A Burial Fit for a King: the Discovery of the Sutton Hoo Burial Ship

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sutton hoo helmet

Replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet, made of iron with decorative panels of tinned bronze to give a silvery appearance. Photo credit: Paris Franz

The Sutton Hoo estate in Suffolk was comprised of 400 acres of woodland and heath, set around an Edwardian manor house which overlooked the river Deben.

Today, it’s a quiet, gentle sort of place, full of water-meadows and bracken, history and age. The area has been inhabited since at least 2,000 BC, the inhabitants leaving their mark in the form of land clearances and occasional shards of pottery.

Sutton Hoo’s main claim to fame dates to the Anglo-Saxon period, when the newly established kingdom of East Anglia chose this place for a royal burial ground towards the end of the sixth century.

Sutton Hoo Excavations Start

Long intrigued by the ancient mounds which dotted the property, landowner Mrs. Edith Pretty approved an excavation of the site in 1938. While they didn’t find anything spectacular during the first season of excavation – a bronze disc, iron knives, the tip of a sword blade, evidence of burials that had been looted at some time in the past – they found enough to whet the appetite for another season.

It was on a warm, sunny day in May 1939 that a wiry figure surveyed a trench cut through Mound One. The trench was four foot wide, laid out from east to west, and the man was Basil Brown, self-taught archaeologist with an instinctive aptitude for sniffing out antiquities. He had investigated the monuments of East Anglia for many years, but he had never found anything on the scale of what came to light that summer.



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Ancient Burial Ship Found: It Started With a Rivet

It was the estate gardener, John Jacobs, who found the first ship rivet. Brown explored the area carefully and soon found five more. Deciding they represented the line of a vanished wooden hull, Brown chose to dig up and over the rivets, descending on them from above. This placed him inside the ship, and let him define the shape of the hull. And a very large hull it turned out to be. Once fully excavated, the ship’s hull measured 90 feet from prow to stern.

Once the scale of the find became clear, visiting experts advised that a more experienced team was needed, along with more specialised equipment. Charles Phillips of Cambridge University took over the excavation in July, and Brown remained as his assistant. The team included many who would go on to become major figures in the archaeological world, including O G S Crawford, founder of the periodical Antiquity and chief archaeologist at the Ordnance Survey, and W F Grimes, later Director of the Institute of Archaeology in London.

Sutton Hoo Treasures: Discovered After 1300 Years

Solid gold buckle, weighing 412g, from the Sutton Hoo burial ship. Photo credit: Paris Franz

Solid gold buckle, weighing 412g, from the Sutton Hoo burial ship. Photo credit: Paris Franz

It was the kind of dig archaeologists dream of; they made new finds every day.

In a little over two weeks, the team recovered 263 objects made of gold, garnet, silver, bronze, enamel, iron and wood, including a unique hollow buckle of solid gold weighing 412 grams and decorated with animal motifs.

The helmet, when restored, became the symbol of Sutton Hoo, an image straight out of the epic poem Beowulf.

The style of the finds suggested strong links with Sweden and a date in the early seventh century.

Burial Chamber Empty: Cenotaph or Funeral Ship?

There was some concern at first at the absence of a body in the burial chamber. Perhaps the ship wasn’t a burial so much as a cenotaph, they thought. But the more experienced archaeologists took note of the highly acidic nature of the sand, and were not surprised that the body had not survived.

As to who had been buried here, without an inscription, we cannot answer that question with complete certainty. However, general consensus points to King Raedwald, who “held sway over all the provinces south of the Humber,” according to the Venerable Bede. Raedwald died in 624/625, so the date coincides with the estimated age of the dig.

Exhibition of Sutton Hoo Treasures Delayed By War

The peculiarities of the ancient law of Treasure Trove, which held that only those treasures buried with the aim of being retrieved could be classed as treasure and deemed to belong to the Crown, saw the ship and its contents pass into the ownership of Mrs Pretty. After some deliberation, she donated the find to the British Museum.

The finds were sent to the British Museum on 31 July, while experts remained to survey the ghostly imprint of the ship. War broke out less than two months later, and deep ditches were dug around the burial mounds to inhibit the landing of enemy gliders. Sutton Hoo was subsequently requisitioned as an infantry training ground.

As for the finds, they spent the war in a disused arm of the London Underground, before being retrieved in 1945. The Sutton Hoo treasures had waited to see the light of day for 1,300 years; they could wait a few more.

Today, the National Trust manages the Sutton Hoo site, which is available for visits by the public. The finds are on display in the British Museum in London.

Resources

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. (1968). Translated by L. Sherley-Price. Penguin Books.

Bruce-Mitford, R. The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial: Reflections after Thirty Years. (1979). University of York Medieval Monographs Series.

Carver, M. Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings? (1998). British Museum Press.

National Trust. Sutton Hoo. (2013). Accessed 15 August 2013.

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© Copyright 2013 Paris Franz, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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