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Close up of a longboat, similar to the Sutton Hoo ship. Source: Alex Stemmer / Adobe Stock.

Reconstruction Brings Sutton Hoo ‘Ghost’ Ship Back to Life

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Researchers in Britain are working to recreate a ship from over 1,300 years ago. They are reconstructing the famous ship that was discovered in the Sutton Hoo burial in England by using a 3-D model of the vessel. The experts are determined to once again sail a replica of the ship that last sailed during Anglo-Saxon times.

A team of archaeologists led by Basil Brown unearthed the Sutton Hoo ship near Woodbridge, Suffolk, in the east of England in 1939. The longboat was interred in an earthen mound that was a royal burial from Anglo-Saxon times. It was buried to carry the dead monarch to the afterlife, a common belief in Northern Europe during the early medieval period.

The Sutton Hoo Ghost Ship

The ship that dates from the 700s is 88.5 feet (28 meters) in length. According to Albawaba, the “ long vessel is often dubbed a 'ghost ship ' thanks to its manner of preservation”. Because the timber planks of the ship had rotted away, only the iron rivets and other metal items remained and this only provided the outline of the ship. The original bitumen used to caulk the vessel was imported from the Middle East.

A ghost image of the buried Sutton Hoo ship was revealed during excavations in 1939. (Harold John Phillips / Public Domain)

A ghost image of the buried Sutton Hoo ship was revealed during excavations in 1939. (Harold John Phillips / Public Domain )

According to The Times , “The gold and silver treasures of Sutton Hoo have dazzled archaeologists and the public for decades”. Among the items that were found are precious artifacts from the Frankish and Byzantine Empires.

Among the finds was the famous Anglo-Saxon helmet, as well as drinking horns , cauldrons, and weapons, many of which are now in the British Museum . These treasures were buried in the ship burial so that they could be used by the dead man in the afterlife.

The kingdom of East Anglia during the Anglo-Saxon period, with Sutton Hoo in the south-eastern area near to the coast. (Amitchell125 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Sutton Hoo helmet is one of the most important finds from Sutton Hoo. (Usernameunique / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Sutton Hoo Carried a Warrior-King to the Afterlife

The ship was the burial place of King Rædwald, who was the ruler of the kingdom of East Anglia and a member of the powerful Wufling dynasty. This dynasty is mentioned in the great epic Beowulf, the greatest work in medieval literature . The king was buried, according to pagan customs despite having officially converted to Christianity.

The Sutton Hoo helmet is one of the most important finds from Sutton Hoo. (Usernameunique / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The kingdom of East Anglia during the Anglo-Saxon period, with Sutton Hoo in the south-eastern area near to the coast. (Amitchell125 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Breakthrough technologies are revolutionizing archaeology. A group of archaeologists and researchers have come together to use 3-D modeling technology to recreate the ship found at Sutton Hoo.

They have successfully developed a digital model of the ship based only on the rivets found in the burial mound. Albawaba quotes Julian Wainwright, a marine archaeologist, as saying that the team have a “virtually complete hull shape from keel to gunwale”. This is very important because the team now has the data to recreate the vessel from the Dark Ages .

The Recreation of the Ancient Sutton Hoo Ship

Martin Carver, the director of excavations at Sutton Hoo from 1983-1992, is now overseeing the construction of the replica ship. The reconstruction project has 70 volunteers and is working to raise 1.5 million pounds – the estimated amount needed to build the ship, sail it to key locations, and give it a permanent home when the voyages have completed. The team is raising funds and asks the public lend a hand by sponsoring handcrafted rivets and other parts of the ship on the Sutton Hoo charity website . Some 3,500 rivets will be needed and each person who sponsors one will receive a commemorative pin and will be able to locate their rivet after the construction of the ship.

They are working to reconstruct a vessel as close as possible to the original Anglo-Saxon ship, including their shipbuilding methods – using axes to shape the timbers for example - and materials – with oak coming from trees in East Anglia.

Work is underway on the Sutton Hoo replica ship. ( The Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company )

The Sutton Hoo Ship Replica Will Set Sail

The plan is ambitious. Once the Sutton Hoo replica ship has been completed, the team plans that by 2024 they will be able to launch the ship and begin rowing trials, with 40 rowers handling 16.4-foot-long (5-meter-long) wooden oars.

The capable rowers are expected to take the vessel on three voyages between 2024-2029, with the goal to trace the waterways between the locations where the earliest English kingdoms were located. Discussing the plans for the ship, Carver said:

“We want to put the rivers in the limelight, the motorways of the day. The voyages will take us past many of the great early settlements discovered by archaeologists in the last few decades. I'm hoping that when the ship makes its trips, it will excite people in many different ways, but particularly in giving them a feeling of what a brilliant period this was in seventh century Britain.”

Finally, the ship is planned to complete its voyages by 2030 and go on display, perhaps “across the river from Woodbridge at the Sutton Hoo visitor's center,” according to CNN.

The plans for the reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo ship. (saxonship.org)

The plans for the reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo ship. ( saxonship.org)

The Sutton Hoo Ship Will Bring Insights into Early England

The director of the project, Martin Carver, is quoted in the Daily Mail as saying that “Our objectives are to learn how an early English ship was built, its performance in river, lake, and sea, its handling of the wind and tides”. This can teach specialists a lot about the ships of the Anglo-Saxons. There are some things that can only be learned in a practical way and by doing.

The replica can allow the researchers to have a better understanding of the people who are widely seen as the precursors of the modern English nation. The recreated ship can teach them a lot about Anglo-Saxon sailors and ships. Carver told The Times that historians “suspect that seafaring was rooted in the hearts of the Anglo-Saxons that made England their home” according to the Daily Mail .

Top image: Close up of a longboat, similar to the Sutton Hoo ship. Source: Alex Stemmer / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan

Updated on June 29, 2022.

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