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Arial photograph of the excavations at Rendlesham in 2023, showing the archaeological remains, including the probable temple or cult house (left hand side) and boundary ditch (center). Source: © Suffolk County Council; photo by Jim Pullen

Vast Anglo-Saxon Pagan Temple Discovered in the Shadow of Sutton Hoo

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Last year, archaeologists and community groups in Suffolk, England, unearthed the remains of a 1,400-year-old structure. Now, excavations have determined that the large timber hall was a Pre-Christian cultic temple, associated with Sutton Hoo.

Post holes from the mysterious structure were found last year by researchers from the Rendlesham Revealed community archaeology project, which is an ongoing investigation of the Deben valley. The discovery was made in Rendlesham, near Sutton Hoo, the legendary site where two magnificent Anglo-Saxon cemeteries dating from the 6th to 7th centuries, in Suffolk, England.

Suffolk Councillor Melanie Vigo di Gallidoro, Deputy Cabinet Member for Protected Landscapes and Archaeology, told Suffolk News that “over 200 volunteers from the local community were involved this year, bringing the total number of volunteers to over 600 for the three-year fieldwork program.” The member groups included the Suffolk Family Carers, Suffolk Mind, and also primary school children from Rendlesham, Eyke and Wickham Market.

Volunteers excavating the foundations of the possible temple under the guidance of Professor Christopher Scull (right) (© Suffolk County Council)

Volunteers excavating the foundations of the possible temple under the guidance of Professor Christopher Scull (right) (© Suffolk County Council)

Measuring Up The Temple

Professor Christopher Scull, who led Suffolk County Council’s recent dig, said last year’s discovery of the “large timber hall” at Rendlesham, is “remarkable.” He added that previous excavations in this area identified an Anglo-Saxon settlement and royal hall, which were founded by the first Kings of East Anglia in the 6th century AD.

Measuring 10 meters [32.81 feet] long and 5 meters [16.4 feet] wide, the researchers determined that the structure is “unusually high and robustly built for its size” and that it was constructed for “a special purpose.”  Professor Scull said its dimensions are similar to buildings elsewhere in England, “that are seen as temples or cult houses.” Therefore, the site may have been used for “Pre-Christian worship by the early Kings of the East Angles,” concluded Scull.

A Chief Cultic Temple in the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy?

According to Scull, the religious structure is “a pre-Christian temple or cult house from the period of the Kingdom of East Anglia, when Norfolk and Suffolk was a small independent kingdom of the Angles.” The Kingdom of East Anglia, or, the Kingdom of the East Angles, was an independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom comprising the modern English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, and the eastern part of The Fens.

East Anglia was one of the seven traditional members of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy, seven petty kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England that flourished from the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain in the 5th century, until they were consolidated into the four kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, and Wessex, during the 8th century.

Analyzing Fragments from the Material Culture

The archaeologists uncovered traces of fine metalworking, including “a mold used for casting decorative horse harness.” This particular artifact has similarities with examples recovered from the nearby “princely” burial ground at Sutton Hoo. Thus, it is suspected that this temple site was also used by Anglo-Saxon royal lineages.

Fragment of a mold used for fine metalworking (left) with a similar pattern to the horse harness mount (right) both found at Rendlesham. (© Suffolk County Council)

Fragment of a mold used for fine metalworking (left) with a similar pattern to the horse harness mount (right) both found at Rendlesham. (© Suffolk County Council)

The Anglo-Saxons, who lived in England from the 5th to the 11th centuries, practiced pagan rituals influenced by their Germanic roots. These included sacrifices (blóts), feasting, and rune magic. Funerals were significant, marked by burials with grave goods and seasonal festivals and storytelling played central roles in their culture. However, the conversion to Christianity in the 7th to 8th centuries brought big changes, replacing pagan rituals with Christian ceremonies.

An Icon of Elite Power in Anglo-Saxon England?

The team of researchers dived into historical texts looking for records of the temple, and in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the site at Rendlesham is recognized as “an East Anglian center of royalty.” Furthermore, Bede said King Redwald, who is believed to be buried in the Sutton Hoo ship burial around AD 625, “maintained a temple in which there were altars to pre-Christian Gods alongside an altar to Christ”.

Prof. Scull said the excavation results at the temple, or cult house, “provide rare and remarkable evidence for the practice at a royal site of the pre-Christian beliefs that underpinned early English society.” Furthermore, he added that its scale speaks of the immense “power and wealth of the East Anglian kings, and the sophistication of the society they ruled”.

Top image: Arial photograph of the excavations at Rendlesham in 2023, showing the archaeological remains, including the probable temple or cult house (left hand side) and boundary ditch (center). Source: © Suffolk County Council; photo by Jim Pullen

By Ashley Cowie

 
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Ashley

Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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