07 June, 2011

Hanging bowls

Replica of the large hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, in a reconstruction of the burial chamber at the Sutton Hoo Visitor Centre.

Hanging bowls are impressive and rather enigmatic artefacts mainly found in princely ‘Anglo-Saxon’ burials in what is now eastern England.

They are typically large circular bowls made from thin copper-alloy (bronze, brass or related alloys*) sheet, with three attachment points for suspension cords or chains. The large bowl at Sutton Hoo (see photo) was approximately 30 cm in diameter and 13 cm deep as reconstructed from the fragmentary state in which it was found. It had been hung on a nail on the chamber wall by one of its suspension rings, but presumably the bowls were normally suspended using all three rings.

The attachment points are sometimes simple rings or loops, or sometimes fashioned in the shapes of birds or animals whose heads or necks form the attachment ring. The large bowl at Sutton Hoo has attachments in the shape of animal heads that appear to be looking over into the interior of the bowl (Pollington 2003). Decorative mounts were typically applied to the attachment points. Sometimes the mounts were integrated with the attachment point to form a decorative structure. For example, a hanging bowl from York has mounts in the form of birds with the birds’ heads and beaks forming the attachment points (see picture on the York Museums Trust website here). Sometimes the mounts were separate, for example, in the large Sutton Hoo hanging bowl the mounts have a geometric swirling pattern in coloured enamels and are not part of the animal heads that form the attachment points. The large Sutton Hoo bowl also has three decorative square panels applied to the outside of the bowl between the mounts (see photo).

Many of the bowls also have decorative mounts on the inside of the base. For example, the bowl from York has silver interlace panels on the inside and outside of the base (Tweddle et al 1999). Uniquely (so far), the large Sutton Hoo hanging bowl has a model of a trout or similar fish mounted on the inside of the base on a pin that allowed the fish to rotate (Carver 1998).


Most hanging bowls are found in rich furnished graves in areas that are now in eastern England and dated to the seventh or early eighth century. It is possible that all known examples belong to this date range (Geake 1999). This tells us when it was fashionable to place hanging bowls in graves, which is not necessarily the same as the period when the bowls were made and used. The hanging bowls could have been made and used for an unknown period before being placed in the graves, and they could have continued in manufacture and use for an unknown period after furnished burial ceased. The large Sutton Hoo hanging bowl and a further hanging bowl found in a cremation cemetery discovered at the Sutton Hoo Visitor Centre had both been repaired before being buried (Pollington 2003). This may simply suggest that hanging bowls had a hard life that made them prone to damage; the thin bronze sheet does not look particularly robust and perhaps they were vulnerable to being cracked or bent if dropped. Or it may indicate that the bowls had been in use for a while, perhaps a long while, before burial.

Hanging bowls are mainly found in furnished early medieval burials in eastern England, generally categorised as ‘Anglo-Saxon’. It may be that hanging bowls were only used in these areas, and perhaps had some special significance in the local high-status culture. However, the apparent distribution may also reflect selective survival of evidence. Rich furnished burials with their concentration of artefacts (many of which may be dateable) are highly ‘visible’ forms of archaeology. In western Britain, where furnished burials are rare to non-existent, hanging bowls may have been used but not survived because they were not buried. We can safely say that hanging bowls were used (at least as grave goods) in eastern Britain where they are found, but not necessarily that they were not used elsewhere.


The decoration on the mounts often uses abstract spiral or scroll patterns of a style categorised as British or Irish ** (Pollington 2003). This may indicate that the hanging bowls (or at least the mounts) were made in Brittonic kingdoms or in Ireland and travelled to the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ kingdoms in eastern England where they are mainly found as part of trade, tribute, loot, diplomacy, gift exchange or marriage. Or the same artistic style may also have been in use by craftsmen working in eastern England, either as a local tradition or copied from itinerant craftsmen or both. Whether the hanging bowls were thought of as specifically ‘Brittonic’ by the people who deposited them as grave goods, or whether they were simply thought of as exotic luxury items suitable for proclaiming wealth and status, is open to question.


This is what makes the hanging bowls enigmatic; their function is not known with any certainty. The thin copper-alloy sheet is not robust enough to make them useful cooking pots (Pollington 2003). Were they serving vessels or storage containers? If so, what did they hold and how might they have been used? More on this issue in another post.

Carver M. Sutton Hoo: Burial ground of kings? British Museum Press, 1998, ISBN: 0-7141-0591-0.
Geake H. When were hanging bowls deposited in Anglo-Saxon graves? Medieval Archaeology 1999;43:1-18, available online.
Pollington S. The mead-hall. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2003. ISBN 1-898281-30-0.
Tweddle D, Moulden J, Logan E. Anglian York: a survey of the evidence. Council for British Archaeology/York Archaeological Trust, 1999. ISBN 1-902771-06-0.

*In theory, bronze is an alloy of copper with a bit of tin, brass is an alloy of copper with a bit of zinc. In practice, both terms are somewhat imprecise and can refer to a range of alloys that are mostly copper with various amounts of other metals. Copper alloy is a useful catch-all term.

**The usual caveat applies (and should go without saying) that objects do not of themselves have ethnicity.


Mark Noce said...

Interesting. Did any other neighboring cultures exhibit the same kinds of artifacts? i.e. Celts, Norse, etc.

Carla said...

Hello Mark and welcome. A few hanging bowls have been found in Scandinavia, Scotland and Ireland, but not as many as in England. It seems to have been fashionable to place a hanging bowl in a rich grave for a century or so in what's now England, although whether that reflects the distribution of the bowls in manufacture and use or the distribution of a particular funerary custom is open to question.

Rick said...

Doesn't the Mabinogion mention bronze cauldrons a number of times? These hanging bowls aren't really 'cauldrons,' and with the Welsh you can't be quite sure that they didn't make up their own mythology in a proto-literary way.

Looked at a different way, the bowls need not have stood up to cooking, because they might have been intended to hold some ethanol-rich fluid. I imagine the early English enjoyed an occasional nip, or rather more.

Carla said...

Rick - Yes, there's at least one magic cauldron in the Mabinogion, though it was a lot bigger than the hanging bowls! There's also a magic silver bowl chained to a magic fountain.

Serving alcohol is one of the possibilities for the hanging bowls (with the fish in the Sutton Hoo bowl giving a whole new level of meaning to the phrase 'drink like a fish'...). Given that a chieftain's hall was a "mead-hall" in Old English poetry, and Y Gododdin makes plenty of references to mead, I think one can reasonably infer that consumption of large quantities of alcohol was an important component of both Brittonic and English heroic society.

Gabriele C. said...

The Anglo-Saxon version of the Sunday/visitor china set for high tea (if the Brits have that; it may be a German middle class thing, and it's dying out anyway). :) The bowls sound like they were pretty enough to show off (to visitors, for example). Pluis, the thane may have liked to get his own drinking bowl in Valhall and not share with an ex-enemy. *grin*

Carla said...

Sunday china is, or at any rate used to be, a British thing too. It was normal to have a 'best' tea set that came out only on special occasions, like inviting the vicar for Sunday afternoon tea. Seems to be dying out now here too. Hanging bowls may have been the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of posh tableware. They were certainly handsome enough to show off to admiring visitors. (More on all this in a later post).

Wonder how the blood-feuds were supposed to work out when you and your deadly enemies had all died heroically in battle and ended up in Valhalla together? Were all feuds instantly forgotten and you all became comrades? Or maybe that explains who the warriors were fighting all day - not the Ice Giants, but each other :-)

Rick said...

one can reasonably infer that consumption of large quantities of alcohol was an important component of both Brittonic and English heroic society

Knocking back a few must have made it a lot easier to be heroic. (Being successfully heroic might be another matter!)

Carla said...

Quite so, on both counts :-) There's a line towards the end of Exile where a young warrior is appalled at the prospect of going into battle sober.

Rick said...

As well he might be!

The mark of a real hero, it seems, would be drinking everyone else under the table and still being clear headed enough to fight effectively.

Which is why heroic ages might not be great times to live in, but are highly productive of literary traditions.

Carla said...

Provided you still had sufficient co-ordination to stand up and direct a sword or spear to approximately where you meant it to go, being sufficiently out of your head might be an advantage if berserkers are any more than a poetic myth. Doesn't do a lot for strategy, though, so only works in situations where strategy is an optional extra.

Jonathan Jarrett said...

I may be getting two artefact types mixed up here, but if I'm not, the cremation burials at Sutton Hoo, which are supposed to predate the big boat burials, appeared to have had the ashes laid down on large bronze dishes, one of Byzantine style and the others less easy to distinguish from the fragments left by the robbers. At that rate one might suppose that when the custom of burying with such things began, their contents were the dead themselves. That would obviously stop being viable once cremation went out of fashion but the goods might still have been burial-appropriate. The question of what they were used for in life is not made any easier if that's true though!

Carla said...

Jonathan - Yes, some of the cremation burials under mounds at Sutton Hoo were in bronze vessels. As I understand it, there were only fragments left (all the mounds had been robbed), so it may not be possible to be sure whether they were hanging bowls or a different type of bronze bowl. The inventory at the back of Martin Carver's book just says 'fragment of copper alloy bowl' or similar. The young man in Mound 17 had a bronze bowl that isn't described as a hanging bowl, and as that burial survived intact I imagine that the excavators would have been able to identify it as hanging bowl if it had been. However, some more cremation burials were found under the site of the Visitor Centre when it was built, and one of those was a cremation in a bronze hanging bowl. So it was certainly possible for a hanging bowl to be used for funerary purposes, even if we can't now tell whether all the cremation burials were originally in hanging bowls. I'll come back to this in another post. So yes, hanging bowls (and/or other bronze bowls) may have been already established as suitable funerary objects for cremation burials, and then carried on as grave goods in inhumation burials. If you can get hold of Bruce-Mitford's monumental corpus of hanging bowls at your academic library, it may say how many of them were known to be used as cremation burial containers, which would help test the hypothesis if you want to follow it up.

Agreed that this doesn't help identify a function for the hanging bowls while the owner was alive! There may be one or two clues, and I'll come back to this next time. They may of course have had several functions that varied over time and place, or between families, or on individual whim.

It may be possible that (some) hanging bowls were acquired specifically as funeral containers and never had a use in life - if I understand it correctly, the classic cremation urn is a specific object and not a re-used domestic pot. It seems a bit unlikely to me, because the hanging bowls are so impressive you'd think people would want to use them to display status in life as well as death, but people may not have seen it that way in the 7th C. Maybe you commissioned the hanging bowl for your burial years in advance, like an Egyptian pharoah commissioning his pyramid, and kept it packed away until occasion demanded. Or maybe you had it displayed somewhere to remind you of your own mortality (not that you'd think an early English warlord would need much reminding) or as a status object to show you had your funeral all planned out, a bit like having a pre-bought burial plot.

esmeraldamac said...

How strange that an item so strongly associated with the Anglo-Saxons should, seemingly, come from the pre-existing Celtic (ie Brythonic/Irish) cultures. I wonder if they were old(3-400yrs?) when they were buried?

Carla said...

Esmeraldamac - Hello and welcome! It's possible that they were antique objects when buried; that would be consistent with the repairs. The big silver dish in the Sutton Hoo ship burial had a stamp of the Byzantine emperor Anastasius, dating it to around 500 AD, so antique imported metalware could be used as grave goods. Unfortunately in the absence of similar date stamps, hanging bowls can't be precisely dated. Any dates tend to be derived from association (what they were buried with) and art history (the style of decoration). The first of these only says when the hanging bowl was buried, not necessarily when it was made, and the second only gives a very approximate range because decorative styles may continue in fashion for a variable time, or may be retained for particular applications long after they have gone out of general fashion.

They may have been in contemporary use in co-existing cultures in Ireland and western Britain. Ireland certainly had church links with various English kingdoms in the seventh century, with Irish or Iona-trained monks founding monasteries in East Anglia (Fursey) and Northumbria (Aidan). Penda of Mercia famously had Brittonic military allies throughout his reign, and there was at least one royal marriage between English Northumbria and the western Brittonic kingdom of Rheged (probably, though not certainly, somewhere in the region of modern Cumbria) in the 630s. So there were family, ecclesiastical and co-operative military contacts between English and Brittonic/Irish cultures, and the hanging bowls may have travelled by the same sort of routes. They may have been used all over Britain. Most of the surviving examples are from Anglo-Saxon rich graves, but that may just be an accident of survival - the pagan English helpfully buried artefacts for us to find, whereas in western Britain they didn't.

esmeraldamac said...

You're thinking what I'm thinking, and of course, Cumbrians have been exporting their wares to the eastern side of the country for a long time - starting with neolithic hand axes!

And Rhiemelth married Oswy, as you say. I specialise in Cumbrian history :)

Carla said...

Indeed she did, and I don't suppose she was the only one, just the best documented. Have you read Kathleen Herbert's novel about Rhianmellt, Queen of the Lightning?

esmeraldamac said...

First wife, I think. I've got Kathleen Herbert's book, but haven't read it yet. I should!

Carla said...

Very probably before Eanflaed, at any rate, since she appears immediately before Eanflaed in the Durham Liber Vitae and before Eanflaed in the Historia Brittonum entry. Possibly not his first wife though, since depending when she married Oswy, it may be possible that he had already been married (possibly to the lady who was the mother of Aldfrid).

I can highly recommend Queen of the Lightning; it's one of my favourite historical novels.