Wishing Wells & Votive Offerings

by Chris Lovegrove

In the Southwest of France, the town of Rouffignac boasts a ‘cave of a hundred mammoths’. Or rather representations of them drawn or engraved on the walls and ceilings. Nowadays the visitor travels one kilometre underground on a small electric train. Every now and then there are isolated mammoths on the walls and claw marks of cave bears on the ceiling; the latter, luckily, are not contemporary with the artists. Suddenly the train stops and there they are, a multitude of mammoths, horses, bison and other horned animals covering the vault of a low ceiling. One horse is about eight feet across. The artist or artists delineating it, lying on the floor about three feet below (as it then was) would not have been able to appreciate it all. It is all breathtaking, simple but effective.

Why did prehistoric people travel so far underground to create pictures they could not enjoy in their entirety? The answer is close at hand: a large, natural but uneven pit descends below the cavern’s floor. From here, no doubt, the deities of the underworld could emerge to appreciate the artistic offerings of humankind and grant the wishes that accompanied them.

Millennia separate the cave people of the Dordogne from our urban society but some of the same beliefs motivate us. Why the penguins of Bristol Zoo, say, need coins chucked in their water is still an unanswerable question, but the phenomena is widespread. Any shallow pool of water, the visible bottom of which is made unattainable by a surrounding wall or metal grill; inevitably becomes a clone of ‘Ye Olde Wishing Well’.

The wishing well has been around for some time in the form we now know it. The Romano-British shrine of the water goddess Coventina, at Carrawburgh on Hadrian’s Wall, was a temple with a well at its centre. In the well were deposited over 13,000 Roman coins. But this was not all: pots, altars, carvings, pearls and a skull were among other objects found, the majority of these gifts to the goddess [1]. Compare Coventina’s shrine with this description of the source of an Italian river, from Pliny the Younger – ‘Several separate springs…converge into a broad still pool. There the water, clear as glass, allows you to see gleaming pebbles on the bottom and the coins that people have thrown in…’ [2]. (If Iron Age and Roman wells etc. predominate in this article, it is mainly because both dating evidence and intention are fairly unequivocal.)

Two thousand years later the same act, of throwing coins into a fountain, is seemingly altruistic – the money may even got to an advertised charity – but perhaps it salves the conscience. More often the motivation is selfish: making a personal wish (‘May I win the pools, with one coin in this pool…’) or winning a prize when your coin covers another in the plastic bowl at the fair.

Technically, such a gift is known as a votive offering. Votum is the past participle of the Latin verb vovere, ‘to vow’, and it can mean a prayer, a dedication, a wish or longing. The thinking behind votive offerings seems to be this. If (a) I give this object to the deity (or the fairies or Lady Luck) then in return I hope that (b) they will grant me my wish. A vow reverses the order: I promise such-and-such a gift if my prayer is answered. The combination of prayer and gift represents the transaction or bargain struck by the mortal with the immortal.

The worry often is, however, that there is no sure way to know either whether the gift is acceptable or if the outcome will be exactly as envisaged by the supplicant. Moreover, strictly speaking, all that the individual has comes from the deity, and it might seem like a form of cheek to offer it back. However, in giving up some part of their possessions, individuals make a sacrifice which they hope will be recognised by the deity. This relationship was perfectly understood by barbarian societies where gift-exchange cemented the bond with rulers.

Votive offerings are familiar to archaeologist and treasure-hunter alike, and in many religions are found associated with ritual foci such as trees and rocks, or more frequently springs, bogs, lakes and rivers. Sometimes caverns, ditches and pits can be regarded as forms of dry well or pond. A medieval story of the Irish god the Dagda helps to illustrate this equation.

The Dagda (‘the excellent god’) is treated to a feast. Porridge, goats, sheep, pigs, meal and milk are spilt into a hole in the ground, and he is made on pain of death to consume it all so that his hosts are not accused of inhospitality. However, he finishes it all, scraping out the last of it with his finger before falling asleep [3]. This, I believe, suggests that depositing food in a hole in the ground was a suitable and not disrespectful way of appeasing the deity, who, in time, consumed the food completely.

It is probable that the hole in the ground here is not what is normally recognised as a food storage pit, frequently met with in the excavation of the interior of Celtic Iron Age enclosures, but a ritual shaft dug either primarily as a well or in imitation of one. The shaft descends vertically into the ground, anything from a few feet to forty yards in certain Continental examples [4]. A British example comes from Cadbury hillfort (Devon) where a shaft fifty-four feet deep contained late Roman bronze bracelets, rings and beads [5]. It may be that an attempt to obtain water from sinking such a shaft failed and that the deposition of offerings was a way of apologising to a deity for defiling the earth and incurring displeasure.

Such a way of thinking might be implied by a Roman well discovered at Frocester Court (Gloucestershire), interpreted as follows: a shaft about two feet wide went down nearly twenty feet when first constructed about AD 100. At the bottom was deposited a new crossbow brooch. About AD 150, after rebuilding following a collapse of part of the stone lining, another deposit was made, this time a new dolphin brooch. About AD 200 the well was cleaned out (leaving previous deposits) and further items were left, namely a worn ring and a worn trumpet brooch. After a century’s further use, the well was filled in [6].

In some Celtic shafts blood sacrifice was certainly made, as analysis has revealed organic traces in addition to the remains of bones [7]. This much is in any case suggested by the goats, sheep and pigs offered to the Dagda. The sacrifice of a living creature may be regarded as repugnant to many, for aesthetic as well as ethical reasons. Certainly not all religions believe in a god-given dominion over animals, or the need to murder fellow humans as a superior kind of scapegoat. Symbolic sacrifices can then take their place. At the end of the Iron Age, five out of six small stone figures, about four or five inches high, were decapitated before being placed in a ditch at Garton Slack, near Great Driffield, Yorkshire. Was this a dump of broken toys, or the remains of a ritual? [8] More mysterious is the figurine found at Deal, Kent. Over seven inches high, it was found lying below a niche in an underground chamber, which was reached by descending a shaft over sixteen feet deep cut through chalk; shaft and chamber were later filled with rubble and earth containing Roman domestic refuse. The excavator suggests that the chamber is ‘a small underground ‘shrine’, containing, in the niche, a representation of some minor local deity or god of the Underworld’. In appearance the Deal statuette and the Garton Slack figurines were not dissimilar [9]. It says much for our present uncertainty about Celtic religion when it is speculated that the one is a god or goddess while the others are symbolic human sacrifices.

Monetary gifts and sacrifices were not the only offerings received by aquatic deities. Substantial quantities of metalwork have been recovered from bogs, lakes and rivers – cauldrons, ritual spoons, a pony cap and horns, tankards, slave chains, weapons – ‘impressive for the high quality of the material. One must suppose a surprisingly high percentage of society’s wealth was dedicated to the gods in this manner’ [10]. On the other hand, wells seem not to have attracted the ostentatious wealth that lakes and rivers have. It may be that wells, as the beginnings of rivers, need only to receive tokens, such as coins, whereas the treasures found in larger bodies of water represent the fulfilment of vows in thanksgiving for wishes coming true.

Not all wishes at wells were from well-wishers…In addition to some 16,000 coins, paterae (libation pourers) and other individual items, around 50 curses have been found in the Roman spring at Bath [11]. These were lead sheets rolled up and cast into the water after a hand-written message was inscribed on each. ‘May so-and-so who did such-and-such not enjoy good health until or unless they restore the status quo’ is a typical formula. There is a distinct parallel with more recent practices recorded at St Elian’s cursing well (Clwyd) where victims’ initials were marked on stones and dropped into the water [12]. Curses found elsewhere, at Uley (Gloucestershire) for example, may have been deposited not in a well but in a pit dug in the centre of the temple of Mercury [13].

It is ironic that the curses the Romans threw into the water at Bath were made of lead (as was the plumbing) which we now know is hazardous even when ingested in small quantities in solution because it accumulates in the body. It is also ironic that the same spa waters harboured a fatal amoeba in the late seventies. The notion of defilement is one that must concern us. ‘Old wells have often been used for rubbish disposal in the past which was generally made up of domestic refuse’, comments Sylvia Beamon in an article on the dangers archaeologists face, such as amoebae, microbes, tetanus, anthrax, radioactivity, when excavating [14]. ‘However, today they (the wells) have become, in some cases, the receptacles of discarded farm chemicals.’ If dangerous to archaeologists, then ditto for the general public too, animals, and for nature in general.

A medieval story encapsulates the notion that the wellbeing of the land is dependent on the purity of its waters. In the anonymous Elucidation (which in about 1200 was added to Chretien de Troyes’ story of the Grail, Perceval) there is a tale which commentators have pronounced as an ‘authentic’ bit of Celtic folklore. Certain maidens lived in wells, and served food and drink to travellers. Until King Amangon and his men raped them and stole their golden cups. The land immediately became barren and the court of the Rich Fisher, which housed the Grail, was lost to those who sought it [15]. The moral is obvious and, nearly eight hundred years later, still relevant. Throwing a few coppers into the well and making a wish may not be enough to restore the fertility of the earth.




1. Salway, P., (1981); Roman Britain, OUP, p. 691.
2. Ibid, pp. 690-1.
3. Rees, A. & Rees, B., (1961); Celtic Heritage, Thames and Hudson, p. 36.
4. Piggott, S., (1974); The Druids, Penguin, p. 66.
5. Fox, A., (1964); South West England, Thames and Hudson, pp. 152- 4.
6. Selkirk, A., (1983); ‘Frocester’, Current Archaeology, Vol. VIII, No. 5, pp. 142-3.
7. Ross, A., (1972); Everyday Life of the Pagan Celts, Carousel, p. 179.
8. Selkirk, A., (1969); ‘Garton Slack figurines’, Current Archaeology, Vol. II, No. 6, p. 170.
9. Parfitt, K., (1986); ‘The Deal Man’, Current Archaeology, Vol. IX, No. 6, pp. 166-8.
10. Cunliffe, B., (1974); Iron Age Communities in Britain, Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 297.
11. Selkirk, A., (1981); ‘Bath’, Current Archaeology, Vol. VII, No. 4, pp. 107-8.
12. Bord, J. & C., (1978); The Secret Country, Paladin, p. 57.
13. Ellison, A., (1980); Excavations at West Hill, Uley, Committee for Rescue Archaeology in Avon, Gloucestershire and Somerset, p. 312, pp.  327-8.
14. Beamon, S., (1985); ‘Archaeologists at risk?’, Current Archaeology, Vol. VIII, No. 12, p. 373.
15. Wilder Thompson, A., (1959); ‘Additions to Chretien’s Perceval’ in R. S. Loomis (ed.), Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, CUP, pp. 207-8.

Text © Chris Lovegrove (1988)

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