ORP: West Stow Cemetery Bowl

Ancient Anglo-Saxons often buried their dead with grave-goods, which could range from simple beads to highly-decorated metal brooches. Pottery pieces were common throughout Anglo-Saxon graves and could usually be classified as highly decorated funerary urns or plain domestic pots. The piece pictured in Figure 1 was a bowl found in the cemetery of West Stow, an old Anglo-Saxon village that was active around the fifth to seventh century CE.

Figure 1

This is unfortunate in the fact that there wasn’t proper documentation of the items found in the cemetery, specifically the context in which they were found so it cannot be said for certain what the bowl was used for or with whom it was buried with. However, based on its shape, design, and size, it was more likely a food bowl. Domestic pots were repurposed as funeral urns, but in West Stow, there is only one unearthed pot that has been confirmed as a funeral urn. It is also less likely that this bowl was used as a cremation urn or storage vessel because of its large mouth opening unless there was some sort of lid, though there was never one confirmed in the records.

I used earthenware clay to make the reconstructed bowl. To start, I created a cylindrical base the size of my palm and then rolled out long snakes of clay. Building up the bowl is similar to a coil-pot, where you wrap the snakes around the top part of the previous layers, but then you must blend the layers together to eventually make one smooth wall. When I wrapped each coil in a circle, I first melded both ends of the clay snake together by smearing it with my thumb and some extra small pieces of clay. Once I had a smooth, uninterrupted circle, I used my thumb to smear the clay downwards to connect the clay with the base, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2

I continued this process around the base until the outside of the clay was smooth without any signs of folds. Once I was satisfied with the outside, I repeated this process on the inside of the coil, pushing my thumb downwards on the coil to connect it with the base. As I worked my thumb against the inner wall of the bowl, I cupped my hand on the outside wall so that I could control the formation of the overall shape of the bowl.

As I progressed with every layer, I placed the coil slightly outside of the last one so that the bowl would widen even more. As I reached the top, I purposely left the lip of the bowl uneven, as it was in the reference photos. I don’t believe this was a result of it being broken, as the color of the rim was as aged as the rest of the piece. The lip was also rounded, not jagged. However, my reconstructed bowl’s lip was much more exaggerated than the original.

West Stow Bowl’s Uneven Lip

Reconstructed Bowl’s Uneven Lip

At this point, I started to focus on smoothing out the outside wall, as it was riddled with my thumbprint indentations. I used some water to help smooth the rim and other areas of the bowl that were cracking. Any areas that were too thick I fixed with my thumb pushing on the inside wall and my palm on the outside wall, helping keep the shape of the bowl. Doing this, however, created some holes, which I easily remediated by covering with thin scraps of clay and smoothing out with the help of water.

West Stow Bowl Walls

Reconstructed Bowl’s Walls

Initially, I wasn’t sure what tool I should use to make the impressions in the bowl. I wasn’t sure if I should make a clay stamp or find an object with a similar shape to create the indentations. I found a file one of my peers was using for her bone-stamp carving that was similar enough, although the Anglo-Saxons probably did not use a steel file for this bowl. Upon further research, I found that it had a technique applied to it called rustication, and the indentations, which are spaced apart, were made with single impressions of the forefinger, the depression caused by the finger-tip. However, I made the mistake of letting the bowl dry for too long, and by the time I came back for indentations, the clay was too hard for me to modify. I tried to recreate the look of the Type 5 rustication by using a chisel, but I couldn’t quite replicate the work.

Failed attempt at replicating the rustication

I instead did the impressions on a small, fresh piece of clay to at least get the feel for the technique.

Rustication on a piece of clay

My re-creation of the bowl was created with as many of the same techniques the Anglo-Saxons used as I had knowledge of. It is by no means a perfect reproduction; the base of the bowl is supposed to be a wide, flat bottom that curves up immediately, whereas my bowl has a clear, circular base with walls that go out then up. The indentations are not exactly how I would have liked them to turn out, either. It was difficult interpreting the written text explaining how the indentation was made; also, my fingers are not as large as the ceramicist who made the original bowl were. Due to time constraints, I could not double fire my bowl, although I don’t think this is too important to the authentic process. Firing is done in an electric kiln, something the Anglo-Saxons didn’t have in their arsenal. There was no evidence of firings done at West Stow, so it is more likely that they were instead done in large, bonfire-like conditions.

Old Anglo-Saxon pots are often described as crude and unrefined, which is something I and the rest of the class though initially when looking at Anglo-Saxon pottery. However, the model-making process has taught me that everything is harder to make than it looks, especially when considering that people in the past didn’t have the same tools and technology as we do in modern times. My first ever attempt at an Anglo-Saxon pot was a complete, massless disaster. The next two pieces I made (this included a pot and the bowl) were better, but it still was nowhere near the level of many of these Anglo-Saxon ceramic works. There were so many factors to consider: clay dryness, workspace temperature, the amount of clay used, checking wall thickness wasn’t thin enough to tear or thick enough to explode when fired, etc. It is easy to look down on “crudely-made” objects and attribute it to the lack of aestheticism, skill, and intelligence in a culture, but once one takes time to sit down and try to recreate the object, one will realize that perhaps they’re the ones who are lacking in aestheticism, skill, and intelligence.

 

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