Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

My ARCHAEO-Crush for the first month of 2017 is an Anglo-Saxon treasure discovered in 1939 in Suffolk, England.


Type: funerary tumulus containing a ship burial and various artefacts
England, Anglo-saxon kingdom of East-Anglia
Date: Middle Ages, 7th century

ARCHAEO-Crush: The treasure of Sutton Hoo is one of the most important discoveries in British archaeology because it brought a wealth of material evidence to a historical period until then lacking in artefacts. The site of Sutton Hoo is located on a rise near the River Deben and includes several tumuli containing burials–several of which had been plundered prior to the 1939 excavations.  The treasure presented here today was discovered in mound no. 1.  The excavations revealed ship burial belonging in all likelihood to a king, who was buried with spectacular funerary goods. Other than the 27 metre-long ship (of which only a ghost form–wood stains in the sand–a few planks and iron rivets survive), we find personal effects of gold and garnet such as a large belt buckle, the ornamental lid of a now-disintegrated leather purse, shoulder-clasps for a stiff leather cuirass as well as more utilitarian objects like drinking horns, bowls, spoons, textiles, a cushion stuffed with feather and combs, amongst others.
However, the most spectacular find was that of a long coat of ring-mail (hauberk), a round wooden shield of which only the metal fittings remain, an iron sword, spears… and a magnificent parade helmet. It is an extremely rare artefact and it took a British Museum conservator several years to reconstruct the helmet–at least what’s left of it. (That would be about 500 small pieces.)  A full replica of the helmet can be found in the same vitrine.
The artefacts has been placed around the body of the deceased, which had completely decomposed in the acidic soil. Initially, the lack of a body led scholars to believe the burial was a cenotaph. However, in 1967 traces of phosphates discovered in the soil after scientific analyses indicated that a body had decomposed there.  The identity of the deceased cannot be known, but that King Rædwald or his (step-)son Sigeberht are possibilities.  Even more fascinating is the fact that this ship burial is one of the very, very few burials of this type outside of Scandinavia.

Bucket list status: I have seen the Sutton Hoo treasure during  a month-long research trip at the British Museum in 2008. Even though I was researching Egyptian art, I absolutely had to see the Sutton Hoo helmet about which I had heard so much.  I am fascinated by British history (although I am not quite sure why) and this was on my list of things to see. The craftsman ship of the artefacts is astonishing and the connections between other European cultures during this area are quite interesting.

Additional information: According to the laws in England at beginning of the 20th century, the owner of the treasure was to be the owner  of the land on which it had been found. In a most magnanimous gesture, Mrs Edith Pretty, the owner  of the land, gave the entire treasure to the kingdom, for all to enjoy and learn from.  This kind of selfless generosity is as rare as the Sutton Hoo treasure itself.  Thanks to Mrs. Pretty, the helmet and the other wonderful artefacts can now be found in Room 41 at the  British Museum.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.