‘Hanging bowl’ from Mildenhall, Suffolk

This bowl, found in an Anglo-Saxon grave has a fascinating tale to tell. It was discovered in 2016 ahead of the building of the Mildenhall Community Hub (Suffolk). Raised skilfully from a single sheet of bronze, it would have been made in a British (Celtic) kingdom in the west or north of these isles, in the early 7th century. It is termed a ‘hanging bowl’ because originally the vessel, highly polished, would have been suspended by delicate chains from three hooked mounts spaced around its body, just below the rim. These mounts (and another on the base) would have been ornamented, the finest examples on other bowls being inlaid with colorful enamels and bearing intricate designs. Sadly, our bowl has lost all of its mounts.

Hanging bowl
Side, top and bottom views of the ‘hanging bowl’.

Though they are not common discoveries, hanging bowls are a well-recognised class of rare object that curiously, despite their Celtic manufacture (as far distant as Wales or Scotland), occur mainly in Anglo-Saxon burials of the 6th and 7th centuries AD. A considerable number are now known from East Anglia.  It is believed that they travelled by various means, including to serve as gifts or tribute, to secure peace, marriage or trade. This new bowl from Mildenhall has been identified by expert Susan Youngs as a ‘Group B’ bowl in the typology of Rupert Bruce-Mitford (2005).

Hanging bowls and related fittings from East Anglia
Hanging bowls and related fittings from East Anglia
Plan of the Anglo-Saxon burial
Plan of the Anglo-Saxon burial

As a rare import, the bowl would have remained a valued antique when it was buried around AD 650. The grave’s occupant was a middle-aged Anglo-Saxon warrior, laid to rest with a spear at his side and with his face covered by a round shield, placed carefully over his upper body, in a final act of respect. Stable Isotope analysis undertaken on his teeth has shown he was probably born and raised locally. He was doubtless important, as his isolated grave was marked by a small chalk mound, but above all it is the luxury bowl that indicates his wealth and status. It might have contained a food offering for his afterlife journey, such as eggs, nuts, or crab apples (known from other graves).

This grave was the only Anglo-Saxon burial found, though at least one post-built hall and several smaller huts (known as ‘sunken featured buildings’) of the same period were identified on the site, which lies just north of the River Lark. This location just above the flood plain was also the setting for an earlier settlement of the Middle Iron Age (400–100 BC).

Chris Fern

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