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.