The Life of the Holy Trinity Siegburg Bowl
Found near the Mariner or Alcock chapel of Hull Minster, the Holy Trinity Siegburg bowl is a beautiful treasure. As shards of pottery, it would be worth little and tell us nothing. But, it is wholly intact. It is a direct link to a world of medieval North Sea traders and merchants criss-crossing the waves, risking their lives for riches and splendour, in a world dominated by sail. A world familiar and alien, very close and so very far away.
Where is Siegburg?
Siegburg, on the River Sieg (a tributary of the Rhine) 12kms east of Bonn. Pottery was produced here in the Lendersberg, the Galgenberg and the Aulgasse, the potters’ suburb, on a vast scale. Siegburg was a major pottery centre from 13th to 17th century, declining due to the troubles of the Thirty Years War. Siegburg products were widely distributed around the North Sea, but were always less common in England than Langerwehe products.
Is it an item of common tableware, like Pyrex, to be used and thrown away, or did it have a more significant use? Let’s dive into that world, and imagine the life and journey of our Siegburg bowl.
We are trying to find out whether this bowl had a religious significance and experts in mediaeval ceramics from across the world are trying to help us with this. We know that no other complete bowl has been found in Hull or the East Riding but that sherds of pottery with similar pinched bases have been found locally.
Paula Gentil, curator of the Hull and East Riding Museum writes 'Approximately one third of the Siegburg vessels found in Hull are salt-glazed. Some examples have patches of bronze-coloured bloom. Two incomplete cups or beakers were found in a context dated c.1325-50, and a base of a small bowl in a late 14th century layer.'
Pot design and value
The design of the pot has been linked to archaealogical finds spanning 150 years. This means that the pot may have been made at any time in the period 1350-1500 AD. The painting dates from c1500 but the pot in the picture could have been old at the time of painting. We just don't know. Part of historians role is to piece together information and try to establish a provenance (or a proven story) through the evidence presented.
According to Dr Louise Hampson of the Centre for the Study Christianity and Culture at the University of York says 'Bowls of this kind were very made from very fine quality stoneware, so although not the highest quality pottery and of course unglazed, it is nevertheless a fine, high status piece that would originally have been quite expensive. It would have come from Germany originally and imported via the Netherlands.'
'Bowls like this one were made on a treadle wheel by hand. You can see the finger marks on the base where the potter cut the bowl from the wheel and then pinched the edges to make a fine rim.'
On a wheel in Siegburg, a town in the Cologne lowlands next the Rhine our bowl was born. Shaped by the hands of a potter, the fine grey Rhenish clay was formed into long coils and spun, gradually, slowly, gently coaxing the bowl into being, one of many made that day. Gingerly, carefully he pressed his thumbs into the bottom of the base, drawing the plastic clay into an irregular base; the clay held onto his thumb and fore-finger as he shifted his hand, a subtle signature left, a maker’s mark.
Pot finished, he placed into the kiln. The kiln rose to inhuman temperatures, hardening, baking the clay, into a useable bowl. Clutching a handful of salt, the potter through it into the 900 degree furnace; the hurled salt stuck to the hardening fabric of the pot, melted, flowed over the surface, colouring the concrete-grey ceramic salmon and terracotta.
Once cool, the now polychrome pot was removed from the kiln, and left to cool. Soon it would be sold on- the Rhineland always looked north-west, to the polder, river and marsh of the nether-lands of Burgundy, where the Rhine fractured into many braided courses and the bluster of the North Sea was never far away. Rhenish stoneware was popular beyond the its homeland, and to Britain it would go.
We can imagine what the life of our bowl might have been.........
Nestled amongst wicker and wood, the Siegburg bowl remained steady amongst the tumult of the North Sea. It was to be traded in the port of Hull, a powerful trading town of brick and stone amidst the marshes, chalk cliffs and hills of the Humber. The bowl had passed through several hands so far- from potter to a merchant in the Dutch and German lowlands, then to a passing dutchman plying his trade along the rivers and seas of western Europe. And he was going to Hull in his boat, hull laden with goods from Burgundian wine to Baltic timber; there, he would sell his goods for a profit, a profit he re-invest in his own business, such was his prudence.
The merchant descended to the hull of his ship, felt for his wares by candlelight, and grasped the bowl. Turning it over in his hands, he fingered the ridges and valleys of the fabric, registering the grains, the smoothness of the burnt-earth dash of salt glaze, deemed it usable. It was to become his bowl for the evening. Moving to his cabin, he gestured and grappled in the dim-candlelight for his jug of honey-wine as the heave-ho of the waves rocked the ship and the cabin creaked in response. With measure he poured his fill of wine into the bowl and took it to his lips, tasting sweetness and earthen tang, a reminder of his vessel’s grounded origins. He sat back, closed his eyes, allowed a faint, whisper-thin smile to crack across his face. Life was good while there was a profit to be made. And the wine wasn’t bad either.
The shrill shrike cry of flying gulls o’erhead caught the priest’s attention. Young, green, somewhat innocent, born of some marshland village off in Holderness, he was unused to the mass of people, animal and building that made up Hull and the cacophony of sounds that went with it. It was… intense. Still, get used to it he must. Easing his way through the crowds on High Street, he made his way towards the cup-seller. He was to find some vessels for a chantry at the chapel. He was under orders: it should be simple and plain but durable and of fine quality. It was to be used in the new chapel, carefully and laden with the blood and body of Christ, a symbol of sanctification, creative of holiness, a new boundary for the church.
Nearly slipping on the black salted mud of the roadway, he eventually reached his destination. The cup-seller, a smallish man with hawkish eyes, gestured to him, ‘here are my wares’. Timid, he walked forward, eyeing up his stall. It was covered in bowls, cups, pots, wooden, ceramic, metal, local, foreign and alien, plain and sumptuous, coarse and fine, all vying for his attention. He tentatively reached down, handling each vessel with attention and care. Humberware passed through his hands, a deep grass-tinged grey green, a lovely glaze but boring, typical, expected; purple-black Cistercianware, a bit too fine; a huge, gild cup, studded and engraved, far too expensive. Then he saw the bowl.
The cupseller handed it to him. An import, he said, straight from the Europe. Finely made, practical, undamaged. He knew at once it was perfect for his task. He gestured to the seller, they bartered for a minute, then the bowl was his, and the church’s. Clutching it tight, he walked back to Holy Trinity.
In the quiet of early evening, the chantry was quiet. Candlelight mixed with the greyish gold hue from outside, flooding the windows. The young priest recited the mass. He was only half-listening; he was waiting for his crucial role, his part to play. On a table in front of him sat the bowl he had bought earlier and a jug of wine and a hunk of bread.
He drew the bread, blessed it, broke it, passed it amongst those gatherered. The young priest savoured the morsel. He picked up the wine, and poured it into the bowl. It was passed, priest to priest. He drunk from it first; the wine was sweet but the alcohol bitter, a medley of tastes on the tongue. His lips felt the fine fabric of the bowl, his fingertips perched in the potter’s grooves, following in his wake. The priest of Hessle drank from it last; this was his church, after all.
Prayers said, mass concluded, the young priest received the bowl once again, filled it half-way with excess wine. The priests watched as he lowered the bowl into a space in the floor in the corner of the chapel. A colleague met his action with the bread. Together, the bread and the wine, they were buried with a quick turn of earth and soil; crumbs of brown and black pulled the bowl into the earth, mixed with the wine, islands in the ruddy lake. A turn more, it was buried, never to be seen again. A floor board was fixed above it. The Alcock chantry was complete before God at last. The young priest sighed and smiled as he vacated the chantry; a job well done.
For 500 years the bowl remained in place. The bread decayed, became dust, the wine soaked away into the soil, but the bowl remained in the ground. Above, the world changed, flowed, unfolded, war and peace passed, people lived and died, prayed and sang and laughed and cried, all the while the bowl remained undisturbed.
But in 2019, an archaeologist, digging in the mud on grey Hull day, spotted the bowl hidden in the chapel ground, and lifted it, gently, exposing the light-fine grey grained ware to the light again. His hands traced the shape of the bowl, exploring it, cleaning it of excess. Was it a lid? Where was the rest of the it? Back in the laboratory a researcher took a closer look. She recognised the shapes of squat, pinched base, the turning and finishing marks and searched for clues to its origin. Studying medieval artworks led to her revelation, an intact Siegburg bowl.
Some years later, the bowl lives in the chapel again, reminding us of our past. Children and families take turns to pass it round and examine it. A man holds the bowl aloft in his hands, fingers passing over every groove and grain, smile on his face, as he explained to the child sat next to him about what this was, where it was found, why it was important. He gestured to a painting in front of him, of 1495, depicting a bowl just as this. ‘Want to touch it?’.
Shyly but eagerly the child reached out with both hands, taking the bowl. His large brown eyes cast a glance at the object, and his hands ran over the texture and pattern of the bowl, as several before hand done, 500 years ago. Noticing the crimping at the base, he placed his fingers, one by one in the valleys. A shiver ran down his spine. He knew not why. Perhaps the object held a trace of a memory, of time and experience long since lost? From the loops and lines, he knew that hands long before his own had graced and shaped its body. His hands were just the latest. And he knew they would not be the last. He handed the bowl back to the tall man, and grinned.
Sources: ‘Excavations in High Street and Blackfriargate’, ERAS Vol 8 1987, Peter Armstrong and Brian Ayers