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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Sutton Hoo: the mystery of a ship burial

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Sutton Hoo, ship burial excavation, 1939

Recently Netflix released an archaeological drama titled “The Dig”, that tells the history behind the excavation of Sutton Hoo, considered the greatest treasure ever discovered in the UK.

Sutton Hoo is the archaeological area close to the river Deben, near Woodbridge, in Suffolk, England.

The area was owned by Edith May Pretty, daughter of wealthy industrialists of the gas industry, who after her marriage with Frank Pretty, bought the 213 hectare (526 acre) Sutton Hoo estate, including Sutton Hoo House.

Following Frank Pretty's death in 1934, Edith Pretty developed an interest in excavating the eighteen burial mounds that lay to the north-east of Sutton Hoo House (Tranmer House).

Edith Pretty become acquainted with archaeological digs early in her life through her travels in Egypt and Greece. In addition, her friend Florence Sayce's Egyptologist uncle, Archibald Sayce and her father excavated a Cistercian abbey adjoining their home at Vale Royal, a country house near Whitegate, Cheshire.

Edith discussed the possibility of an excavation with Vincent B. Redstone, a member of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, and Guy Maynard the curator of the Ipswich Corporation Museum.

After their advices, she engaged the self-taught Suffolk archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate the mounds in two digs in 1938 and 1939. Basil Brown was also an astronomer and he studied geography and geology, Latin, ancient Greek, French, German and Spanish.

He uncovered in Suffolk medieval buildings, identified Roman settlements, and traced ancient roads and he was working for the Ipswich Museum on a contractual basis.

Brown, in the first excavation at Sutton Hoo with the help of Pretty's labourers, excavated three mounds, discovering that they were burial sites showing signs of robbery during the medieval period.

In this first excavation of Mounds 2,3 and 4, Brown found some Early Saxon pottery and some ship's rivets of a half boat really similar to the one of the Snape excavation, first place to be found in England with the remains of a complete Anglo-Saxon ship burial.

Sutton Hoo, Edith Pretty observing the excavation, 1939

Sutton Hoo, Basil Brown at work in the excavation, 1939

On 8 May 1939 for the second excavation Brown started to excavate Mound 1, the largest mound, assisted on Pretty's instructions by gardener John Jacobs and gamekeeper William Spooner.

As in the first excavation, Brown used the compass bearing uncovered in the end mound to start a narrow pilot trench outside the mound. On 11 May he discovered iron rivets that were similar but bigger than those found in the 2nd mound, suggesting an even larger sailing vessel than the boat found earlier. Brown cycled to Ipswich to report the find to Maynard, who advised him to proceed with care in uncovering the impression of the ship and its rivets. Brown uncovered the impression left in the sandy soil by a 27-metre-long ship from the 7th century AD, the largest Anglo-Saxon ship burial ever discovered, but evidence of robbers who had stopped before they had reached the level of a burial deposit. Based on knowledge of ship burials in Norway, Brown and Maynard surmised that a roof had covered the burial chamber. Realizing the potential grandeur of the find, Maynard recommended to Pretty that they involve the British Museum's Department of British Antiquities. Pretty demurred at the possible indefinite suspension of excavation that might result, but neither Brown nor Maynard were willing to continue.

Charles Phillips of Cambridge University took charge of the excavations on 11 July, he convened a team that included W. F. Grimes, O. G. S. Crawford, Stuart and Peggy Piggot. On 21 July Peggy Piggot discovered the first signs of what later turned out to be 263 items, the richest intact early medieval grave in Europe with a burial chamber full of dazzling riches.

Possible reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo ship burial in Mound 1, British Museum London, (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

As the excavation was during the Second World War to avoid threats or damages to the items, they were transported to London for safekeeping and concealed underground at Aldwych tube station.

On 14 August, Brown testified at a treasure trove inquest which decided that the finds belonged to Edith Pretty.

Pretty decided to bequeath the treasure to the British Museum as a gift to the nation, so that the meaning and excitement of her discovery could be shared by everyone. Now they are displayed in the British Museum in Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300-1100, gallery (Room 41).

Sutton Hoo sceptre, British Museum London

The treasure in the chamber was containing a collection of jewellery and other rich grave goods, including silver bowls, drinking vessels, clothing and weaponry. One unusual item was a large 'sceptre' in the form of a whetstone that showed no sign of previous use as a tool: it has been suggested that this was a symbol of the office of Bretwalda, title given to some of the rulers of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Another curiosity is that the burial contains elements of both Christian and pagan symbolism.

The magnificence of the objects, both the personal possessions and those items designed to denote the authority of the dead individual, point to the death of a person connected with the royal court.

Ship burials were rare in Anglo-Saxon England, probably reserved for the most important people in society, so it's likely that there was a huge funeral ceremony. The effort and manpower to position and bury the ship was remarkable: it would have involved dragging the ship uphill from the River Deben, digging a large trench, cutting trees to craft the chamber, dressing it with finery and raising the hight mound to be seen from the river.

Unfortunately, we'll never know the true identity of the grave's inhabitant. When it was unearthed in 1939, any bodily remains were claimed by the acidic local soil to leave only a human-shaped gap among the treasures within. There is a controversy surrounding the identity of the person for whom the mound was built.

He would have to be male and a king, a Christian buried by pagan successors sometime in the early seventh century.

Following the withdrawal of the Romans from southern Britain after 410, Germanic tribes such as the Angles and Saxons began to settle in the south-eastern part of the island. East Anglia is regarded by many scholars as a region in which this settlement was particularly early and dense; the area's name derives from that of the Angles. During this period, southern Britain became divided up into a number of small independent kingdoms.

To date the burial archaeologists used the thirty- seven Merovingian coins found in the chamber that favouring a date for their collection somewhere in the 620s. The dating evidence of coins has also been used to support the identification of Rædwald, King of East Anglia, as the person for whom the mound was built. Details about dwald's reign are scarce, primarily because the Viking invasions of the 9th century destroyed the monasteries in East Anglia where many documents would have been kept.

Bruce-Mitford has suggested that the inclusion of bowls and spoons amongst the treasures fits with Bede's account of Rædwald's conversion: the spoons may have been a present for a convert from paganism and the bowls had Christian significance.

For other scholars the person could be a Saxon King as Saeberht (or Saba, a shorter form of his name), name that contains the elements “sea' and 'bright' and would have immediate association with ships and the sea.

Saeberht's kingdom was closely linked to Kent by kinship, and there were further connections to Francia and the Merovingian royal family, through his maternal uncle's marriage to Bertha, a Merovingian Christian princess. Saeberht was baptized in 604 due to the intervention of his maternal uncle. It will explain the Christian items. Saeberht had three sons and this can explain some funeral gifts as the three sets of three spears (throwing spear, leaf-blade and angular-blade), three cauldrons, three buckets and three hanging-bowls.

Perhaps the ship in Mound 2 represents the grave of one of the three sons, Saeward ('Seaward'), who was killed only a few years after his father.

It is really difficult at the moment to identify the real king but probably in the future with more research in the burials of the area and Ipswich, something more could be discovered.

There are other interesting points related to the connections and exchanges between kingdoms and distant places.

The ship burial has prompted comparisons with the world of the Old English poem Beowulf.

The poem is partly set in Götaland in southern Sweden, which has archaeological parallels to some of the finds from Sutton Hoo as the ship burial, the helmet, the sword, the shield and drinking-horns.

Certain artefacts types may be considered as trade goods, whose distributions indicate geographical extent of their economical exchange.

There are also connections with the continent: deluxe hanging bowls from Egypt, silverware from distant Byzantium, luxurious textiles, gold dress accessories set with Sri Lankan garnets. All of them probably are commercial exchange along the European rivers via the Merovingian courts.

The Sutton Hoo Helmet, British Museum London, (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

The Sutton Hoo Helmet, replica, National Trust

In the treasure, one of the finest pieces is the The Sutton Hoo Helmet. The iconic Sutton Hoo helmet was wrapped in cloth and laid near the left side of the dead person's head. It's a piece of truly breathtaking artistry, functional and beautiful, with a vaulted cap and deep cheek-pieces.The helmet, now built into a reconstruction, is covered with panels of tinned copper alloy sheeting, stamped with various patterns including animal interlace, and warrior motifs depicted in two panels. The warrior motifs are known as the "Dancing Warrior" and "Fallen Warrior". A crest runs over the cap of the helmet and leads down the face in a straight line, forming the nose, which is gilt copper alloy. The mask has also moustache and eyebrows. Garnets line the eyebrows, but only one is backed with gold foil reflectors, perhaps a reference to the one-eyed god, Woden (Odin), as he sacrificed his right eye to gain cosmic knowledge. The helmet's mouth, nose and eyebrows form the image of a flying beast.

Sutton Hoo wooden shield, British Museum, London, (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

An enormous wooden shield was placed by the chamber's west wall (the head end of the burial). This was very ornate, decorated with a ring of animal heads around the rim and images of a bird-of-prey and dragon. This shield with a metal rim and gilded copper alloy, gold and garnet fittings, is the most elaborate to survive from Anglo-Saxon England. The original board, made from lime wood covered in animal hide, perished and has been replaced with a modern replica.

Another breathtaking piece is the The purse lid. It would have been attached to a leather pouch which originally hung from a waist-belt. The Frankish gold coins were found inside. Only the gold frame and catch survive, the leather pouch had decayed.

Sutton Hoo The purse lid, British Museum London, (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

In the decoration in the bottom there are two gold open-work mounts, depicting a frontally-arranged moustached man between two rampant beasts, perhaps wolves. Both the man and beasts are rendered with cloisonné garnet work, comprising large body cells with stamped gold foil underlays, plus millefiori cells at the man's lower torso and the beasts' foreleg joints. In the centre, there are two gold mounts in form of bird of prey with a large curved beak, attacking a duck. Rendered in cloisonné garnet work with a blue/black millefiori chequer design on the hip of the large bird, and a blue ring around its eye. On the top there are four geometric cloisonné patterns.

Sutton Hoo gold belt-buckle, British Museum London, (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

The beautiful gold belt-buckle is hollow with cast ornament. The upper surface is covered entirely with zoomorphic interlace, the design picked out in tiny punched circles and inlaid (except on the loop) in niello. Situated on either side of the boss at the tip of the buckle, two animals grip a smaller creature in their open jaws; on either side of the two, slightly smaller, upper bosses are two birds' heads with curved beaks. Between these is a circular plate which acts as a stop for the tongue of the buckle.

Sutton Hoo a gold shoulder-clasp, British Museum London, (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

A gold shoulder-clasp is inlaid with garnet cloisonné and glass. This clasp carries the opposite half of a hinge mechanism that links it to shoulder-clasp. The rectangular plate contains a central panel of fifteen cloisonné cells filled alternately with millefiori glass and garnets. These are interspersed with slightly larger plain garnet cells. The central panel is bordered on each side with designs of interlacing beasts, their bodies formed of inlaid garnets and their eyes of blue glass. The garnet cells are underlaid with stamped gold foil.

These objects were the products of a society that invested its modest surpluses in personal display, who fostered craftsmen and jewellers of a high standard, and in which the possession of a fine brooch or buckle was a valuable status symbol.

The Sutton Hoo grave is remarkable for the majesty of its contents and its monumental scale.

It also rewrote our understanding of a time that was previously misunderstood.

Post-Roman Britain was considered to have entered the 'Dark Ages', where civilisation in all aspects of life declined. The discovery of Sutton Hoo proved otherwise.

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