Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Pagan Saxon Window Urn from Kempston

The function of many of the objects in our archaeological collections tends to be fairly straight forward and obvious for instance even if we have never thrown a spear or cooked soup in a metal cauldron over an open fire we have an educated idea as to how these items work and what we can do with them.

However once in a while we encounter objects in the museum which at first sight seem easy to understand and we can even relate to the use, but then when you examine them more closely their function becomes more unknown and even mysterious.

One such item is a small ceramic vessel found by workmen digging in Kempston during the mid 19th century. The report of the find published in the Notes of the Bedfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society, dated February 1857, describes,

“the discovery of a unique specimen of Saxon pottery. It is unburnt clay of a dark brown colour, 31/2 inches high, of beautiful proportions, and has 14 deep flutings from the shoulder to the base. It is not however in the outline or ornamentation that its peculiarity exists, for there have been several urns discovered in this country exhibiting somewhat similar design and workmanship; but on being carefully cleaned it was found to have a piece of glass about an inch in diameter inserted into the bottom” The report goes on “ This is the first and only instance of glass being let into the clay by the Saxon potter which we have met with, and the discovery has created great interest amongst antiquarians”

The inclusion of a fragment of reused Roman glass into the base of the vessel led to it being referred to a “Window Urn”.

This very detailed woodcut of the vessel accompanied the report

The window urn was not the only item found in the grave by the workmen, another report goes on to say ,”shortly after this discovery the men found another skeleton, in a crumbling state; and near the lower jaw a number of pieces of metal, thin and of the size of a florin; a quantity of small beads, apparently of glass; and fragments a twisted wire”

The practice of placing personal items to accompany the body in the grave is not an unusual occurrence in the Pagan Saxon period however what is unusual is the inclusion of a complete, and at the time unique window urn.

Since this find in 1857 a few other windows urns have been discovered both here in England and in Germany, so though the Kempston window urn is no longer unique it still belongs to a group of odd and rare vessels. However, even though there are more known examples we are still none the wiser as to the function of this group of highly specialised pottery and glass vessels.

View from the side showing the fluting on the body of the vessel.

View of the base showing the fragment of Roman glass inserted into the base.

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