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Buried in time – the Oakridge well

The Oakridge well - 25 February 1966.

Into the darkness – the Oakridge well – 25 February 1966 *.

Beneath a 1960s housing estate a mile to the north of the current town centre of Basingstoke lies a 26.7 m (87’) deep well; it was originally dug in the late 1st century AD, probably to provide water for cattle grazing on the slopes of a dry valley on the chalk downs.  The well was associated with an occupation site comprising pits, enclosure ditches and field boundaries.  During development of the estate in 1965, the field archaeology group of the Basingstoke Museum recorded the site; the finds suggest continuous occupation from the early/middle Iron Age to the late Romano-British period.

Early days: Miss Margaret Macfarlane, Curator of Basingstoke Museum, leads by example.

Early days: Miss Margaret Macfarlane, Curator of Basingstoke Museum, leads by example.

Although only limited examination of the settlement took place, the well was completely excavated.  After a century of use, the well shaft filled up with both natural and deliberately placed deposits.  Analysis of these, particularly the animal bones, provided information regarding the utilisation and disposal practices of carcasses and also changes in the local environment during the period of deposition which continued possibly up to the 7th century AD.

Miss Macfarlane and Miss Elizabeth Speight haul out the primary silts - February 1966.

Miss Macfarlane and Miss Elizabeth Speight haul out the silts – February 1966.

Excavation revealed that the weathering cone at the well-head narrowed from a diameter of 4.3 m to only 1.2 m at a depth of 4 m.  The diameter remained approximately constant to a depth of 22.5 m, the level of the water table (which is probably the same now as when the well was in use).  The lack of space in the shaft gave considerable difficulties to the excavators, particularly for the 4 m below the level of the water table, where pumps were required.

well

In the chalky silt at the bottom of the well (coloured blue in the section illustration) was found an almost complete late 1st century AD flagon, probably deposited as a propitiatory offering in order to ensure a good supply of water.  Also found near the bottom in the primary deposits were some pieces of waterlogged wood which may have formed part of the winding gear: these may have fallen from the top of the well when it was abandoned, about a century after it had been dug.

The shaft then became a depository for unwanted material, making up the fill above a depth of 26m (85 feet) for almost 2m (coloured green in the illustration). Large quantities of bone refuse – waste from butchery or skin-processing – indicate that stock-raising continued. These layers contained pottery of late 2nd century date including a samian bowl in small pieces. This was decorated with figures of inebriated revellers, including dancing and flute-playing satyrs accompanying the god Bacchus (Dionysus).

Bacchic frieze on a samian Dr 37 bowl - the original rubbing by Dr Joanna Bird. The pot would have been made c 100-125.

Bacchic frieze on a samian Dr 37 bowl – the original rubbing by samian specialist Dr Joanna Bird. The vessel would have been made c 100-125.

A second period of deliberate dumping occurred in the late 3rd / early 4th centuries (coloured yellow).  Two almost undamaged small, already 150-years-old, Antonine samian flagons had been carefully deposited.  Other evidence of ritual behaviour included the deposit of large numbers of dog and puppy bones and two hare skeletons.  This deposit comprises both rubbish and material of funerary/religious nature, including the co-mingled bones of two adults.

The two flagons of Central Gaulish Lezoux samian

The two flagons of Central Gaulish Lezoux samian

Over 2m (7 feet) of material (uncoloured in the section illustration) accumulated over a 50 year period before deliberate deposition resumed in the late 4th century (coloured orange in the illustration) from a depth of 20.5 – 16 m.  Large quantities of animal bone were found, possibly all deposited within one breeding season.  Some represented processing waste, but a number of complete cow skeletons were also found.  Human skeletons (3 adults and 3 children) were also present and it has been suggested that a disease, such as anthrax, hit both the human and animal populations.

Above a depth of 16 m (52 feet) the fill was weathered chalk with almost no deliberate deposits (coloured pink in the illustration).  During this period (late 4th to 7th centuries) the settlement was overgrown: evidence comes in the form of wild animal species – including swallows which probably nested in the shaft.  A few human and domesticated animal bones indicate that the area was not completely deserted.

Further reading:

Oliver, M, 1993, The Iron Age and Romano-British Settlement at Oakridge, Proc Hants Field Club & Arch Soc , Vol 48, pp.55-94.

Maltby, M, 1994. The Animal Bones from a Romano-British well at Oakridge II, Basingstoke, Proc Hants Field Club & Arch Soc, Vol 49, pp.47-76.

1965.426 etc; Archive held by the Hampshire Cultural Trust

  • *The Basingstoke Museum field notebooks show that the depth reached by 25 February was about 47 feet – just over half way to the bottom.  The water table was reached on 3 May. Pumps were installed and digging recommenced in mid-June.  The work was not without its dangers and on 13 June, M Forward was taken to Casualty with a cut cheek that required two stitches and an anti-tetanus jab! By mid-August fragments of wood, straw and twigs were being retrieved, as well as lots of pottery.  The end was in sight!  It’s doubtful if a local group would attempt such an excavation in such a way today – health and safety issues would prevail.

Some of the finds are on display at the Willis Museum

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone.