Monthly Archives: February 2015

Pozzo sacro di Santa Cristina – a wonder of the Mediterranean

“the well of Santa Cristina is regal; it represents the apex of architecture for well temples. The balance of its proportions, the precision and refinement of the interiors make it hard to believe it dates back to around 1000 B.C. and that it is an expression of nuragic art, before the presence of prestigious ancient populations on the island”.

 Giovanni Lilliu, Sardinian archaeologist in New well temples of Sardinia nuragica, in Sardinian Studies, XIV-XV (1955-57), pp. 197-288

 As I indicted last month, Sardinia is one of the best places to experience the ancient water worship. Certainly, the most remarkable of all these structure is that found at the settlement of Santa Christina at Paulilatino. This has been a site on my to do list for many years and it wonder does not disappoint.

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 The well is made of basaltic blocks which are less permeable than other local stones. It is enclosed by an elliptical 26 by 20 metre external wall, making a vestibule. The well is keyhole shaped construction with a staircase fanning to a width of 3.47 m but consisting of 25 well cut steps narrowing as they lead deep down to an underground drum shaped chamber containing spring water. Looking upwards the ceiling resembles a back to front staircase. Stepping down into the well one is quickly divorced from the hot air of the outside and to the cooler waters which even at the height of August is quite full with clear water. Light filters down from a small aperture at the pinnacle of the beehive structure or tholos, a distinctive architectural feature of the Nuraghic civilizations.  The first mention of the Well Temple of Santa Cristina is found, probably in Itinerary of the island of Sardinia (1840) by Lamarmora. Referring to the Nuraghe Funtana Padenti in Baccai (Lanusei), Lamarmora wrote:

“built with rough stone, not like a small well nearby, funnel shaped and built with finely finished volcanic stones, which had been put together with care…”.


The enclosure around the well.

In the notes Lamarmora compared it to the Well of Santa Cristina, he wrote:

“a similar Well Temple is situated by the church of Santa Cristina, not too distant from Paulilatino; it was partly obstructed and full of water.”


The steps down the well.


Another brief mention is found in the Casalis Dictionary, under the voice of “Paulilatino”, Angius (1846) wrote:

“Two miles from the village there is the church of Santa Cristina. By the church there is a singular funnel shaped construction, accessible through the hole and the cone shaped stairs, made of well refined stones, that also make up the wall around the staircase, which looks like a tilted funnel. Among the people who descended into the Well Temple, nobody could explain the use of the construction.”


Looking from the tholos roof opening to the steps and end of enclosure.


In 1857, Giovanni Spano, in the Well of Santa Cristina in Paulilatino in Sardinian Archaeological Bulletin. Vol. III, Cagliari, 1857 describes the monument, as:

 “The work is cyclopean; it has been built with big volcanic black stones, from a local cave, and without cement in the same manner as nuragic constructions. The access is through an underground passage, with a perpendicular vaulted roof made with overlapping stones that create overlaying layers. From top to bottom it is over 4 meters high. A first layer of massive stones rests on the rounded wide base, on that first layer there is a second smaller layer and so on to the top with a total of 10 layers narrowing towards the top to form a shape of a cone cut short and the mouth of an ordinary well; a man at the bottom would not be able to climb out because the shape of the stones form an upside down staircase”.


Looking from the well chamber up the stairs.


A prison for a saint?

One of the reasons for the problems in identification was the build up of debris of the site. Spano notes that:

“whoever takes a look at the Nuraghi, will understand that they are from the same period as the Well Temple, although the former also shows a construction technique that used to be employed by the Egyptians. It was man’s first attempt to build vaults, an idea probably taken by the oval shape typical of Nuraghi. Therefore this work belongs to the first oriental populations that moved to Sardinia. It is very easy to guess its purpose is related to a prison system particularly if we consider the prison constructions typical of the Romans and the Etruscans.”

Spano believed that as there was a water supply nearby and the lack of cement; he did not believe its use as a well believing it too to be a prison!:

“These consisted in a well, or a hole in the ground, with a vaulted ceiling and a mere opening at the top to let the light through…this suggestion is also confirmed by the belief that it had been the prison where the tyrant had placed the Saint, and where the former had been tortured… It could not have been a well, firstly because there was a fountain near by, which is never missing from the edges of areas with Nuraghes; and second, the absence of cement would make it impossible for the structure to stand the water volume. Also the presence of the underground staircase makes it unlikely that it functioned as a well”.


Steps down to the well chamber.


This recognition of its use as a prison is related to the life of the saint associated with the site. A martyr of Bolsena, under Diocletian in the IVth century, the eleven year old virgin Santa Cristina also said to have been imprisoned in the central tower of the Nuraghe (or the well temple) being killed during a war between Paulilatino and Bonarcado.  Another legend tells that her father built the well because she had become a Christian and as she descended the well, her clothes were said to have touched the wall and created the offset in the structure. She is a significant saint to be associated with the site as one legend states that she was sentenced to death by drowning when a heavy millstone was tied around her neck when she was thrown into a lake. However, she was saved being floated back to shore helped by angels.


The well chamber.


Close up of the full well basin.


Or was it a tomb?

The Sardinian Archaeological Bullettin published drawings and stated that it:

“compares it to the old prisons described by Jeremy, although I believe it dates back to before the Roman age, therefore it would be an underground passage similar to the ruins in Lanusei. I also see some similarities with the famous underground passage in Mycenae in Greece, as described and illustrated by Giacomo Stuart.”

Finally the great early 20th century archaeologist Antonio Caramelli, after the discovery in 1909 of another site at Santa Vittoria of Serri together with the finding of sacred objects there, small bronzes, that it was related to well worship. Giovanni Petazzoni in his “Religione Primitiva della Sardegna of 1912 argued that the wells were of ancient origin related to the island’s first settlers despite claims that such edifices were either Carthagian or even Medieval in origin. However, Phoenician little statues found on the steps of the temple, anthropomorphic clay figures, figurative terracotta objects, pieces of necklace and other pieces suggest a date of XI century B.C.


The roof resembling the stair case.


A lunar clock

An astro-archaeological interpretation has been made by  for its structure. M. Cavedon, in Corriere della Sera taking a theory belonging to the astronomer G.Romano, published a drawing (plan and side section) in the Corriere della Sera on 16th of June 1992, with the following caption:

“The structure was used as an observatory of the maximum lunar declination towards the end of December and the beginning of January; at this point the moon’s reflection was in the water. During the vernal and autumnal equinoxes the sun light reflected all over the staircase and it reached the water”.

The only snag in this theory which has been developed into a fully fledged book is that the hole through which the light penetrates was not perhaps as open as it is now as surrounding the well was another building although this may have had an opening of course – but we cannot say but it can be read about here in depth.


Blurring light enters the tholos.


A modern festival

Beyond the well is a fascinating little settlement, laying between it and the prehistoric Nuraghi and other ruins suggesting that it may be based on an earlier establishment although the earliest date appears 1730. Central to this is the church of Santa Cristina which surely may have replaced whatever rituals predated it. Surrounding it are little terraced cottages called muristenes arranged in a su corrale or courtyard which itself has a well. This village is a ghost town called a novenario (only open for nine days), one of a number of such villagers in Sardinia and often associated with ancient wells which is uninhabited for the majority of days. Two main days the village swarmed by pilgrims for San Raffaele Arcangelo, the fourth Sunday in October and the most important, that in the second of May, Santa Cristina. The date is significant in Europe for being when springs were at their most powerful. Vittorio Angius in his Dictionary  (1841) notes:

“The main festival falls 10th day of the same very frequently, and devout procession to the well known by the saint, which is of a unique shape and structure. It makes feast day of July 24, when we commemorate the glorious death of the same.”


The church of Santa Cristina


The novenario.


However, when this procession started is unclear if the knowledge of the existence or rather function of the well was not known in the 1800s. Was it that no-one had thought to speak to these communities? Furthermore it would be impossible to think that the festival would not have arisen from whatever customs were enacted here many centuries before.

Whatever the origins of these great relic it is one of the greatest of the island’s sites..and does not disappoint for anyone enchanted by the technological advances of these ancient cultures.

Burghead and its ancient wells

“An old man suggested that they should dig in a certain sport, where according to immemorial tradition, a well would be found.”

Gentlemen’s Magasine 1828

Set out on a peninsula of land in the Moray Firth is the curious town of Burghead: a town which is a world away from much of Mainland Scotland. A town which despite it’s rather drab exterior and uniform nature is one which has many mysteries – it’s unique Clavie Burning, the largest surviving Pictish fort and the Well…all three unique in the Scotland and indeed the world and of course not necessarily unconnected.

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I arrived on a windswept January, the day of the burning of the Clavie, an ancient evocative tradition which may have itself have an indirect link to the well. Drawing the key, I approached the well which is enclosed in a high wall strangely juxtaposition within the urban landscape. The first thing which strikes one is the primeval and ominous nature of the site – an opening cut into the hillside, dark and foreboding. Twenty rough and worn rock cut steps lead down to this chamber itself cut within the rocky crag of the peninsula. As one approaches the chamber its size, five metres by five metres and four metres high, its gloomy nature evidence – your voice becoming more and more echoed as you descend into the darkness.

Water filled up to the first two steps making it impossible to see the chamber. R W Feachem (1963) describes the site well noting that:

“The well comprises a rectangular chamber about 16 feet square and 12 feet high, with rounded angles, cut out of rock at the base of a crag … some 20 feet below the present ground level above. The floor is bordered by a ledge surrounding a basin 10 feet square and 4 feet deep, again with rounded corners. When found, during the improvements (commenced in 1808,) the chamber roof was broken and the entrance ill-defined; and the archway now forming the latter was then constructed.”


These ‘improvements’ involved as well recutting the steps and using gunpowder to deepen the pool. These changes probably removed some other features which are no longer visible such as the mosaic pavement around the well and paintings on the wall. This is a considerable shame for these features seen according to Grant (1898) in 1809 would have possibly allowed us to gauge the origin of the chamber. Mosaics and paintings suggest of course a Roman origin and the discovery of them may have lead to the view that the site was Roman, gaining it the name Roman Well. This is a view espoused by Young () who compares it with other similar sites. However, his argument is not particularly persuasive.


The Pictish fort


Pictish origins.

Burghead is a unique place. At the very end of its peninsula are the remains of a vitrified Pictish fort, which dates from the 4th to 6th Century. There is no argument that the well has some link to the Pictish settlement, the discovery of a bull carved onto a slab, a common Pictish motif was found in the well. The position of the well on the edge of the ramparts is problematic. It suggests a later origin for why would it not be enclosed safely. However, others argue a more ritual origin. One find, a stone head was found in the well. Readers of the blog will know that there is considerable debate over wells and heads. A number of ancient wells have been associated with skulls or beheading legends, particularly in the Celtic world and indeed an argument has been made of the existence of a head cult into recent times. Another ritual aspect, possibly unique in Britain to the Picts, was the ritual drowning. Historical sources state that Talorgen, son of the King of Atholl was drowned in 739 AD and it is possible that this site was a chamber used such. However, no human remains were found in the excavation to support this view.









If we consider that Grant’s observation to be correct what did they see? A theory was that the well was an early Christian baptistery. Certainly the find of a stone described by Rhind in his 1870 Name Book as:

“a square stone having a cross upon the centre the margin of which was covered with … knotwork cut in bold relief.”


This stone now lost suggests an early Christian cross, the knot work potentially Pictish in origin. A good example being the 9th century Drosten Stone discovered at St Vigeans near Arbroath. The crudeness of the cross suggesting an adoption by Christians which would fit the view of the site as a baptistery. This was probably used in the cult of St Ethan, a local missionary saint of the 7th century. It is possible that these features were from its adoption and are wall paintings of the saint. Little is known of him and I feel his name is too similar to Aethan and so I assume they are the same.  However, this is not the only ancient well in the town. Tucked away on the outskirts, not far from the maltings and once along the old railway which served the town, is St Aethan’s  Well. St Aiden of course was associated with the Iona community and is known to have converted the Picts in the 7th Century, he would have certainly visited Burghead.


Why should a well named after an important evangelical saint here? Its location does not seem to be near any landing nor does it appear to have been associated with any chapel or church. Indeed the position of the church is a possible clue. How old is this well one wonders. It certainly is not as old as the Pictish well and I theorise it was probably established as a focus of faith once the former fell from favour and was possibly lost. The support for this argument is the position of St Aethan’s Chapel which is a mere few yards from the Pictish Well. Surely this is more likely to be the said holy well and not this fairly simple spring. If it had been used ritually by them he would have sought to Christianise this not ignore it. Therefore it also seems probably that the Pictish well was probably lost whether physically (noting it was discovered in 1809) or spiritually, and thus requiring a re-focus but why a spring so far out? Perhaps the geology may explain this. Of course when it was lost is unclear. Evidence would have come from one find Spanish coins but these were lost. The presence of such coins is interesting – it suggests again ritual use, well wishing in its most familiar guise perhaps, but when? One would suggest from the period of the Anglo-Spanish conflict when it is plausible that some secretive links with Spain may have been established. This would also suggest that the association was also Catholic in nature and indicates the well was probably overtly Christianised. This might highlight when the well disappeared and a new St Aethan’s Well appeared created by Catholics in the dying days of a Catholic nature as the Reformation begun to sweep away such practices. However, this is all conjecture.


Interestingly, Morris and Morris (1986) give a rather simple entry for St Aethan’s Well, under the name St Aidan, states that it was close to the railway and difficult of access.  Thus suggesting that they did not find it. That is probably likely as the site was only cleared by the Burghead Trust in February 2014. The group have done a great job providing a large information board which states:

“St. Aethan or St. Aidan as he is also known was a follower of St. Columba in Iona in the 7th century. He brought Christianity to the northern Picts and is the patron saint of Burghead. The water from the well comes from a spring higher up the hill and was thought to have healing powers.”

Chairs have been provided and two metal tankards and dog bowls provided suggesting the water is potable. The water flows through a metal pipe into a shallow stone lined chamber set beneath the sand. The original source is probably that closer to the cliff face which arises in a similar chamber. Both are covered in a metal grille which is a little unsightly, but stops the stray foot getting wet!

Perhaps Christianity was slow to make an impact on the Burghead community and forced to exist on its outskirts..attending the day of its great clavie burning it is easy to see how pagan forces could have resisted the force of Christianity.

Is Queen Anne’s Well Bedfords Park a lost holy well?

Missing from the gazetteer!

Sadly, when producing a book on a topic which has never been produced before, you can miss something. Queen Anne’s Well is one site I missed. I knew nothing about it, but a brief mention as it happens by the Friends of Bedfords Park. Asking at the visitor centre the name was well known and I was given clear instructions. Expecting to find some boggy hole, the site as can be seen is far more impressive and certainly fabric wise one of the county’s best ancient wells.

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The well consists of a brick and sandstone arch well house set into a bank. Inside the well house is plastered brickwork and sits up a small platform. The water arises in a roughly rectangular aperture and flows to fill Nursery pond below. A gnarled tree grows over the well holding some of it together, although the quoin stone is missing, which may have given some clue to its origin.  The structure is quite substantial and well built. Water from the spring fills lower Nursery pond. There is also a nearby brick lined reservoir, not necessarily linked, which was the mansion’s domestic source being pumped by a pumping engine.


Holy well or Victorian Folly?

The spring may be the reason for the original settlement as Bedfords Park providing a valueable source of water. According to Mrs Lois Amos of the Friends of Bedfords Park it was known way back in the 16th century and onwards as ‘Belfonts’. This is an interesting thought if it derives from OFr belle meaning ‘good’ or ‘reliable’; and indeed there are small number of healing and/or holy wells called bonny well which has a similar derivation.


However this is at odds with the view that it was named after a John Bedford who held the land in 1362 and built the first manor. It would be apparent that etymological issues have happened here.

This notwithstanding this does not explain how old is the well? Is it a mediaeval? Tudor? Or a folly or Victorian piece of gothic? The lack of embellishment or indeed history suggests that it the site is not a result of any landscape improvements in either the 1700s or 1800s.

The fabric may give the best evidence. The well is not built wholly of brick, which would suggest a post-1600 construction perhaps, but a high quality green sandstone. This is noted by Nigel Oxley, the Boroughs buildings Conservation Officer that such a high quality material used in a number of local churches, emphasising its importance. It is similar to that of Charlotte’s Well in Stratford which suggests a Tudor origin.


Maps can be an excellent source and being enclosed within an estate one would expect some reference to it. However, it does not appear until an 1896 Ordnance Survey map which even then shows it simply as ‘Spring’. The absence of the site from maps is no indication of a lack of age, but it is curious. Simon Donoghue,  Havering’s Local History Librarian, produced an excellent guide to the estate and no mention is made of the well.

Which Ann?

Bedfords Park is in the London borough of Havering, nearby being Havering atte Bower, which has been a Royal manor since the 8th century. It would appear that Havering-atte-Bower, a Royal property can be cited as the source for the Queen. However, in the late 1300s, the King’s Sergeant lived in the manor who was in the service of Richard II’s queen – Anne of Bohemia. James. However, it is Henry’s wife Anne of Boleyn is the most likely perhaps.

The cult of Queen Anne

I believe that the significance of the occurrence of wells associated with Anne Boleyn has been missed by researchers. Ann was a convenient figure to apply to wells at a time of flux. The cult of Saint Anne and its association with wells is a relatively recent one, dating from the 15th century. Could it be that at the Reformation, that local community or rather a local landowner, realising that the population would have divided into those following the old ways would focus on re-dedication to this popular Queen. Anne was of course, the mother of Elizabeth, the first Protestant figurehead, who herself had a cult and feast day associated with her.

Evidently she has a name which can be conveniently transferred to St. Ann Wells especially as like Ann she was the mother of Elizabeth the founder of English Protestantism. I have noted before how Queen Ann has been associated with springs, however dubious.

Sadly, there is no evidence and I write this post hoping someone can help. However, I do believe that the weight of circumstance and likelihood suggests that the well which exists in Bedford’s Park predates its association with Queen Anne and was probably a St. Anne’s Well.