An enigmatic and often overlooked class of objects particularly common in high status Anglo-Saxon “warrior” burials of the 6th, and especially the 7th century, hanging bowls were typically 15-30cm and made of unusually high purity leaded bronze. Early examples hung from 3-4 hooks with rings, integral with elaborate openwork or enamelled escutcheons, while later examples had hooks cast with brackets, which contained separately made disc escutcheons, typically tinned bronze with opaque red
(Originally published in March 2020.)
Hanging bowls were expensively made objects from the richest burials yet their precise origin and meaning remains a mystery. Their decoration is quite distinct from Anglo-Saxon techniques, and commonly regarded as “Celtic” - perhaps they were diplomatic gifts or evidence of trade with post-Romano-British communities either outside of Anglo-Saxon territory, or perhaps from coexisting British enclaves. Although later related bowls exist from Ireland and Scandinavia, each of different designs, no
Anglo-Saxon hanging bowls, with their countersunk bases, resemble gothic rose-water dishes used for hand-washing at feasts; the earliest surviving example dates to the reign of Henry VIII, and now belonging to Corpus Christi College Cambridge, is known to have been used at Queen Elizabeth I’s 40th birthday party.
We have experienced directly how filthy Anglo-Saxon halls could be, even despite endless cleaning. Ash from the central hearth would constantly settle on and contaminate every surface, including a basin of water. A hanging bowl could be hoisted high into the eaves away from most of the ash, and then carefully lowered when required. It’s tempting to imagine these spectacularly crafted objects being admired from all sides as they slowly descended from the roof for the hand-washing ceremony.
So, it seems likely that these bowls represent an ancient tradition to provide water for visitors to wash their hands as they entered the hall. Perhaps it’s a tradition we should bring back?