The question about how the ancient residents of Thixendale sourced their water has been brought up again by reader Jo Bird.

If you recall, there has been evidence of activity in the Thixendale area since the Mesolithic and the Neolithic periods (Middle Stone Age, 7,000-10,000 years ago and New Stone Age, 5,000-7,000 years ago) as shown by the discovery of man-made tools found in barrows, or burial mounds, dotted about the landscape.

Settlements, for obvious reasons, grew up around sources of water, and yet Thixendale lies in a dry valley.

Read more: How did the ancient residents of Thixendale get their water?

Jo observes: “I suspect that even if there has never been a water course, that in previous centuries when the water table was higher, there were wells… I was brought up in Norfolk where the underlying geology is chalk, as at Thixendale, and the village where I lived had no water course, but there were several wells which were in use until mains water was supplied, I recall in the early 1950s, but there is no sign of them now.”

Darlington and Stockton Times: Visitors to the ancient settlement of Skara Brae in the Orkneys have been throwing coins into what

She adds: “I remember the location of two wells in my Norfolk village, but there has been no trace of them for simply ages. There would have been more, I’m sure. You could perhaps ask anyone who lived at Thixendale before about 1950 if they knew of or used wells… it’s likely that there are lots of villages that once had wells but no trace of them now. People of 80ish or more might recall.”

Jo has a point about wells, and I would welcome any recollections from people old enough to remember how they got their household water before they were connected to the mains. I agreed with Jo’s suggestion that wells would likely have supplied Thixendale in later centuries, but wondered if the ancient inhabitants of the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods would have had the engineering skills to dig down far enough into the chalky layers below ground to access the fresh water lying beneath.

Of course, that set me off digging online and it surprised me to learn that in fact, they did. The oldest well dug by humans to access drinking water was found in the Jezreel Valley in Israel and dates from about 6,500BC. Nothing similar from that era has yet been found on our shores but there is a settlement known as Skara Brae, a stone-built Neolithic village on Mainland, the largest island of the Orkneys.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Visitors to the ancient settlement of Skara Brae in the Orkneys have been throwing coins into what

It is one of the best-preserved prehistoric villages in Western Europe, occupied from around 3,000BC until 2,500BC, and has a sophisticated water and drainage system that includes toilets with facilities to flush waste away from the house through purpose-built channels. Although I can find no mention of a well, likely due to the fact that fresh water was readily available from the nearby Loch of Skaill, it proves that ancient Europeans did have the sufficient engineering skills.

Read more: The 'eerie course' of the Gypsey Race in the Yorkshire Wolds

Once I started reading about Skara Brae, I became captivated. We often credit the Romans with educating us about complicated engineering, but it seems the villagers of this remote island were already pretty clued up, establishing a thriving community hidden within a cluster of large middens (mounds of waste).

This subterranean way of life ensured precious heat was preserved and homes were insulated from the harsh northern coastal weather conditions. A series of one-room houses of around 40 square feet were built using flat stone slabs, all connected by covered tunnels. As well as a functioning drainage system, each house had ‘built-in’ stone furniture which included beds, seating, a dresser, a central hearth and a tank in the ground which archaeologists believe would have been used to minimise the mess from the preparation of their main food source, fish.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Visitors to the ancient settlement of Skara Brae in the Orkneys have been throwing coins into what

Among artefacts discovered were tools, gaming dice, food and drink vessels, stone carvings and jewellery in the form of beads, necklaces and pendants.

As I mentioned, the ancient residents of Skara Brae had no need to dig any wells. Nevertheless, we modern humans do have a tendency to chuck loose change down anything resembling a well while wishing for our dreams to come true. At Skara Brae, visitors hoping to win the lottery have for years been throwing their pennies down what they thought was a wishing well. Sadly, as one witty tourist guide pointed out, they have quite literally been throwing their money down the toilet!

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