The Medieval Review 10.03.23

Evison, Vera I. and Sonja Marzinzik. Catalogue of Anglo-Saxon Glass in the British Museum. London: British Museum Press, 2008. Pp. iv, 142. . $70.00 ISBN 978-0-86159-167-1.

Reviewed by:

Greg Waite
University of Otago

Vera Evison's contact with the British Museum's collection of Anglo-Saxon glass began in 1947 when she helped to unpack it from war-time storage, and she has regularly published studies of Anglo- Saxon glass since the 1950s, including major typological studies of cone beakers (1972), glass drinking horns (1975), and claw beakers (1982), as well as a substantial survey of all types, "Glass Vessels in England AD 4001100" (2000). [1] Furthermore, this area of specialism has been greatly informed by her experience as a field archaeologist directing the excavation of many significant Anglo-Saxon burial sites, including Buckland (Dover), Alton (Hampshire), and Great Chesterford (Essex), along with her studies of settlement patterns in Southern England and their Continental relations. [2] It is gratifying, therefore, to see the appearance of this major work, informed by a life-time's study of glass, assisted to completion with the editing of Sonja Marzinzik.

The centrepiece of the volume is the detailed descriptive catalogue itself, covering 229 items. Of these 165 are bowls, bottles (a few), or drinking vessels; the remaining items include some fragments of unidentifiable vessels, rim fragments used as beads, large disc beads, pendants, imitation jewels and a few window-glass fragments. Most items date from the period 400-700, and their preservation results from deposition in pagan graves or those of the earliest period of Christianity. The catalogue excludes normal- sized glass beads, and the small glass insets used in cloisonn jewellery and the like. Most items are illustrated with line drawings including cross-sectional detail, and of these 47 are further presented in monochrome or colour photographs. The descriptions are admirably concise yet detailed, and are accompanied by estimates of age and origin, information on provenance (where OS references are helpfully included), identifications of donor or seller, and bibliography.

Evison's introductory synthetic discussion draws not only upon the catalogue items, but also her Appendix 4, an inventory of the 440 surviving glass vessels from Anglo-Saxon England 400700. This is a revised and updated version of her survey published in 2000, which provides a new system of periodization and morphological classification to replace that set out in D.B. Harden's important study, "Glass Vessels in Britain, A.D. 4001000." [3] Harden subdivided claw beakers (to take one category of vessel as an example) into five types somewhat curiously and subjectively termed "experimental", "fine", "degenerate", "late" and "bag-shaped". Evison divides them into four principal types, further divided into thirteen sub-types (1, 2A, 2B etc.). Types 1-3 belong to Period I (400550) and Type 4 to Period II (550700). With the appearance of this catalogue, it is safe to say that Evison's system is confirmed as the standard for future typological description. Discussion of the types and forms of glass vessel is preceded by sections on techniques of manufacture, decoration and colouring, and chronology. Furthermore, Evison looks closely at provenance and the implications for the location of production centres, as revealed in the distribution maps appended. Faversham presents a particularly interesting case, since it appears to have been a significant centre of production. Harden had raised doubts about some of the items claimed to originate here by nineteenth-century antiquarian dealers, who viewed a Faversham provenance as desirable to collectors. Evison concludes that the finds from this location "show a credible mixture of home-produced vessels as well as the range of imported goods normally found elsewhere in Kent, and no definite evidence of the placebo attributions feared by Harden" (6).

The typological analysis and periodization outlined in the Introduction is complemented by Freestone, Hughes and Stapeleton's study, "The Composition and Production of Anglo-Saxon Glass", which is included in the book. Chemical analyses of glass samples indicate changes in composition that coincide broadly with the typological distinctions between Periods I to III, if not IV, from which very little material survives. The glass of Anglo-Saxon England is closely related to Merovingian and Carolingian glass found on the Continent, both in forms and composition. It would appear that in Period I English glass-workers, like their Continental counterparts, received supplies of raw natron glass and cullet from the same East Mediterranean and Near Eastern sources that had supplied the late-Roman glass industry. In period II, adulteration with potassic wood ash material suggests that glass- workers were attempting to extend their stocks by the addition of inferior locally manufactured product, and chemical analysis also indicates that in the 7th to 9th centuries the traditional suppliers were themselves recycling glass, possibly recovered from Roman cities in Italy and North Africa, to boost the supply of raw material.

The chemical analysis indicates that in the Anglo-Saxon period, glass-workers both in England and on the Continent were importing raw glass rather than mixing imported or local alkali with local sand to make their own, as was generally the practice in the later medieval period, and as has previously been thought to apply in much of the first millennium. Discriminations between workshops on the basis of chemical footprints are therefore not possible. Nevertheless refinements in typology and attention to patterns of distribution allow for fairly confident attribution of certain vessels or classes of vessel either to England or the Continent, and a picture emerges of trade in both directions, and of more manufacturing activity within England than was previously thought to exist. In the case of bell beakers, importation seems the norm. Evison is of the view that "all of the bell beakers in the collection are of continental types and were no doubt imported" (13). Nevertheless in the catalogue only items 50, 55 and 56 are specifically tagged as imports, whereas items 51-54 (where 53 and 54 are a pair) are not specified as either English or Frankish. For claw beakers a different picture emerges: 24 of 30 in the collection are identified as English, only one is assigned to the Rhineland, and five are unassigned. Evison argues that the distribution of the ten Type-4 claw beakers suggests a possible centre of production at Faversham (although four of them come from the somewhat distant Taplow burial), as does the distribution of some other types like the globular beaker and bag beaker. The latter type (like the pouch beaker) is a distinctively English one, and Evison argues that the five scattered examples from continental burials (in Gotland, Sweden, Holland, Belgium and Germany) were obtained from England.

The production of glass vessels in Anglo-Saxon England and their employment as markers of status in life and after death is clear enough in its main outlines, but much remains to be discovered about these items and their function. Ongoing chemical analysis of British and continental glass promises new insights into production and supply, and new discoveries are highly significant when the corpus is so small numerically in comparison to some other classes of artefact. The Prittlewell princely grave, for example, found in 2004 and containing two sets of paired glass vessels within its complex assemblage, gives new insights into the Kentish workshop that produced these and similar vessels around 600, but also raises questions about the significance of such vessels in a high status burial, not least why the larger and more comprehensive Sutton Hoo mound 1 deposition contained no glass vessels at all. Questions about the disposition of vessels in graves remain also. What is the significance of the fact that all of the six glass vessels in various graves at Mill Hill, Deal, are placed at the head, whereas all other vessels are placed at the feet?

This book is an essential reference for all scholars of Anglo-Saxon culture, and will doubtless serve as a primary reference in glass studies for some considerable time to come. In view of the attractive production, including numerous figures and plates, both monochrome and colour, it represents very good value for money, but for those unable to afford a copy, the whole volume is available as an on-line publication accessible gratis through the British Museum website. The author, editor, contributors and the British Museum are to be commended for this generosity.


1. "Glass Cone Beakers of the 'Kempston' Type" Journal of Glass Studies 14 (1972) 4866; "Germanic Glass Drinking Horns" Journal of Glass Studies 17 (1975) 7487; "Anglo-Saxon Glass Claw Beakers" Archaeologia 102 (1982) 4376; J. Price, ed., Glass in Britain and Ireland AD 3501100 (London: British Museum, 2000), 47104.

2. Vera I. Evison, Dover: The Buckland Anglo-Saxon Cemetery (London: Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, 1987); An Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Alton, Hampshire (Winchester: Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society, 1988); Vera I. Evison and F. K. Annable, An Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Great Chesterford, Essex (York: Council for British Archaeology, 1994). Vera I Evison, The Fifth-Century Invasions South of the Thames (London: Athlone P, 1965); "Distribution Maps and England in the First Two Phases" in V.I. Evison, ed., Angles, Saxons and Jutes (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1981), 12667.

3. In Dark-Age Britain (London: Methuen, 1956), 13267.