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Buried in time: the Winchester Hanging Bowl

The Winchester hanging bowl

The Winchester hanging bowl

Oliver’s Battery, an enclosure on the south west side of Winchester, or ‘Oliver Cromwell’s Battery’, as it sometimes appears, was thought in local folk-lore to date from the English Civil War.  In 1930 W J Andrew, acting on behalf of the Hampshire Field Club, determined to put this to the test.  A Mr Talbot had recently leased the site and its surrounds from the County Council, and it was from him that Andrew obtained permission to dig.   In late August he examined a tumulus just to the north and sank trenches at the southwest and northeast corners of the enclosure.  The barrow produced an ‘extraordinary confusion’ of bones and other finds, including buckles and clay pipes and the southwest corner was unrewarding, but in the northeast corner he hit the jackpot.

The scramasax and spearhead.

The scramasax and spearhead.

The trench had been moved a couple of feet during laying out and this minor adjustment brought to light the 6th century burial of a young male, accompanied by a beautifully decorated hanging bowl (placed upside down on his chest), an iron hunting knife or scramasax, and a short spear.  News of the discovery was soon filling the pages of the Hampshire Chronicle, and it was now that a ‘difference of opinion’ between Hampshire County Council and Mr Talbot arose.  Who could give permission to dig?  Who owned the artefacts that had been found? Counsel was instructed and advice taken as both sides dug in their heels.  Sir William Portal, Chairman of the Council ‘specially [hoped] that any legal action taken with regard to Oliver’s Battery will be of quite a friendly disposition’.

Detail of enamelled roundel

Detail of enamelled escutcheon

September appears to have been a tense month, but by mid-October Mr Barber, Secretary to the County Council, was in possession of the bowl. It was placed on exhibition at the Castle (the Council Offices) with a Police Constable in attendance, but the arrangements were not ideal for all, as a letter to the Southern Daily Echo, dated 2.12.1930, clearly shows.

Sir, I was informed that a Saxon bowl, an ancient relic of a bygone age, was on view at the Castle, Winchester, so I took a party of friends to see it on Saturday afternoon, only to be informed that the bowl was put under lock and key at 12 o’ clock and could not be seen; further it can only be viewed on other days between the hours of 10 and 4 o’clock. Might I suggest that these are the hours of the leisured class and that some consideration should be given to those that work? DISAPPOINTED (Southampton).

 In spite of the difficulties more than 3000 people managed to see the bowl. By this time, agreement had been reached about the longer-term future of the find and a long period of loan to the British Museum was soon to begin. The bargain struck was that a replica would be made and there was debate about whether this should faithfully copy the bowl or ‘look new’. In the event the pristine look was chosen, although the argument that a worn specimen would be ‘unintelligible’ to the public, seemed to forget that a few thousand had already seen it and, one would hope, marvelled at it.

Despite all these complications, Andrew and his crew were back at the Battery in 1931 and the County Council gave them permission to dig. Work took place in mid-June but the results were disappointing – how could they possibly compare with what the British Museum had dubbed, in 1930, ‘the outstanding English event of the year’.

Excavations at Oliver's Battery 1930. W J Andrew et al - six men in a trench!

Excavations at Oliver’s Battery 1930. W J Andrew et al – six men in a trench!

An interesting postscript to the dig was provided by Christopher Hawkes in 1953, when trying to answer the City Museum’s query about the date of the barrow and Battery. ‘…it was a real old Victorian dig’ he wrote, ‘done by old Mr Andrew and old Mr McEwen with their gardeners and Williams-Freeman, Karslake and Warren (to say nothing of Crawford)’. Clearly Hawkes was impressed by the venerable nature of the team, if not the quality of the interpretation.

The Winchester Hanging Bowl is now displayed in the City Museum  while the ‘young male’, described by some authorities as a ‘sentinel burial’ still guards this side of the city – the excavators left him in place!

Further reading

Hants Field Club Newsletters 47, p 2-4; 48, p 5-7.

Hants Field Club Proceedings Vol 12, p 5-19

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.

 

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