Anglo-Saxon, mid 9th
From North Elmham, Norfolk
The only known censer of Anglo-Saxon origin
This censer was used for burning sweet-smelling incense during church services. The flat-based bowl was made of copper alloy and was used without a lid, unlike later medieval censers. It would have been swung from suspension chains which were originally fixed to three upward-turning animal heads riveted to the rim. The rim is decorated with a series of arches on stepped bases, and the bowl is further decorated with double and treble incised lines.
This is the only known censer of Anglo-Saxon origin. It was found at North Elmham in 1786. According to a parchment label kept with it, the discovery was made 'at a place called Tower Ditches on ye west side next the church'. This can be identified as the site of the Anglo-Saxon church, of which only the ruins now survive, but known to have been in existence between AD 803 and 840. For many years the censer was thought to have been a later medieval piece, and it was only dated accurately during the 1980s.
The censer is linked to other Anglo-Saxon metalwork and sculpture of the mid-ninth century by its stylistic features. These include the elegant arcading and the animal heads, with their prominent eyes, rounded ears and comma-shaped manes. It is possible that it was lost or discarded during the Viking raids on East Anglia during the 840s and later in the 9th century.
L. Webster and J. Backhouse, The making of England: Anglo-S, exh. cat. (London, The British Museum Press, 1991)