park, Armthorpe, a well proved to be subcircular in plan and 4m across. It was excavated to a depth of 3m; and cored for another 1.1m without establishing the base of the feature (Hughes 2006: 13, figs 3, 8). The upper sides of the well had quite steeply sloping earthen sides, before becoming much steeper in a circular shaft. There were tool marks on the sides of the well, but only a small quantity of pottery was recovered. The report makes no mention of any well lining, but it seems unlikely that a near-vertical deep shaft could have survived for long without some support, unless it was dug out on a regular basis.

At 8–10 High Street Doncaster, a probable Roman well 2.15m in diameter was identified but it could only be excavated to a depth of 1.20m but auguring suggested it was 2.10m deep (Chadwick and Burgess 2008: 44, fig. 15, plates 10, 19-20). It did not have a timber lining.

At Templeborough one well was investigated by J.D. Leader’s team, three were excavated by May, and one recorded during construction work for the steel mill (May 1922: 35-6, 57, 59, figs xli, liii). The one dug in 1877–78 by Leader was ‘set round with sandstone rubble (ibid.: 59) which may refer to a stone lining or superstructure, and it was apparently ‘29 feet’ (8.8m) deep. Another investigated by May in 1917–18 was around 5.6m deep and had stone lining to a depth of 1.5m where a square framework of timbers began. Another was 1.2m in diameter and lined with stone to a depth of 2.7m, but it could not be bottomed due to water ingression (ibid. 57). The well recorded in 1918 had a steep-sided conical upper section that was 3m across and stone-lined, some of larger stones probably acting as steps down into the feature for drawing water (ibid. 35). From around 2.6m down there was an oak box-lining of the square shaft to a depth of 6.7m below the original ground surface, after which the well shaft continued to a total depth of 9.9 metres.

Research questions

  • Can we identify further examples of waterholes through geophysical survey and target these during evaluations and excavations? Can we develop methodologies to investigate them more effectively?
  • Can we identify Romano-British wells at an early stage in investigations, and then specific methodologies for their excavation and analysis?

Priorities and implementation

  • Where waterholes and wells are suspected from initial geophysical survey results or soil stripping, Ground Penetrating Radar should then be used to assess the likely depth and inform further work;
  • Deep wells and pits need to be fully excavated wherever possible, as preservation in situ can rarely guarantee that there will be no problems due to compaction and anaerobic waterlogged deposits drying out and being exposed to oxygen. Excavation needs to proceed below the water table wherever possible to recover the most significant organic remains which are under most threat from development. Pragmatic but careful use of large earth-moving plant can facilitate such investigations.