Though seemingly unremarkable, this jar, known more commonly as the Shaftesbury Bowl, represents a very special item in the Cathedral’s collection, with a fascinating story to tell. Believed to date from the 9th – 10th century AD, the Shaftesbury Bowl was discovered during excavations at Shaftesbury Abbey, most probably the excavations completed in 1902-1904 and led by the British ecclesiastical architect, Edward Doran Webb FSA (1864-1931).
It was Doran Webb who, the archaeologist D.B. Harden noted in his 1954 article* on the subject, fixed the broken pieces of glass together. He also appears to have been the originator of the hypothesis that the jar, uncovered from beneath a “heart-shaped white marble slab in front of the High Altar”, may once have contained the heart of King Cnut, who died at Shaftesbury in c.1035.
The hypothesis was evidently considered credible enough to persuade the Countess of Shaftesbury to give the item to Winchester Cathedral some time later – since Cnut’s body was interred at Winchester, it seemed appropriate to reunite body and heart. Yet the evidence for the item having been used in this way is uncertain. Glass vessels of this kind were used in burial practices, however, given that so few glass vessels from this period are known to have survived, the archaeological record we have available to us is limited. There is no particular reason why we should assume the vessel contained the heart of Cnut.
As Harden acknowledges, there remains some speculation as to the discovery of the vessel as well. In his excavation reports, Doran Webb mentioned neither the object nor the precise location of the white, heart-shaped slab beneath which the object was supposedly found. Harden concludes he has no reason to doubt the truth of the story. Yet a fresh reassessment of the context in which the object was found might yield helpful clues about the object itself. Likewise, further analysis of the item, particularly with the benefit of modern technology, could reveal new information, such as precise dating and identification of the substance inside the jar.
What we do know is that the vessel originated from Shaftesbury Abbey and that it is a rare, possibly unique, example from the Anglo-Saxon period. Its exact origin, connection with Cnut, and nature of its contents remain a mystery, at least for now.
*Harden, D.B. (1954) “A Glass Bowl of Dark Age Date and Some Medieval Grave-Finds from Shaftesbury Abbey” Antiquaries Journal, 34(3-4): p.p. 188-194.