01 July, 2011

Hanging bowls: what were they for?

Replica of the burial chamber from the Mound 1 ship burial, Sutton Hoo visitor centre, view of west wall. The large hanging bowl can be seen beside the spear shafts, left of the centre of the picture.

In an earlier post, I discussed hanging bowls, large thin-walled copper alloy* bowls with suspension points around the rim, often beautifully decorated with mounts made in coloured enamel. They are mostly associated with high-status burials of around the seventh century in what is now England. What function(s) might they have had?

The first thing to say is that hanging bowls may not all have been used for the same purpose in all places and at all times. The period in which they were deposited in graves spans at least a century, and they may also have been in use before and after it was fashionable to use them as grave goods. It is quite possible that their use changed over time or varied by region, and also quite possible that the same hanging bowl in the same household could have been put to more than one use.

Funerary use only
It is possible that (some) hanging bowls were specifically acquired for use in a funerary context and may not have had a use in ‘life’ at all. The cremation burials in Mounds 4, 5, 6 and 18 at Sutton Hoo were associated with fragments of copper-alloy bowls (Carver 1998), and a cremation burial in a hanging bowl was found at the nearby Tranmer House cemetery when the visitor centre was built (Sutton Hoo Society; Pollington 2003). The Tranmer House cemetery is tentatively dated at a little earlier than the mound cemetery at Sutton Hoo (Sutton Hoo Society), and weak stratigraphic evidence suggests that the cremation burials in mounds 5 and 6 may pre-date the ship burials (Carver 1998). If bronze bowls in general and/or hanging bowls in particular were already established as suitable containers for cremation burials, perhaps as a high-status alternative to the classic pottery funeral urn, they may have continued to be regarded as suitable grave goods when inhumation burials came into fashion.

Cooking vessels
This seems unlikely. The thin copper-alloy sheet is not robust enough to make hanging bowls useful cooking pots (Pollington 2003). Moreover, the internal decoration would have been obscured by anything opaque like thick soup or stew, quite apart from the difficulties of cleaning sticky or burned-on residues out of the delicate decorations (and don’t even think about the problems of cleaning stew out of the mounting point for the rotating trout in the large Sutton Hoo hanging bowl).

Storage vessels
Hanging bowls could have been used to store small quantities of valuable perishable items (e.g. imported spices or dried fruits), perhaps to hang them out of the reach of mice. However, this would also have obscured the internal decorations and may be unlikely for this reason.

Purely decorative
Hanging bowls may have held nothing at all and been purely ornamental objects with no purpose other than to look beautiful and display the owner’s wealth/status/exotic foreign connections.

Lamp reflectors
It is unlikely that hanging bowls would have been used as lamps holding sticky substances such as wax, tallow or oil, as this would have obscured and/or damaged the internal decorations. Possibly they could have been used as lamp or candle reflectors, suspended by one of the attachment points and held at an angle behind a lamp or candle flame by means of cords or chains from the other two attachment points to a hook or hooks on the wall. The shiny surface of the metal would have reflected and intensified the light, and the coloured decorations may have reflected attractive patterns that would shift with any movement of the flame or bowl (a sort of cross between stained glass windows and a lava lamp).

Serving vessels for drink
Hanging bowls are typically up to around 30 cm in diameter, and the large bowl from Sutton Hoo was 13 cm deep. So the capacity is a few litres, not sufficient to hold a commodity in bulk. The elaborate decoration is also consistent with some sort of ‘special’ purpose, perhaps for display or use by privileged individuals, rather than as a routine household container. They could perhaps have been used to serve drink to high-status individuals, such as the owner of the hall and/or privileged guests.

Although this is an attractive possibility given the central importance of alcoholic drink to high-status early medieval life (a lord’s hall is a ‘mead-hall’), it may not be the whole story. Translucent liquids such as beer, mead or wine would have obscured the internal decorations to some extent, which may argue against this use of hanging bowls unless seeing the decorations start to appear as the level of liquid dropped was part of the appeal (a signal for a refill, perhaps?).

A further clue may come from the location of the large hanging bowl in the Sutton Hoo ship burial. It was not on the east wall with the tub, cauldrons and suspension chain, which suggests that it was not considered part of the kitchen equipment. Nor was it on the coffin lid with the drinking horns, drinking bottles, Byzantine silver dish, silver spoons and nest of silver bowls, which may indicate that it was not considered as (just) high-class tableware. Instead, the large hanging bowl was on the west wall, with what Martin Carver calls “the symbols of office” – the standard, whetstone sceptre, shield, lyre, and a bundle of spears threaded through the handle of a Coptic bowl (Carver 1988). The photo of the replica burial chamber in the Sutton Hoo visitor centre shows it in its context within the grave.

It’s possible that the hanging bowl was put here for some prosaic reason, such as there just happened to be a suitable peg. However, the burial chamber does not give the impression that it was furnished haphazardly. It must be at least possible that the position of the hanging bowl on the west wall may have something to say about its function.

Water containers
The hanging bowls may have held a clear liquid such as water that would leave the internal decorations visible, and might perhaps intensify their visual appeal by rippling prettily over the designs. The model trout in the large Sutton Hoo hanging bowl would also be consistent with the bowl having been used to hold water, as the fish could be seen as ‘swimming’ in the water as it rotated on its swivel pin in the bottom of the bowl.

In this context, it is worth noting that there is a contemporary documentary reference to copper-alloy hanging bowls in a high-status context in eastern England in the early seventh century. This is a slightly enigmatic reference from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, written in 731, describing an episode in the early seventh century. Bede tells us of King Eadwine (Edwin) of Northumbria, who ruled from 617 to 633 AD:

Such was the king’s concern for the welfare of his people that in a number of places where he had noticed clear springs adjacent to the highway he ordered posts to be erected with brass bowls hanging from them, so that travellers could drink and refresh themselves. And so great was the people’s affection for him, and so great the awe in which he was held, that no one wished or ventured to use these bowls for any other purpose.
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book II Ch. 16

Now, these bowls mentioned by Bede need not necessarily be the same type of object as the copper-alloy hanging bowls that were buried in graves at the same period. Nevertheless, it is striking that they correspond in date (Bede was writing in the early eighth century, in this case about events in the seventh, exactly the date range proposed for the hanging bowls in graves), location (eastern ‘Anglo-Saxon’ England), status (associated with royalty in Bede’s account, found in wealthy graves), material (brass or bronze*) and form (bowls hanging from something).

The limited capacity of the hanging bowls makes them rather impractical as containers for the routine drinking water of a household, and may indicate that if they held water it was ‘special’ water of some kind, either from a special source or used for special purposes. I can think of several possibilities, and no doubt there are others:

  • Holy water. Perhaps the most obvious, given the importance of holy water in Christian rituals. It has been argued that the craft techniques and decoration on hanging bowls suggests that they were Christian objects from western Britain (Dark 2002, p.132-133). It may be significant that the period of deposition of hanging bowls, mainly (perhaps entirely; Geake 1999) during the seventh century, coincides with the period during which Christianity became established among the English kingdoms. Kent converted shortly after St Augustine’s arrival in 597, and the South Saxons converted around 680 under Bishop Wilfrid. The English kings and nobles were probably well aware of Christianity for some time before ‘officially’ deciding to convert, and hanging bowls may have been valued for their Christian connotations. This does not necessarily imply that the graves containing hanging bowls were ‘Christian’; it is perfectly possible to borrow the trappings and/or rituals of another culture and/or religion without necessarily subscribing (entirely) to its beliefs. Raedwald of the East Angles, a likely candidate for the occupant of the Mound 1 ship burial maintained a temple with altars to the Christian god and to his own gods. Perhaps he had a hanging bowl of holy water in the same temple for the same reasons. Even without an explicit dual religion policy, it’s still perfectly possible to attach a superstitious value to the artefacts of another religion, regarding them as ‘powerful’ or ‘magical’ or ‘lucky’ in a nebulous way.

  • Water from a spring considered sacred is a potential non-Christian context for holy water. Sacred springs have a long history in Britain (more about sacred springs in a later post). Even if the English kings did not necessarily believe in the associated deities, they may still have considered water from sacred springs as ‘magical’ or ‘lucky’ or ‘powerful’ (in a similar way to that suggested for Christian holy water above). Something like this may lie behind Bede’s description of the hanging bowls placed at springs by King Edwin/Eadwine, although it may have been no more than a kindly attempt to make life a little easier for travellers (having “wandered for many years” himself, Eadwine probably knew more than most about the exigencies of travel).

  • Medicinal or healing water. Holy water or spring water is mentioned as an ingredient in medicines in Old English leechbooks. Perhaps the hanging bowls contained water to be used for this purpose, keeping it separate from the routine household supply.

  • Water used for some ceremonial purpose, such as washing the hands or some implement before performing a religious rite, or a formal guest ceremony in which a stranger becomes a guest of the household after being invited to wash with water from the hanging bowl.

  • Divination. There are several possible ways in which water in a decorated bowl might be used for some sort of divination ceremony. Objects or coloured liquids could be dropped into or floated on the water in the bowl, and their positions and movement regarded as indicative of future events or answers to questions. The speed, direction and/or degree of rotation of the trout in the bottom of the Sutton Hoo hanging bowl could have been considered significant. Or the distortion of the internal decorations as water in the bowl moved over them, and/or reflections in the water surface, could have been considered to have meaning. It should go without saying that this is speculative.

Hanging bowls were placed in rich graves over a period of at least a century. It seems unlikely that they were used as food containers or for cooking, as this would have obscured internal decorations. The rotating trout in the large Sutton Hoo hanging bowl is consistent with the bowl being used to contain a clear liquid such as water. A contemporary documentary reference mentions copper-alloy hanging bowls (not necessarily the same type of object) in association with spring water. The position of the large hanging bowl in the Mound 1 ship burial at Sutton Hoo is consistent with (but does not prove) some sort of military, official or ceremonial function. This is also consistent with the limited capacity of the bowls, if they held a modest quantity of ‘special’ water intended for a specific purpose. What this purpose might be, or what made the water special, is open to speculation. Holy water, in a Christian or non-Christian context, is an obvious possibility, perhaps used for healing, divination or ceremonial purposes.

As ever, other interpretations are possible. Hanging bowls may have had a variety of functions in different places, at different times and in different households.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Carver M. Sutton Hoo: Burial ground of kings? British Museum Press, 1998, ISBN 0-7141-0591-0.
Dark K. Britain and the end of the Roman empire. Tempus 2002, ISBN 0-7524-2532-3.
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.
Sutton Hoo Society

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


nicola said...

My vote? Scrying bowls.

Carla said...

Possible - that would come under 'divination' in the list. It has lots of dramatic narrative potential :-)

Gabriele C. said...

I think 'special water' bowls, in whatever way the water was special, is the most likely interpretation. I wonder if they sort of predate the portable reliquaries as valued household items (though those would not be buried, of course).

Constance Brewer said...

"as this would have obscured and/or damaged the internal decorations"
I think we here in the 21st century take ancient decoration too seriously. WE wouldn't obscure it, but who's to say the ancients would give two rips about hiding or messing up the pretty interiors? Could be an item was decorative, and practical/functional at the same time. I still drink out of my tea cup with the flowers on the bottom - but I feel guilty about it. :)

Carla said...

Gabriele - I lean towards 'special water' bowls as well, on the whole. 'Special' need not always have been the same thing. Interesting point about portable reliquaries. They might have fulfilled some of the same sort of role, and if Ken Dark is right that hanging bowls were used in western Britain in Christian contexts, there may have been a connection. Burial may just have reflected a particular funerary custom at a particular time and place, and need not necessarily have had anything to do with the object in itself.

Constance - indeed, it's possible that getting the decorations clogged up with stew or lamp tallow wasn't considered a problem. I wouldn't fancy trying to de-gunge the rotating pin mount for the trout in the Sutton Hoo bowl, but who's to say?

Rick said...

A bit of a mystery, it seems, though I can see the argument for 'special' water of some sort - divination, holy water, whatever.

Carla said...

Yes, a bit of a mystery. I like the case for some sort of 'special' water as well. As to what made it 'special' or how it was used, there are lots of possibilities :-) It doesn't have to be only one function, as different bowls may have had different uses, or the same bowl may have had more than one use.

mithril said...

personally i'm struck by the similarities to a number of modern containers used in modern times to hold potpurri.
it seems to me that despite Anglo-saxons of the time being fairly uninterested in personal hygiene (by the standards of the time, at least), the bowls might have been simple basins to hold strong smelling herbs or plant cuttings, to help cut down on the smell of unwashed bodies?

i'd consider this halfway between "decorative" and "storage". made to look nice so they can be put out in ones home where they can work best, but intended as storage.
the reason for including them in graves could be as simple as them being a common household item, included with all the other househld items buried with the person.

Carla said...

Hello and welcome, mithril. Combs are frequently found in graves, and the word 'soap' is Old English and occurs in leechbooks dated to around the tenth century-ish, so there may have been more concern with personal hygiene than is often assumed. Containers for herbs or spices is a possibility, combining storage, fragrance and ornament as you mention. There could also be a ceremonial angle as well as a domestic one, if certain herbs had a ceremonial use (incense might be an analogy). The hanging bowls may have had several uses.

mithril said...

yet at the same time, bathing was something most back then did every couple of weeks at most under normal circumstances, and i've not found anything to indicate the anglo-saxons were particulalry interested in it.
combs and other grooming tools would have been in high use, since people still would want to look good, but sweat and body odor would still be quite prevalent.

Carla said...

As far as I know there is no evidence about frequency of washing in seventh-century Britain, nor how it might have varied by time, place or circumstance. The nearest to a contemporary source is Bede, writing in 731. He mentions seldom taking hot baths as a mark of monastic asceticism, implying that bathing in hot water was considered routine and that not doing so was noteworthy, but does not specify how often, nor whether the ascetic abbess in question eschewed bathing altogether or substituted cold water for hot. As ever, many interpretations are possible.