Friday, 9 June 2017

Living with Water

Water has always been a focal point of our lives. Watering holes can be places of peaceful gatherings for both animals and humans and have even become a place of gossip in the modern office. Wells throughout history have been incorporated into folklore as powerful ‘wishing wells’ or renowned for the special healing properties in the water, and even, in some cases, places of holy pilgrimage and prayer. While I cannot tell you for certain if any of the folklore tales are without doubt, I still throw a penny in every ‘wishing well’ I pass as I’m sure many of you have done once or twice in your life and it can be said that water is key for our survival. Saying that, it isn’t surprising that our excavation uncovered multiple water wells used over different periods of occupation.

According to the 1888 Ordnance Survey of the area, there were three water pumps in the vicinity of our excavation. These water pumps would have been contemporary with the buildings we have been excavating and most likely the final placement of water wells before piping water directly into the buildings became common practice.

Well capped with bricks
We have uncovered over ten wells (so far). Some of these have been brick-lined, with and without mortar, clunch (chalk)-lined, and even unlined (one with a wooden edging near to the base). Some of the wells had been capped with bricks then covered in clay, while others were simply backfilled with modern rubble to build on top of them. Each well varied in depth between about 4 and 6 metres deep (although some we could not excavate to the bottom) and a few had water remaining. The variation in structure of the wells could demonstrate an alteration over time, differing skills of the well digger, or simply availability of materials to line the wells.

Bricks have been a very popular well lining material throughout history. The well digger would have begun by excavating a shaft for the well until a supporting wall was needed, then a wooden rim would be placed at the base and bricks laid on the rim lengthwise, end-to-end until the circle was complete with no mortar between the brick joints. The second course of bricks would then be laid above with joints offset, and so on until the brick courses reached near the surface. The well would then continue to be dug until water began to seep through the porous brick sides of the well. The brick well without mortar was used to allow water to seep through the sides of the well and collect in the base, while more impervious well linings (such as the mortared brick wells) would have been used when water seeped through a cavity or pipe in the base of the well.

Brick-lined well retaining water
A well even turned up underneath the brick floor of a post-medieval basement! The well had been filled with rubble and a small brick drain built into the top where multiple marbles were found, possibly a child’s long-lost game? The brick floor would have been built over the well promptly after it was filled, as over time the floor began to slump downwards over the well as the fill was compressed.

With with wood surviving in backfill

Just like this well, all had been forgotten about and made to be obsolete as they continued to be built and re-built on top of over the years. What these wells demonstrate is the continued growth and alteration of this area of Cambridge as it continued to become more populated as central Cambridge expanded. While the 1888 Ordnance Survey shows three water pumps we have found many more that would have been obsolete by the time this survey was completed.

Keep checking back as we continue to #DigDeeper


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