Sutton Hoo: Archeological finds that changed the view of the Dark Ages

Sutton Hoo is an estate near Woodbridge, Suffolk, England. It is known and is famous for Britain’s Mythical Ship Burial. It was a 500-acre estate owned by Pretty, who was 53 along with her 9yr old son. Pretty who was always curious about the strange set of mounds that was visible from the house one day decided to unravel it. These mounds were marked as the Roman Tumuli on the maps. 

An overview of Sutton Hoo- Archaelogical site - Sheet1
Aerial View of The Sutton Hoo_©WhiteRose Publications

The journey of decoding the history and character of the mounds began when Mrs. Pretty visited the Ipswich Museum in search of an archeologist who could have a look at the hillocks. The story uncovers when Basil Brown, a local self-taught archaeologist who freelanced at the museum visits the mounds. 

An overview of Sutton Hoo- Archaelogical site - Sheet2
Portrait of Basil Brown_©newyorker.com

A few weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War, the find at Sutton Hoo turned out to be Europe’s largest ship burial. There were course of excavations between 1938 and 1939, Basil Brown and his archaeological team found 263 objects buried in the central chamber of the enormous 88-foot-long Anglo-Saxon ship. The first hint that the large ship was buried on the location was a set of iron rivets that were recognised as being a component of the seagoing vessel.

A 27-meter Anglo-Saxon rowing boat’s shape was beginning to emerge from the ground above the coast after it had been pulled up from the river. The wooden ribs of the ship rotted because of the acidic soil there, leaving behind a complex impression that, symbolically speaking, may be compared to a crocodile lounging in the sand.

As the archaeologists dug deeper, they found the artifacts namely, fine feasting vessels, deluxe hanging bowls, silverware from Byzantium, luxurious textiles, and gold dress accessories set with Sri Lankan garnets.

Peeking into the burial chamber

An overview of Sutton Hoo- Archaelogical site - Sheet3
Documentation of the excavation process_©smithsonianmag.com

The location is home to one of Europe’s most valuable Germanic graves. It shed insight on the riches and connections of early Anglo-Saxon monarchs and included a burial or cenotaph for an Anglo-Saxon king that contains a ship outfitted for the afterlife (but without a person). The grave was the ultimate resting place of a person who had passed away in the early seventh century, during the Anglo-Saxon era, before there was such a thing as “England,” according to Sue Brunning, curator of Early Medieval European Collections.

An overview of Sutton Hoo- Archaelogical site - Sheet4
Visualization of the burial chamber_©curriculumvisions.com

The interior of the burial mound had imprints of the decayed ship and the central chamber was filled with varied sorts of treasures. A total of 263 antiquities, including excellent feasting containers, opulent hanging bowls, sumptuous linens, silverware from far-off Byzantium, the most famous helmet with a human mask, and gold dress accessories studded with Sri Lankan garnets, were discovered as the excavation crew went further. However, the acidic earth claimed the body parts, leaving just a human-shaped space between the grave goods that had been arranged. At the funeral, the sword was placed on the right side of the body, permanently marking the deceased’s left-handedness. The king’s identity is still unknown, although it may be Aethelhere, who lost his life in 654 fighting for Penda, the pagan ruler of Mercia, at Winwaed.

A gully among the trees is present which narrates the possible way of the ship being dragged from the shore and led to the burial chamber. The burial chamber in mound No. 1 at Sutton Hoo contained relics of beauty, sophistication, and range. The grave goods are believed to be most likely of King Raedwald of East Anglia, who died around 625 A.D.  The grave’s burial chamber was laden with weapons and high-quality military gear. A shield found inside is considered to have been a gift from Scandinavia

In 1998, the Sutton Hoo estate was taken over by the National Trust and since then it has spent the past four years, and four million pounds, trying to make it more understandable to the public. In the past, visitors complained of feeling underwhelmed as they came expecting a ship, while not knowing that the ship was claimed by the acidic soil and rotten away.

The Artifacts

In 1939, the efficiency of excavation that was carried out by Basil Brown and his team transformed everyone’s understanding of this era in history, the lives, and the beliefs of people who lived then. This was the most valuable outcome followed by the treasures found in the burial. 

The line of artifacts, to begin with, was the most iconic helmet and various multiple smaller artifacts. Gold belt buckle with triple lock mechanism, Gold coins showing features of Christianity and Pagan, A round shield that was placed over the head, Maplewood Eyre, and a stone scepter that had a very intricate way of being carved. 

The coins kept in the leather pouch were embellished with reddish garnets, which are thought to be one of the finest examples of cloisonne, gold strips from the waist to the belt buckle, the armour that was highly corroded and found in hundreds of fragments, and the coins that dated back to both Christian and Pagan eras. All of the aforementioned items had elaborate details.

The Helmet

An overview of Sutton Hoo- Archaelogical site - Sheet5
Sutton Hoo Helmet_©britishmuseum.org
An overview of Sutton Hoo- Archaelogical site - Sheet6
Sutton Hoo Helmet_©britishmuseum.org

The most famous artefact discovered at Sutton Hoo is a helmet covered in carvings depicting warriors engaged in combat, dancing, and ferocious beasts, including a dragon whose wings serve as the headgear’s eyebrows, tail, torso, and mouth. The eyebrows are lined with garnets, and one of them is held up by gold foil reflectors—possibly a nod to Woden, the one-eyed god.

Present Day

The Sutton Hoo burial is unique because of the splendour of its contents and its imposing size. It is impossible to emphasise how the burial of Sutton Hoo altered how historians and archaeologists saw the Middle Ages. It provided insight into early mediaeval Anglo-Saxon life (approximately 410–1066), which was rich in culture and art that represented a thriving global community. The Anglo-Saxon era was later followed by Roman Empire’s exit from the British Isles in the early fifth century. 

The Sutton Hoo artefacts and antiquities, which date back to around 1400 years, are still on display in the British Museum today. Visitors who see the Anglo-Saxon King’s treasures are fascinated by its majesty and long history. The riches Brown uncovered are still there more than 80 years after he first started sifting through the sandy soil of Sutton Hoo. It’s the find of a lifetime, he wrote in his diary in 1939.

Sutton Hoo Visitor experience center_©architectsjournal.co.uk

References:

  1. The British Museum. (n.d.). The Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo. [online] Available at: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/death-and-memory/anglo-saxon-ship-burial-sutton-hoo.
  2. ‌History. (2021). Why the famed Sutton Hoo ship burial was likely the last of its kind. [online] Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/famed-anglo-saxon-ship-burial-sutton-hoo-last-kind.
  3. ‌Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Suffolk | county, England, United Kingdom. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Suffolk-county-England.
  4. ‌McDowell, J.D. (n.d.). The True History Behind Netflix’s ‘The Dig’ and Sutton Hoo. [online] Smithsonian Magazine. Available at: HTTPS://WWW.SMITHSONIANMAG.COM/HISTORY/TRUE-HISTORY-BEHIND-NETFLIXS-DIG-AND-SUTTON-HOO-180976923/.
  5. Knight, S. (2019). Revisiting Sutton Hoo, Britain’s Mythical Ship Burial. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/news/letter-from-the-uk/revisiting-sutton-hoo-britains-mythical-ship-burial.
  6. Carver, M. (n.d.). Sutton Hoo – an archaeography. White Rose. [online] Available at: https://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/102095/1/2011_Carver_Great_Excavations.pdf [Accessed 30 Oct. 2022].
  7. www.curriculumvisions.com. (n.d.). What is Sutton Hoo? Sutton Hoo is the most famous Saxon burial site in England. [online] Available at: https://www.curriculumvisions.com/search/S/suttonHoo/suttonHoo.html.
  8. Sutton Hoo visitor experience, by Nissen Richards Studio. (2021). Architects’ Journal. [online] 22 Jun. Available at: https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/buildings/sutton-hoo-visitor-experience-by-nissen-richards-studio.
Author

Prerana is upbeat, strong willed and fiercely moral. She is an aspirant in the architecture field with a keen interest in researching and understanding parallels between human behaviour and architecture. She believes in breaking stereotypes whether in architecture or life. Prerana's enthusiasm and optimism fuels her every move. When alone, one can find her with the animals and capturing stories through her lens.

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