The Magnificent Treasures of Sutton Hoo, The Final Resting Place of Anglo-Saxon Royals
Sutton Hoo is an archaeological site located near the town of Woodbridge, in Suffolk, East Anglia, England. This site is best known for the Anglo-Saxon burial mounds that were discovered during the first half of the 20th century, including a magnificent ship burial, which is popularly believed to have belonged to an Anglo-Saxon king. This is due to the exquisite grave goods that were discovered in the ship’s burial chamber. These artifacts also allow us to gain some insights into early Anglo-Saxon England, at least with regards to its elites.
The 27-meter (88.58 ft.) ship is so well-known and valued for its archaeological significance today that it was recreated as a large steel sculpture in April 2019. BBC News writes “The National Trust said the ghostly representation was the "wow factor"” for the revamped Anglo-Saxon site. Mike Hopwood, visitor experience project manager, hopes the sculpture will help people get a better perspective on just how large and important Sutton Hoo is. He said, “When you stand next to the boat you realise what a significant achievement that was.”
The new sculpture at Sutton Hoo. (National Trust)
Once complete, the ship sculpture will include a slab in the middle, representing the burial chamber, and etchings on the slab showing where the Sutton Hoo treasures were found.
The Sutton Hoo Mound Discovery
Sutton Hoo is located on an escarpment overlooking the River Deben. This archaeological site is believed to have been used during the 6th and early 7th centuries AD. During the 16th century, would-be looters dug through the ‘center’ of a burial mound, hoping to find treasure. They found nothing, however, as part of this mound was dug away during the Middle Ages, causing the looters to miss the mound’s real center.
Mound 1: posts mark the ends of the ship. (Public Domain)
It was only in 1939 that this burial mound, with its treasure intact, was discovered by archaeologists. A year before this discovery, Basil Brown, a British archaeologist, was invited by Edith Pretty, the owner of the Sutton Hoo estate, to investigate and excavate several mounds that were on her property.
During this first season, Brown excavated the mound known today as Mound 2. This turned out to be an Anglo-Saxon ship burial, though it had already been looted in the past. Based on the position of the burial chamber to the ship, it has been established that the former was built first and the latter placed above it.
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Photo of the Mound 2. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
In the following year, Brown returned to Sutton Hoo, and commenced his excavation of Mound 1. As he discovered lumps of rusty iron, it was evident that this was another ship burial. As Brown realized that traditional excavation methods, i.e. digging trenches along the sides or through the middle of the mound, would destroy the ‘ship’, he decided to excavate from within the burial structure. When Brown was excavating Mound 1, the original wood of the ship had already completely decomposed. Its form, however, was perfectly preserved, as may be seen by the riveted outline of the ship that was impressed in the sand.
Model of the ship's structure as it might have appeared, with chamber area outlined. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
A Famous Anglo-Saxon Ship Burial
The burial ship that Brown discovered was 27 meters (88.58 ft.) in length, and it was probably hauled up to the burial site from the river. Unlike the ship burial in Mound 2, the burial chamber of this grave was found to be within the ship itself.
It has been assumed that at the center of the chamber was the body of the deceased. As the soil was extremely acidic, however, nothing has survived. Alternatively, it has been suggested that this burial served as a cenotaph, a monument commemorating someone whose body is buried elsewhere.
The recreated burial-ship at Sutton Hoo. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
The Sutton Hoo Helmet and Other Grave Goods
It was the grave goods within the burial chamber that drew the most attention. Items that were found included weapons and armor, including the famous Sutton Hoo helmet, objects made of precious metals, as well as equipment used during feasts, such as drinking horns and cauldrons. Some scholars say this burial is the richest ever found in northern Europe. Much of these artifacts can today be found in the British Museum in London.
Finds from Mound 17. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
These grave goods have also allowed archaeologists to gain a better understanding of the Anglo-Saxon elite who lived during the 6th and early 7th centuries AD. For example, the set of silver bowls, which are of Byzantine origin, shows that the Anglo-Saxons were in contact with that part of the world.
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The helmet, one of the most important finds from Sutton Hoo. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
While the ship burial of Mound 1 is undoubtedly the main attraction of Sutton Hoo, several other interesting discoveries have also been made there. For instance, there is a burial of a horse and its rider, and also burials that seem to indicate human sacrifice.
More recently, it was reported that a lost Anglo-Saxon ‘palace’ has been discovered in Rendlesham, about 6 km (3.73 miles) from Sutton Hoo. It has been speculated that Sutton Hoo and Rendlesham are intimately linked, the former being the burial place of the king who ruled in the latter.
The Great Buckle from Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, now on permanent display at the British Museum (public domain)
By Wu Mingren
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Available at: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo
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Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-suffolk-37412519
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Available at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/visiting/galleries/europe/room_41_europe_ad_300-1100.aspx
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Available at: http://www.world-archaeology.com/great-discoveries/sutton-hoo.htm