Monthly Archives: May 2015

The sacrificial well shrine of Su Romanzesu Bitti Village Sardinia

Delightfully situated high, at 750 metres above sea level, on a plateaux amongst the gnarled cork oaks is the Nuragic settlement of Romanzesu di Bitti. The site is believed to be one of the most important sites of worship of the Nuragic period. A site by its name suggests a long continuation of its usage into the Roman occupation of the island.


Accidental discovery

Like a number of similar sites, the site was revealed by accident during the search for water in 1919, when Antonio Taramelli a local archaeologist. Sadly, during the excavations, a number of parts were destroyed; the scale trapezoidal coming down the well was destroyed. The water was also diverted into a trough and even in the 1950 new reclamation work utilised the well for a modern sewer and thus a number ceramic pipes were placed at the site in blocks of local granite. As a result interpretation has been difficult.

The surrounding village

The village dating from the Bronze Age extended over seven acres near the source of the Tirso river and consisted of a hundred huts, a rectangular temple, two megaron temples and a strange labyrinthine structure as well as the sacred well with its amphitheatre basin with its elliptical terraces. The megaron temples are similar to other sites with circular pits which may have collected water for ablutions or supported a roof, no one is clear. Similarly what significance there is the labyrinth is unclear. The remains show a hut structure with concentric walls to a central room with a circular stone base and some paving. The archaeologists found red quartz pebbles at the site. It was perhaps the house of a sorcerer who may have been the person in charge of the ritual centre. However as no site similar has been found this is pure speculation and indeed what role this building had to the sacred well and amphitheatre basin is unclear.

The Pozzo in its sacred landscape


Looking down into the Pozzo

The well itself is central to the sacred landscape and encloses an intermittent springhead, it was dry unsurprisingly perhaps in August. The spring head is enclosed by polyhedric granite blocks, of which nineteen rows survive providing a circular well, with a 3.40m-to 3.30m diameter basin and reaches the height of
The inner circumference is deliminated by a large bench consisting of four slabs on the left side and eight on the right which may have contained the water or allowed access. The structure is more obviously built upon the natural rock than other sites has a small rectangular opening around 30cm where the spring flows from. Originally it was a tholos structure which has a domed roof.


One of the Betilli sacred stones

The site is believed to date from the Bronze Age to the IXth century BC. Around the well are two sacred objects, small surfaced betili (stones representing the deity linked to fertility rites) still upright but what role they had with the water is unclear they may have represented deities of the water. From the well is an unusual 42 metre gully lined with steps which carries water from the well to the unique amphitheatre.

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Looking from the destroyed channel to the well

A sacrificial bath?

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This most remarkable relic is the most puzzling – a large sub-circular basin originally paved with six rows of terraced steps. What was it for? Often it is now dry but on occasions water has filled it to provide an idea. One theory is that it was done for communal ablutions or perhaps baptisms. Perhaps even for purification rites? The 3rd century AD Latin geographer Solino highlighted ordeals with water especially to judge crimes perhaps like those done for witches to see if the water would find them innocent.

Whatever strange and wonderful rituals were undertaken here…one can still get a feeling of them in this magical place among the cork trees

Holy Well or folly Bath house – Woolston’s St. Winifred’s Well

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Hidden down a little lane in the quite Shropshire village of Woolston is a picture-postcard holy well or is it? A site cited in every major countrywide review of the topic but is it a genuine site?

A holy well?

 Thompson and Thompson (2001) in their Wells of Mainland Britain are pretty equivocal stating that the well was used in the medieval period as a source of healing. A fact perhaps taken for the association with Saint Winifred. However, although this is a common theme amongst modern well researchers the earliest reference referring to the site by name is Phillips and Hulbert’s 1837 History of Salop:

“In the township of Woolston is a remarkable well, dedicated to St Winefred, but whether of healing virtues I am not able to give information.”

However, Charlotte S. Burne, Shropshire Folk-Lore reveal some interesting local evidence:

“some have sought to explain this dedication (now locally forgotten) by supposing that the relics of St Winifred may have rested here on their way from Gwytherin in North Wales to Shrewsbury Abbey, in the twelfth century; but it is easily accounted for by the fact that certain small stones spotted with indelible red marks resembling bloodstains are occasionally found in the water… The water, which is singularly clear, is supposed to have wonderful powers of healing wounds and bruises and broken bones”.

Burne tells had some of the pebbles examined at the British Museum, ‘where the red marks are pronounced not to be mineral, but organic; probably a kind of fresh-water alga’ – perhaps the Byssus jolithus formerly found in the Holywell well? Interestingly Hope (1893) in the Legendary Lore of Holy Wells does not refer it to as St. Winifred’s Well:

WEST FELTON: HOLY WELL. There is a small holy well in this parish (West Felton), in a hamlet called Woolston. The water of this well is still used by the country people for complaints of the eyes. It is a beautiful clear stream, running under a small black and white chapel into two paved square baths environed with stone walls, one of which is lower than the other. The higher one has steps down to the water, and, strange to say, there is more water in summer than in winter. Under the chapel, which overhangs the stream, is a long-shaped niche which has evidently contained the statue of the saint. At this side is a small cell, or covered place, where probably the priest or monk stood to dispense the water. The chapel is now unfortunately used as a cottage, and the beams of the roof inside are covered with whitewash. At one end there is the tracery of Tudor roses and acanthus leaves, upon what is evidently the framework of a window.–See Shropshire Arch. Soc. Trans. ix. 238.”

St Winifred's Well Oswestry (9)

This delightful black and white building is a difficult edifice to evaluate. Some accounts suggest it is 14th century and built by Margaret Tudor the same endower as St. Winifred’s Well in Holy Well Clywd. This is the view of Lawson Tait (1884–5) in a piece called  The holy well at Woolston, Salop in Bye-Gones Relating to Wales & the Border Counties:

“is an original remain of the fourteenth century, untouched by the hand of the restorer… duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”

Indeed early OS maps do mark the site as ‘Old Chapel’ but the question is if it was orientated such why is the well dedicated to St. Winifred. Adolphus Dovaston (1886) in a piece for the Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological. & Natural History Society called‘Woolston Well, Shropshire’  may have provided the answer stating that West Felton church may have been the source for its fourteenth-century. It was rebuilt in 1600s, a stone to the right of the entrance of the bath states 1635, which is a suitable date for the development of something else – a plunge pool.. These start appearing around the mid to late 1600s and it is worth noting that many of those which remain from that period often have a unifying theme – they are dedicated to saints. However, many are spurious – St Chad’s Bath near Lichfield and St Catherine’s Well and Bath, Southwell, are particularly significant examples especially the former which adopts a local popular saint. However, the site does not appear to have been big enough to attract any significant trade, but it is perfectly arranged for a private plunge. The cold bath below and the warming room above as a single cell typical of later cold baths. However did the local legend appear to explain the well’s dedication by the lord of the manor? This is suggested by Dovaston (1884-5) who quoting a local historian who was writing in 1800 recalls:

“a court house being built in Woolston, over a well made for a bath for the Jones’s of Sandford family, when they left Sandford, it became the rendezvous of the country who from the middle of May to the end of Harvest resorted from all parts hither, some (at nights) to bathe and dance and riot most of the night at the alehouses…till… about the year 1755”. 

If the site was a cold bath, why do we have no record of this usage? This might be because the land owner converted the site for use as a manorial court and there is record of its said usage until 1824. This however is at variance perhaps to another account which states it was derelict around 1800 and restored by the rector.

So summing up what is likely? There are two possible scenarios:

  • The well is medieval, the upper section being a mediaeval and in situ. In the post reformation it was converted to secular use
  • The well is 17th century only, a cold bath, using fabric from a local church. Once the cold bath fad passed the upper section was utilised as a court.


There is perhaps a third possibility. The spring was dedicated by recusants in the county, although Catholic densities were low in the county and mainly centred in the north around modern day Telford such as the Giffards.

Whatever the truth unlike other sites….which languish unloved…after a time when its future was uncertain the Landmark Trust took it on and now it’s a delightful and unique holiday home, with an extra outside bath.

Once a place of pilgrimage….St. Anne’s Well, Caversham

It is difficult to imagine that Caversham, a suburb typical of many, was once a place of great Catholic pilgrimage but apparently it was. Whether there was a genuine holy well as part of the pilgrimage it is not clear. Let us examine it. St Anne's Well Caversham2

A common theme in holy research is the association of a well with a chapel. Whilst in many occasions, such as St. Clether’s Well, Cornwall, there is a genuine connection others it is not so clear. St Ann’s Well in Caversham is such an example. Let’s deal with the chapel first. On 17th  September 1538 a Dr. John London wrote:

“I have pulled down the Image of Our Lady at Caversham, whereunto was great pilgrimage . .. I have also pulled down the place she stood in with all other ceremonies, as lights, shrouds, crutches and images of wax hanging about the chapel and have defaced the same thoroughly as eschewing of any further resort thither .. .”


Yet no field nor road name preserve the location or tradition and mentions in grants and gifts are scant especially in the 1500s. Therefore there is no evidence of its origin.   However, it certainly existed by 1106 for it is mentioned in the cartulary or Nutley Abbey:

“In the year in whjch king Henry imprisoned his brother Robert Cunhose, Agnes, countess of Ripon) sister of the said Robert, secretly took the iron of the lance of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the chapel or the Blessed Mary or Caversham, together with many other relics….”

What of course is interesting here is the name of Blessed Mary an acceptable early dedication. . It is known that  Walter Giffard, Earl or Buckingham gave the  Park at Long Crendon, the parish church at Caversham, and the chapel or St. Mary in the same place, each with their possessions. What is clear here is that the chapel and church were two different entities. This grant to Nutley was confirmed by both Henry II in 1179 and John in 1200 and indeed was their property until the dissolution in 1536.

The Shrine contained a wooden statue of the Madonna and Child. Pilgrims came from far and wide to pray at the Shrine and to donate gifts and relics. These included donations from Henry 111 and from many noble families. In 1437 Isabel, Countess of Warwick, gave gold, weighing 20 pounds, to be made into a jewel-encrusted crown for the statue. Despite considerable note of some of the relics there in, there is no mention of the well. Now the only reference to the well appears to be a 1727 letter by the Revd Loveday:

 “from thence [the chapel of St Anne] the Religious went at certain times to a well now in the hedge between the field called The Mount and the lane called Priest-lane, which is supposed to have its name from their going through it to this well, which was called formerly St Ann’s Well… There was in the memory of man a large ancient oak just by this well, which was also had in great veneration”.

Margrett (1906) identifies this as a well of dressed chalk and flint, apparently of c.1500, uncovered at the south side of Priest Hill. Janet and Colin Bords (1985) Sacred Water claims:

 “There is a tradition that people buried their valuables beside the well to hide them from the Roundheads and others, and early this century some gold coins are said to have been discovered near the well”.

caversham st ann's well

A clear link with the chapel although a clear confusion with Thomas Cromwell and Oliver I feel! This was rediscovered by the owners of the land, the Talbots in 1906 and they preserved it. But is it anything to do with a holy well? Certainly the claim made on the excellent Caversham 100 years on leaflet is unsupported and contradictory (if the chapel was to Our Lady):

 “Dating back to medieval times, the mineral spring waters, with their reputation for healing, drew many pilgrims. The well was then lost until workmen uncovered it in 1906. In 1908, a memorial drinking fountain and a cover were built and officially dedicated. This holy well and the medieval ‘little Chapel on the Bridge’ were both dedicated to St Anne, patron saint of women in childbirth.”

Sadly no archaeological work has even been done on the well. The well itself is a deep chalk lined pit. The hole is covered by a delightful example of road furniture, called the Memorial Drinking fountain. It is set upon two platforms of redbrick and is itself red brick oval shaped with a white marble basin and tap and covered by a bulbous metal frame. One the front a plaque  dating from its construction in 1908 reads:

 “The Holy Well of St Anne, the healing waters of which brought many pilgrims to Caversham in the Middle Ages”.

The rediscovery of the well at the turn of the 20th century and there is possibly a clue. In 1897 there was revived Catholic interest in the shrine. This was a problem considering the lack of evidence of any fabric and even its exact location. Therefore a well nearby the supposed location would be a good fit. Sadly it would not provide the modern pilgrim with healing waters…it’s dry.