Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon times

19 March 2024

Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon times, by Tim Rousham

Food and drink are a key part of every culture throughout history, each with its own unique rituals and symbolism attached to the essential need to nourish and sustain a people.

The Anglo-Saxons are no exception to this rule, with feasting and communal meals central to their way of life. One such feast became the holiday we know as Easter, when pre-conversion Anglo-Saxons would celebrate the renewal of life and the now little-known Goddess “Eostre”. April was in fact known in the Anglo-Saxon calendar as “Eostermonath” (Easter Month).

We are lucky at Ipswich Museum to have various insights into our ancestors’ culinary culture in the form of objects that each tell us something about food and drink during the time of the Anglo-Saxons.

Most Anglo-Saxon cooking would be done on an open fire in the middle of their wooden houses. Smoke from the fire may have escaped through small windows in the gables of the house, whilst also permeating the thatched roofs, dissuading any animals from infesting the thatch. Food would be cooked directly over the fire, or in a cauldron suspended above it.

Cauldrons or hanging bowls were often suspended from the ceiling by twisted iron chains. Following a loan of the original, Ipswich Museum commissioned a replica of the cauldron chain found at Barrow Hill in Butley, which was dated to around the 800s AD.

Ipswich Museum’s replica of the Butley cauldron chain

Higher-status hanging bowls would often have decorative mounts for the hanging chain. This piece from the newly acquired Rendlesham collection is likely to be an example of such a mount. The fact that such elaborate decoration was applied to what is essentially a cooking pot, shows how the Anglo-Saxons liked to incorporate beautiful craftsmanship into even the most functional items. This would also display the owner’s wealth and status, as the hanging bowl would be central to the layout of the house or hall.

Another example of beautiful decoration applied to a functional item is one of our objects from Sutton Hoo Mound 2, excavated by Basil Brown in 1938 prior to the discovery of the famous ship burial in Mound 1 the following year. Although Mound 2 was sadly robbed many years before, enough remained to show that this was the grave of a very wealthy, important person. This golden silver-gilt triangle is an exact match to those found in Mound 1, which were part of incredibly ornate collars for a pair of drinking vessels made from the large horns of an aurochs, or a type of wild cattle. These drinking horns could hold around two litres of liquid each and were likely to have been used in some symbolic way at Anglo-Saxon feasts (which interestingly the Anglo-Saxons referred to as a “symbel”).

Mound 2 triangular mount
Replica of the Mound 1 drinking horns belonging to Wulfheodenas re-enactment group

Almost as luxurious as the Sutton Hoo drinking horns are the glass cups imported from the continent for use by the rich and powerful. Both this amber-coloured cup and this blue palm cup were found by the archaeologist Nina Frances Layard in 1907, when she correctly identified the Hadleigh Road area of Ipswich as an Anglo-Saxon cemetery. Anglo-Saxons would have used these to enjoy various forms of beer, wine and mead.

Amber glass drinking vessel from Hadleigh Road. Blue palm cup from Hadleigh Road.

An even more typical material for vessels of all kinds was clay. “Ipswich Ware” pottery was manufactured in Ipswich and for a while was the best pottery being made in this country. Previously, pottery was made without a wheel and fired on open fires, whereas Ipswich Ware used a slow wheel and was fired in a dedicated kiln. Amongst other things, these would have been used for both consuming and storing food and drink.

Ipswich Ware pottery
Replica of an Ipswich Ware kiln at Hands on Heritage, Suffolk

When it comes to food, various pieces of research have been done using food remains from Ipswich. Animal bones show that cattle, sheep and goats, pigs and domestic chickens were all consumed by the Anglo-Saxons living in the town. Grain is usually only identified by small amounts found here and there, however in Ipswich we are incredibly lucky as a town and a museum to have entire loaves of bread that survived. These loaves were found in a cellar during the Buttermarket excavations. The fact that they were burned (or “carbonised”) means that not only were they not eaten, but the carbonisation helped them to survive intact for around 1,200 years. Analysis of the loaves done in 1990 shows that the bread was a mixture of rye, emmer wheat and bread/club wheat. Perhaps the closest bread in a supermarket today would be a rye sourdough boule.

Ipswich Museum is very lucky to have these physical links to the food and drink of the Anglo-Saxons. They all help to form a larger picture of how these people lived and, indeed, how they died. Many Anglo-Saxon princely burials chambers (including Sutton Hoo Mound 1) were organised into distinct areas, including a kitchen/feasting area. This in itself shows the importance that was placed on these activities in not only life, but the afterlife too.

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