Where water wells up from the earth: excavations at the findspot of the Late Bronze Age Broadward hoard, Shropshire

The archaeology of natural springs

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The archaeology of natural springs

The dictionary definition of a spring is both evocative and precise. It is ‘a place where water … wells up from the earth’ (Oxford Concise English Dictionary). It refers to a natural resource and describes a mysterious process.

Both those elements can be found in two papers published at the end of 2014. The anthropologist Veronica Strang1 is concerned with the water supply as a critical resource. Access to fresh water plays a central part in the organisation of many societies. She also refers to the spiritual significance of water, and this concern is echoed by some of the commentators on her article. The other study is by the prehistorian Helle Vandkilde.2 She discusses the beliefs that were shared between central and northern Europe during the Bronze Age. One is how water could form a link between the living and the dead. That is evidenced in several media, from the ship symbolism that permeates the ritual life of Scandinavia to the deposition of valuables in rivers.3 Neither perspective is sufficient on its own, for water sustains life just as it can bring life to an end. It is because it was crucial to human survival that it was imbued with spiritual significance. That is particularly obvious where wells contain votive offerings. Perhaps they were deposited there as these features went out of use.

Springs had a similar significance in other periods, but because they are rarely associated with structural remains they have received less attention from archaeologists. The most convincing evidence is actually rather exceptional. In Roman Britain, temples were established in such places, including the Great Spring at Bath,4 the recently excavated complex at Springhead5 – the place name is revealing – and Coventina’s Well on Hadrian’s Wall which was excavated through a natural spring at the centre of a walled enclosure.6 In Gaul, a major sanctuary developed at Fontes Sequanae, the source of the River Seine.7

Recent work has emphasised the importance of fresh water as a focus for deposits of Bronze Age metalwork. In an earlier paper in this journal David Yates and one of the writers examined the findspots of a hundred hoards in south-east England.8 These finds came from dry land, but a surprisingly high proportion of them had been buried beside streams or confluences. Others were located very close to springs. They complemented the discoveries of prehistoric metalwork in rivers, lakes and bogs which formed part of the more general tradition discussed by Vandkilde. Three findings of research in Sussex and Kent were especially intriguing. The distribution of metalwork deposits followed the course of freshwater streams and did not extend to the coastal sections in which they contained a mixture of salt water. Tributaries were more closely associated with the finds of hoards than the major rivers, and there was a particular concentration of discoveries along the spring line where the South Downs overlook the Weald.

Such relationships were striking but by no means conclusive. Because nearly all the metalwork consisted of chance discoveries, very little was known about their original contexts or their disposition in the ground. In some cases it seemed likely that these hoards were not far outside settlements, but this relationship was usually postulated on the basis of surface finds rather than excavation. Reports of such discoveries rarely supplied sufficient information, and most accounts of these collections were devoted to the metalwork. It is not clear whether it had been associated with other items that were overlooked.

Springs have hardly been excavated as research projects in Britain and surprisingly few have been recorded in the course of development-led archaeology. The main exception has been research on the Mesolithic period. As current excavation at Amesbury shows, sources of fresh water were important for hunter gatherers and their prey.9 Unfortunately, this emphasis on the sites of springs is not found in later prehistoric studies. There have been suggestions that these features were associated with henge monuments10 and rock carvings,11 but the springs themselves have not been subjected to excavation, so that these relationships are persuasive but not entirely conclusive.

The situation contrasts with research in northern Europe where in 1997 the late Berta Stjernqvist published an important monograph on Spring-cults in Scandinavian Prehistory.12 Although she considered the association between votive deposits and water, her main concern was with fieldwork at the springs themselves. She reported the excavation of a site at Röekillorna in southern Sweden where artefacts and animal bones had been discovered in digging a well. Both the spring and its surroundings were excavated. The project led to the discovery of stone, metal and wooden objects in the sediments, together with pottery and a large number of animal bones. The Röekillorna spring was used for a very long period and Stjernquist’s excavation identified deposits whose history extended from the beginning of the Neolithic period until at least the Roman Iron Age.

Sternjqvist’s research has had no influence in Britain where the only springs that have been investigated from this perspective are associated with public monuments, and yet it demonstrated what could be achieved by studying the site of a more isolated example where archaeological material had been recorded. Her work at Röekillorna provided an important model for the research considered here. It also suggested a series of questions that ought to be addressed by a project of this kind:

  • Did the spring already exist during the prehistoric period?

  • Could it be demonstrated that the deposits of artefacts focused on the spring itself?

  • What was the full range of artefacts and animal bones associated with the spring? Were some items represented that would be have been overlooked at the time of the original discovery?

  • Could the sediments associated with the spring provide dated environmental evidence? Might this shed light on its surroundings during the prehistoric period?

  • Would it be possible to show whether the spring was isolated, or was it located in a settled landscape?

These questions can only be answered by targeted research of a kind that has never been undertaken in the British Isles.

Not long after the completion of fieldwork at hoards sites in south-east England, a suitable location for such a project presented itself by chance. At the invitation of the landowners Professor Brian Wilkinson and members of the Leintwardine History Society investigated the findspot of a collection of Late Bronze Age artefacts found at Broadward in Shropshire in 1867. Their project employed coring, geophysical survey and the use of ground penetrating radar.13 Their work shed considerable light on the topography of the bog and its stratigraphy. The metalwork was obviously discovered in a waterlogged environment as wood was still preserved inside the sockets of several spearheads. Indeed the location of the metalwork is marked on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey map by a symbol indicating a spring. It is not shown on subsequent revisions perhaps because the water supply was altered by drainage work that took place soon afterwards. It was during that process that the hoard was discovered. This was a site where it might be possible to address some of those questions by excavation. In an attempt to locate the hoard site and retrieve materials for palaeo-environmental analysis, the authors carried out an excavation in summer 2010.

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