Wooden tableware in early England

Early English ('Anglo-Saxon') settlement sites usually contain only small amounts of pottery. This is a noticeable contrast with Roman-period sites, which can yield enough pieces of broken pottery for a Greek wedding.

Most of the Anglo-Saxon pottery that has been found and studied is from cemeteries (Arnold 1997), either cremation urns buried containing the ashes of the deceased or vessels buried along with inhumations and perhaps containing some sort of offering. Domestic pottery is not that common and is usually unexciting and rather lumpen (Pollington 2003). Particularly in the early period (roughly, fifth to mid-seventh century), it tends to be hand-made rather than produced on a potter's wheel, often fired rather poorly at a low temperature, and has been rather unkindly described as "…well below the standard to be expected of a first-year pottery class at a high school today" (Dixon 1994). All of which has no doubt contributed to the stereotype of the early English as ignorant barbarians incapable of making civilised tableware.

However, pottery is in some ways not the ideal material for a subsistence farming economy in which villages and even individual families expected to be largely self-sufficient. Not every site would have a deposit of good-quality potting clay, and clay is heavy stuff to transport if it has to be brought in from elsewhere. Firing to obtain a hard finish requires a high temperature, which in turn needs a specialist kiln and a large quantity of fuel, an investment that is best suited to making a large number of pots at once and may not be a sensible use of resources for a small self-sufficient community. Similarly, the number of pots used by a small community may not justify the time required to develop a high level of skill in making and using a potters' wheel. And although pottery fragments can last almost indefinitely in the soil, a pottery vessel is fragile if dropped - as no doubt we have all discovered to our cost - and the pieces are no use to anyone except future archaeologists.

Wooden vessels offer several advantages over pottery (Pollington 2003). The skills and tools needed to shape wood into a bowl or cup are similar to those needed to shape wood into all the other useful domestic objects required by a farming village. Woodworking doesn't require building and firing a kiln, and every village would have to have a ready supply of the raw material to hand as it was also needed for building and for fuel. Wooden vessels are less prone to breakage than pottery, and if an item does get damaged or broken beyond repair it can be usefully used as kindling for the fire.

Unfortunately, wood doesn't survive well on archaeological sites, partly because it can so easily be re-used as fuel at the time and partly because wood, being organic, decays naturally in the soil. Sometimes the only indications of the presence of a wooden vessel are metal clips or staples used for repair or decoration. Wooden artefacts themselves tend to be found mainly on waterlogged sites where the absence of oxygen (anaerobic conditions) prevents or inhibits decay. A few examples illustrate the wealth of organic material that has probably been lost from other sites.

A group of part-finished lathe-turned wooden bowls was found in a workshop at Feddersen Wierde, a waterlogged settlement site on the North Sea coast of Germany, north of the mouth of the River Weser (site abandoned during the fifth century AD) (Cole and Cole 1989). If you believe in the migration theory, you can imagine the wood-turner who owned the workshop moving with his skills across the sea and starting a new life somewhere in eastern or southern England….

The Sutton Hoo ship burial (Mound 1) contained eight turned walnut wooden cups with decorative silver collars, and six turned wooden bottles made of maplewood (Leahy 2003). The reconstruction of one of the bottles shown in Pollington (2003) is a handsome vessel with a copper-alloy collar and decorative panels. Perhaps it functioned something like a modern decanter? The bottles were about 14 cm diameter and 14-16 cm high, and Leahy comments that turning them would have called for great skill (Leahy 2003).

Whoever was buried in Sutton Hoo Mound 1 (most probably Raedwald, King of the East Angles in the early seventh century; see article on the likely candidates), he was clearly an extremely wealthy and important person with access to expensive luxury goods. Given that he had turned wooden cups and bottles in his grave, perhaps ready to put on a magnificent feast in the afterlife, I think that's a fair indication that wooden tableware could be just as high-status as the exotic imported silver dishes found in the same burial.

Wooden tableware didn't go out of use when mass-produced wheel-thrown pottery reappeared in quantity in Britain after the eighth century. The Norse at Jorvik in the ninth and tenth centuries made large quantities of turned wooden tableware, as demonstrated by finds of workshop debris in the waterlogged deposits at the Coppergate ("Street of the cup makers") site. Wooden vessels were the normal tableware of the period. Perhaps because wood was cheaper and more durable than pottery, perhaps because it was traditional, or perhaps simply because people liked it. A well-made wooden bowl or cup is a pleasing object. Even nowadays items such as wooden salad bowls and fruit bowls are still fashionable, and any cook will tell you that a wooden spoon is an indispensable kitchen utensil.

Wooden bowls in early England would have been turned using a pole lathe (Dixon 1994, Leahy 2003), making a perfectly concentric circular item as accurately and efficiently as anything produced on a modern power lathe (See the video on Robin Wood's site if you don't believe me). More on this ingenious machine in another post.


Arnold CJ. An archaeology of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Routledge, 1997. ISBN 978-0415-156-356. Searchable on Google Books.
Cole, B, Cole J. People of the wetlands. Bogs, bodies and lake dwellers. Thames and Hudson, 1989. ISBN 0-500-02112-0.
Dixon PH. The Reading lathe. Cross Publishing, 1994. ISBN 1-873295-65-0.
Leahy K. Anglo-Saxon crafts. Tempus Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0-7524-2904-3.
Pollington S. The mead-hall. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2003. ISBN 1-898281-30-0.