15 January, 2009

Wooden tableware in early England



Early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) settlement sites usually contain only small amounts of pottery. This is a noticeable contrast with Roman-period sites, which seem to yield enough pieces of broken pottery for a Greek wedding.

Most of the Anglo-Saxon pottery that has been found and studied is from cemeteries (Arnold 1997), either cremation urns buried containing the ashes of the deceased or vessels buried along with inhumations and perhaps containing some sort of offering. Domestic pottery is not that common and is usually unexciting and rather lumpen (Pollington 2003). Particularly in the early period (roughly, fifth to mid-seventh century), it tends to be hand-made rather than produced on a potter’s wheel, and often fired rather poorly at a low temperature, and has been rather unkindly described as “…well below the standard to be expected of a first-year pottery class at a high school today” (Dixon 1994). All of which has no doubt contributed to the stereotype of the early English as ignorant barbarians incapable of making civilised tableware.

However, pottery is in some ways not the ideal material for a subsistence farming economy in which villages and even individual families expected to be largely self-sufficient. Not every site would have a deposit of good-quality potting clay, and clay is heavy stuff to transport if it has to be brought in from elsewhere. Firing to obtain a hard finish requires a high temperature, which in turn needs a specialist kiln and a large quantity of fuel, an investment that is best suited to making a large number of pots at once and may not be a sensible use of resources for a small self-sufficient community. Similarly, the number of pots used by a small community may not justify the time required to develop a high level of skill in making and using a potters’ wheel. And although pottery fragments can last almost indefinitely in the soil, a pottery vessel is fragile if dropped – as no doubt we have all discovered to our cost – and the pieces are no use to anyone except future archaeologists.

Wooden vessels offer several advantages over pottery (Pollington 2003). The skills and tools needed to shape wood into a bowl or cup are similar to those needed to shape wood into all the other useful domestic objects required by a farming village. Woodworking doesn’t require building and firing a kiln, and every village would have to have a ready supply of the raw material to hand as it was also needed for building and for fuel. Wooden vessels are less prone to breakage than pottery, and if an item does get damaged or broken beyond repair it can be usefully used as kindling for the fire.

Unfortunately, wood doesn’t survive well on archaeological sites, partly because it can so easily be re-used as fuel at the time and partly because wood, being organic, decays naturally in the soil. Sometimes the only indications of the presence of a wooden vessel are metal clips or staples used for repair or decoration. Wooden artefacts themselves tend to be found mainly on waterlogged sites where the absence of oxygen (anaerobic conditions) prevents or inhibits decay. A few examples illustrate the wealth of organic material that has probably been lost from other sites.


  • A group of part-finished lathe-turned wooden bowls was found in a workshop at Feddersen Wierde, a waterlogged settlement site on the North Sea coast of Germany, north of the mouth of the River Weser (site abandoned during the fifth century AD) (Cole and Cole 1989). If you believe in the migration theory, you can imagine the wood-turner who owned the workshop moving with his skills across the sea and starting a new life somewhere in eastern or southern England….

  • The Sutton Hoo ship burial (Mound 1) contained eight turned walnut wooden cups with decorative silver collars, and six turned wooden bottles made of maplewood (Leahy 2003). The reconstruction of one of the bottles shown in Pollington (2003) is a handsome vessel with a copper-alloy collar and decorative panels. Perhaps it functioned something like a modern decanter? The bottles were about 14 cm diameter and 14-16 cm high, and Leahy comments that turning them would have called for great skill (Leahy 2003).



Whoever was buried in Sutton Hoo Mound 1 (most probably Raedwald, King of the East Angles in the early seventh century), he was clearly an extremely wealthy and important person with access to expensive luxury goods. Given that he had turned wooden cups and bottles in his grave, perhaps ready to put on a magnificent feast in the afterlife, I think that’s a fair indication that wooden tableware could be just as high-status as the exotic imported silver dishes found in the same burial.

Wooden tableware didn’t go out of use when mass-produced wheel-thrown pottery reappeared in quantity in Britain after the eighth century. The Norse at Jorvik in the ninth and tenth centuries made large quantities of turned wooden tableware, as demonstrated by finds of workshop debris in the waterlogged deposits at the Coppergate (“Street of the cup makers”) site. Wooden vessels were the normal tableware of the period. Perhaps because wood was cheaper and more durable than pottery, perhaps because it was traditional, or perhaps simply because people liked it. A well-made wooden bowl or cup is a pleasing object, as shown by the bowl in the photograph (which was made on a modern power lathe). Even nowadays items such as wooden salad bowls and fruit bowls are still fashionable, and any cook will tell you that a wooden spoon is an indispensable kitchen utensil.

Wooden bowls in early England would have been turned using a pole lathe (Dixon 1994, Leahy 2003), making a perfectly concentric circular item as accurately and quickly as a modern power lathe (See the video on Robin Wood’s site if you don’t believe me). More on this ingenious machine in another post.

References
Arnold CJ. An archaeology of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Routledge, 1997. ISBN 978-0415-156-356. Extracts available on Google Books.
Cole, B, Cole J. People of the wetlands. Bogs, bodies and lake dwellers. Thames and Hudson, 1989. ISBN 0-500-02112-0.
Dixon PH. The Reading lathe. Cross Publishing, 1994. ISBN 1-873295-65-0.
Leahy K. Anglo-Saxon crafts. Tempus Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0-7524-2904-3.
Pollington S. The mead-hall. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2003. ISBN 1-898281-30-0.

5 comments:

Meghan said...

"Wooden vessels offer several advantages over pottery (Pollington 2003). The skills and tools needed to shape wood into a bowl or cup are similar to those needed to shape wood into all the other useful domestic objects required by a farming village. Woodworking doesn’t require building and firing a kiln, and every village would have to have a ready supply of the raw material to hand as it was also needed for building and for fuel. Wooden vessels are less prone to breakage than pottery, and if an item does get damaged or broken beyond repair it can be usefully used as kindling for the fire."

I'd never thought about this before. Very interesting!

tenthmedieval said...

Everything you say here is very true, but it leaves one big question about the aceramic period and pottery-less sites: what on earth were they cooking in? Metal pots are very rarely evidenced, though that skillset was probably more widely held. In Ireland there are finds known of treated leather cauldrons, but, really, unless there was nothing better why would you? But you can't cook in wood.

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, it's pottery day in blogland; I have one up, too. though not so detailed.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I was going to ask about the cooking pot issue too. I've been told that metal cooking pots were few and far between. I have replica wheel thrown cooking vessels for the early Norman period and they're fabulous to cook with. I have also been told that broken pots had all kinds of functions and weren't just dumped - again later period and I can't recall the functions, except one was using a broken shard as a scoop for poultry feed!
A very interesting article though, Carla. I've seen the Robin Wood site. He's made items for the new Russell Crowe film Nottingham hasn't he? I have a lot of turned wood in the house as the group leader of my local Regia branch is a dedicated bodger (wood turner!)
Another group member's beech tree was cut down, and now I have a drinking mug made from it!

Carla said...

Meghan - glad you found it interesting.

Tenthmedieval - Good question. Some pottery cooking vessels are known, I believe - if I remember rightly there are some pottery finds from West Stow (5th-7th century approx) that are consistent with being from pots used for cooking. Some of the early 'bonfire pottery' doesn't survive that well in some soil conditions, so there may be a differential survival problem in the same way as with wood, though less severe. So a site that appears to be pottery-less might actually have had some, just as it would (presumably) have had wooden, leather and basketry articles that didn't survive. I don't think I'm arguing that pottery was unknown or never used, just that it wasn't used in large quantities because other materials could substitute for it in some of its uses. Metal vessels could presumably have been recycled as scrap, metal being a highly valued commodity, which might contribute to their rarity as finds - what do you think?

Gabriele - I found your post before I checked the comments on mine!

Elizabeth - See above; my guess is that pottery, and probably also metal, was used for cooking pots. One common use for broken bits of pottery was to make spindle whorls. I hadn't heard of the chicken feed scoop before, though! How do they know that's what the shard was being used for?

Robin Wood may well have made props for the film. I gather he does a lot of work for film and TV. I think I first came across him when Time Team had him on to make a replica item for them (can't remember what it was), and looked up his site for more information.