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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Excavation of a Roman well at Findon in Sussex.
by Harry Pearman.

In January 1961 a tractor was ploughing up a field on the summit of the South Downs at NGR TQ 112 094 near to the village of Findon in Sussex, when a wheel suddenly sank into the ground. The driver managed to extricate the machine with difficulty and found that he had uncovered the top of a vertical shaft about four feet in diameter. The farmer put some wooden stakes and some strands of barbed wire round the shaft and ploughed round it. He happened to know that his GP, Dr H B A Ratcliffe-Densham was an active archaeologist and an authority on Downland settlements and he asked him to have a look at the shaft before it was filled in.

Dr Densham knew the area well. On the hill backing on to the field is an Iron Age settlement which had been excavated and in the field itself is an Iron Age lynchet system. He therefore visited the site at the first opportunity and gingerly cleared away the soil surrounding the shaft's edge. During these operations vast amounts of earth fell into the shaft.

When it was safe to stand on the edge a sounding line was lowered and the depth established as 68 feet. Looking down it could be seen that the top three feet had been steined with flints set in mortar in order to retain the top soil. Below this the shaft was cut through solid Upper Chalk, which is several hundred feet thick at this point. The marks of metal picks were visible in the walls. It was clear that the shaft must be the remains of a well and the next task was to establish its age.

A trial trench was dug at one side of the shaft and immediately revealed traces of third century Roman pottery mixed with quantities of charcoal. The charcoal had leeched into the shaft and stained the chalk black. The source of the charcoal was not hard to locate. 200 feet away is a circular patch some fifty feet in diameter which turns black when the ground is ploughed. Pieces of Roman brick and tile can be picked up here at any time. It is evidently the site of a Roman building which was burned down. This site has never been excavated.

Dr Densham next decided to have the shaft descended. He wrote to the "Daily Telegraph" Information Bureau, who gave him the address of the Chelsea Speleological Society. We arrived at the site in March 1961 and tethered an electron ladder to the iron railings which surround the field. Trevor Dore went down and found that the shaft was of uniform dimensions and passed through smooth, unfissured chalk.

The doctor suggested that it might be a good idea to excavate the debris from the bottom to prove the age beyond doubt. At the time we assumed that the well might have accumulated perhaps six to eight feet of silt at the bottom when it was in use and accordingly arranged another visit.

We commenced excavating by sending one man down the hole and hauling up the infilling to the surface in kitbags. Here it was sorted and the contents recorded. In the meantime Dr Densham, who you will have gathered is a very persuasive person, had beguiled the Local Authority into erecting a strong wooden platform over the shaft. Shortly after this a friend of his, a local builder, donated a barrage balloon winch. Descents have since been made in comfort on a seat and debris removed in oil drums with welded handles made from iron rods.

After three months we passed the last 20th century relic a Shippams' meat paste bottle and by the end of the year had taken the depth down 12 feet to 80 feet. The dig now settled down to a routine. Each year six or seven summer Sundays would be fixed and a party collected and taken down from London. There has been a considerable turnover of diggers and by now I suppose some 150 people have taken part at various times.

A further 28 feet of soil was removed in 1962 taking the depth to 108 feet. At the end of 1963 we had reached 125 feet. 1964 saw us at 150 feet and by 1965 we had attained 180 feet. A depth of 210 feet was reached in 1967.

The diameter of the shaft narrowed to three feet at 165 feet but the contents of the filling have remained constant. The basic material is compact soil with occasional flint blocks. Mixed with this are the remains of a third century Roman building, with pieces of charred timber, daub, plaster, bricks and roofing and floor tiles of a stone quarried at Horsham, eight miles to the north.

The most frequenly occurring objects are animal bones. There are the remains of rats, mice, voles, birds, hedgehogs and other small creatures which fell into the shaft when it was open. Then there are numerous remains of ox, sheep, red deer, fallow deer, horse and dog or wolf, some showing signs of butchering and burning. On a smaller scale are oyster shells, cockles, mussels, limpets and three types of edible snail -- helix nemonalis, helix caperata and oxychilis cellarius. Finally, small but frequent deposits of grain have been found. This had been charred to preserve it. It has been identified by Mr J R B Arthur of Littlehampton as spelt.

Interspersed with other remains are sherds of pottery. Thundersbarrow, Samian and New Forest ware are represented as well as several coarse pieces of local manufacture.

Miscellaneous objects include a large selection of cut iron nails as well as many pieces of iron and some pieces of bronze of unknown purpose. There is also a bone pin, some pieces of glass, a stylus, a broken bronze bracelet (made of small chain links), a bronze signet ring with a soapstone stone incised with a curious matchstick man figure, and about 15 coins. The ring has been identified by the British Museum as representing a Gnostic or early Christian sect. The coins are all third century AD.

The main questions about the well remain unanswered until the bottom can be reached. How old is it? The depth now precludes a single ladder and there are no marks of pegging in the walls to indicate that a series of ladders or stemples were used when digging the well. Presumably some sort of winch was employed. How deep is it? Again we shall only know when the bottom is attained, however we can make an intelligent guess. The site is 330 feet a.s.l and the current depth of the water table is not less than 300 feet. About half a mile away is another well at the same elevation. This was dug at the end of the last century and reached water at 300 feet. It ran dry a few years ago. The height of the water table in Roman times has hitherto only been a matter of conjecture. We have here a means of positively fixing it. Half a million people have settled along the coastal strip and created a steadily increasing demand for water. It seems quite likely that the water table will have sunk between 80 and 100 feet at a conservative estimate between the third and twentieth centuries. This would make our well anything between 200 and 250 feet deep. if this proves to be so it will certainly be the deepest well of its kind known to date.

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