A votive deposit or votive offering is one or more objects displayed or deposited, without the intention of recovery or use, in a sacred place for broadly religious purposes. Such items are a feature of modern and ancient societies and are generally made in order to gain favor with supernatural forces. Some offerings have apparently been made in anticipation of the achievement of a particular wish, but in Western cultures from which documentary evidence survives it has been more typical to wait until the wish has been fulfilled before making the offering, for which the more specific term ex-voto may be used. Votive offerings have been described in historical Roman era and Greek sources, although similar acts continue into the present day, for example in traditional Catholic culture and, arguably, in the modern-day practice of tossing coins into a wishing well or fountain. The modern construction practice called topping out can be considered as an example of a votive practice that has very ancient roots.
In Europe, votive deposits are known from as early as the Neolithic, with polished axe hoards, reaching a peak in the late Bronze Age. High status artifacts such as armor and weaponry (mostly shields, swords, spears and arrows), fertility and cult symbols, coins, various treasures and animals (often dogs, oxen and in later periods horses) were common offerings in antiquity. The votive offerings were sacrificed and buried or more commonly cast into bodies of water or peat bogs, whence they could not possibly have been recovered. In certain cases entire ships have been sacrificed, as in the Danish bog Nydam Mose. Often all the objects in a ritual hoard are broken, possibly 'killing' the objects to put them even further beyond utilitarian use before deposition. The purposeful discarding of valuable items such as swords and spearheads is thought to have had ritual overtones. The items have since been discovered in rivers, lakes and present or former wetlands by construction workers, peat diggers, metal-detectorists, members of the public and archaeologists.
A saying by Diogenes of Sinope as quoted by Diogenes Laertius, indicates the high level of votive offering in Ancient Greece:
“ When some one expressed astonishment at the votive offerings in Samothrace, his (Diogenes) comment was,
"There would have been far more, if those who were not saved had set up offerings."
The Treasuries at Olympia and Delphi (including the Athenian Treasury and Siphnian Treasury) were buildings by the various Greek city-states to hold their own votive offerings in money and precious metal; the sites also contained large quantities of votive sculptures, although these were clearly intended to glorify each city in view of its rivals as well as to give thanks to the gods.
In Mesoamerica, votive deposits have been recovered from the Olmec site of El Manati (dated to 1600-1200 BC) and the Maya Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza (850-1550 AD).
In archaeology, votive deposits differ from hoards in that although they may contain similar items, votive deposits were not intended for later recovery.
Some archaeologists have recovered some votive offerings in ancient Sparta from the 5th century BC. These votive offerings give evidence to the presence of literacy in Spartan culture. Placing greater emphasis on inscriptions which seem to have been made by the individual making the offering, archaeologists can interpret that, of the early dedicators, there were very few in number and that most, if not all, were from the upper classes. One piece of pottery was found that may have had measurement signs on it. This would indicate an everyday literacy among the Spartans if this is true. Unfortunately, scholars have not recovered any other piece of pottery with a similar inscription to support that single find.