Glass and Antler Inkwells from Staunch Meadow, Brandon

photograph of antler inkwell

Seven internationally important Anglo-Saxon inkwells from the Middle Saxon settlement at Staunch Meadow, Brandon.

Six of the inkwells are made from colourful glass and the remaining inkwell was carved from an antler tine (tip).

Seven fragments of glass, belonging to six different inkwells were discovered during the excavations. These glass vessels were cylindrical in shape with a depression in the top surface, in the centre of the depression was a perforation less than 1cm in diameter. The depression was designed to collect any ink drops allowing them to run back into the well. It is estimated that these vessels stood 5-7cm in height.

The eight glass inkwell fragments.
The glass inkwell fragments

The Brandon vessels were particularly colourful: one vessel is made of pale green glass with blue streaks, another is made of green glass with blue streaks, one is a rich dark green and three were black – one of which had yellow glass trail decoration applied to the surface.

Given that the other fragments of glass inkwells found at Southampton and York matched the same colouring and decorative designs as some of the globular beakers from Brandon, it is thought that there was one English maker producing the glass for all of these sites. As there is no glass blowing evidence at Staunch Meadow, the glass inkwells may have been bought in by the Church – perhaps for the purpose of establishing a scriptorium.

The antler inkwell is a delightful object made by hollowing out the antler tine and shaping it to resemble a drinking horn. Antler is an unusual choice for this type of inkwell as they are normally made form horn or glass, as seen in Anglo-Saxon manuscript portraits.

Drawing of antler inkwell.
Illustration of antler inkwell.

The inkwell is delicately decorated with engraved chevrons at the hollowed end and would have also had a decorative mount and copper alloy cover. The most beautiful part of the decorations is the runic inscription carved upon it, which reads:

“Wohs wlfdurn deo[.]”

which translates to:

“I grew on a wild beast”.

The object speaks on its own behalf and in riddles, which may seem a strange concept now – but was a common way of inscribing objects during the Anglo-Saxon period. Someone at Staunch Meadow took great care making this object.

This type of inkwell is very rare in the UK with only three known examples from Southampton and one example from Lurk Lane in York – the few other known examples come from North East Europe and the Middle East. It is very fortuitous that our inkwell fragments have come from the tops of the wells; otherwise their function may have never been identified!

In addition to the inkwells, styli and inscribed ecclesiastical objects were common discoveries at Staunch Meadow indicating a sophisticated, high status, literate community dedicated to the monastic activity of manuscript production and ecclesial inscriptions.

Painting of St Matthew writing and holding a horn inkwell
St. Matthew’s Portrait from the Ebbo Gospels depicting a horn inkwell
(Image from: http://www.historyofpainters.com/ebbo_gospels.htm)
Painting of a mad writing and using a glass inkwell
Evangelist Portrait from the Maeseyck Gospels depicting a glass inkwell
(Image from: http://dailyweaving.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/st-aidan-remembering-celtic-saint.html)

Further Information From:
Tester A. , Anderson S. , Riddler I. & R. Carr, 2014. Staunch Meadow, Brandon, Suffolk: A High Status Middle Saxon Settlement on the Fen Edge. East Anglian Archaeology Report 151.

The ‘From the Vaults’ series is written by the County Council’s Archaeological Archives Officer

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