Sutton Hoo: Anglo-Saxon ship burial - Google Cultural Institute
One of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries ever made
In 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, an archaeologist named Basil Brown excavated the largest of 18 burial mounds in the grounds of a country house at Sutton Hoo in the east of England. What he discovered turned out to be a spectacular undisturbed burial.
Placed inside a vast ship, were the extraordinarily rich belongings of a high-ranking Anglo-Saxon man, possibly even a king...
'About mid-day Jacobs... called out he had found a piece of iron... I immediately stopped the work and carefully explored the area... and uncovered five rivets in position on what turned out to be the extreme end prow, or stern, of a ship.'
Archaeologist Basil Brown describes the moment he realised this was no ordinary burial.
The 27 metre-long ship had been dragged up a steep slope from the River Deben. Clear impressions of the wooden oak planks and ribs of the ship’s hull survived as compacted sand, which replaced the wood as it decayed.
The Sutton Hoo ship
is the biggest
and most complete
Anglo-Saxon ship ever found, and is longer than many of the largest modern ocean-going yachts.
Ships were very important to the
Anglo-Saxons. The rivers and the sea were their means of communication. It was
much easier to go by water than it was by land, so people
Denmark and the Netherlands would have been the Anglo-Saxons' close neighbours.
The very idea of a
is Scandinavian, showing that East Anglia - the Anglo-Saxon kingdom in which the Sutton Hoo ship burial took place - was an integral part of a world that included modern Denmark,
Norway and Sweden.
Reconstructing what the Sutton Hoo ship would have looked like is a bit of a challenge, as the centre section was stripped out so that a burial chamber could be constructed.
This means it is not possible to tell if the ship had a mast and was sailed, or whether it just had oars.
One thing is certain, it had been used as a working vessel. There was evidence for it having been repaired during its working life.
A burial chamber, probably with a pitched roof, was constructed in the middle of the ship. In this small room, probably once hung with textiles, a dead man had been laid surrounded by incredible treasures.
He was buried with rare and beautifully-crafted gold and garnet fittings, silver vessels and silver-mounted drinking horns and cups, alongside weapons, armour, and gold coins.
Once everything had been placed inside the burial chamber, a large earth mound was raised over it.
The ship and all of its contents remained untouched for more than 1,000 years, until their discovery in the summer of 1939.
Although ship burials were known from Scandinavia and mainland Europe, they are extremely rare in Anglo-Saxon England. The Sutton Hoo ship burial was the richest ever discovered in Britain.
The objects recovered from the burial chamber inside the centre of the Sutton Hoo ship proved to be an archaeologist's dream - an early Anglo-Saxon time capsule.
Sutton Hoo became a public sensation, with newspapers comparing the discovery to Howard Carter finding the intact tomb of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen.
The Sutton Hoo helmet has become the most iconic object ever found from Anglo-Saxon England.
It is decorated with pictures of men fighting as well as several animals - there are boars' heads on the eyebrows, a serpent's head above the nose, and a huge flying dragon-like creature makes up the eyebrows, nose and its tail is the moustache. Comfortable to wear, it had a leather lining and holes under the nose for the wearer to breathe.
The most important weapon in Anglo-Saxon times was the sword, which could become a treasured heirloom passed down through generations. In some cases warriors were buried with their swords beside them.
The Sutton Hoo sword was made by a master-craftsman, and has a gold pommel set with garnets. It was placed in the burial chamber in a wooden scabbard which was lined with sheep wool, whose oil kept the blade bright.
Anglo-Saxon sword blades were made
using a technique known as pattern-welding. Rods of iron were twisted and then
forged to form the core of a blade to which a sharp cutting edge was added.
A shield was a crucial piece of kit for a warrior in Anglo-Saxon England. Like the helmet the Sutton Hoo shield is similar to examples from Sweden - suggesting the people of East Anglia shared cultural links with Scandinavia. The wood of the shield did not survive but at the centre a heavy iron boss is decorated with pairs of intertwined animals. The other gilded shield fittings include a bird-of-prey and a six-winged dragon, which may have represented the warrior's strength and offered him symbolic protection.
Most rulers, ancient and modern,
use emblems of power to enhance their authority. The man buried at Sutton Hoo was
no exception. He possessed a 'sceptre' that is unique and one of the most
extraordinary objects made in the early Anglo-Saxon period.
The sceptre is in fact a huge
four-sided whetstone (for sharpening blades). At either end the stone is carved
with sombre faces. It is topped with a finely-modelled stag, which in the early
Germanic world was a symbol of strength and speed.
The corroded remains of a mail coat were found folded several times, and placed directly on the floor of the burial chamber. A leather garment or skin and several silver vessels were stacked on top of it.
Made from small iron circlets hand-linked together, it must have been at least thigh-length and, despite being heavy, would have provided good protection and flexibility. The huge amount of work it took to make mail coats means it must have belonged to someone very important.
‘Their mail-shirts glinted, hard and
hand-linked; the high-gloss iron of their armour rang.’
(translation by Seamus Heaney)
Most Anglo-Saxon men wore a belt fastened with a buckle round their waist, from which they would have usually hung a knife, and occasionally a leather pouch.
The great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo is the most magnificent example. Made of solid gold, it weighs 412.7 grams. It is decorated with 13 animals, including a pattern of interwoven snakes (shown below). It opens and closes on a hinge with a complicated mechanism, and has space to store a personal small item, possibly a relic.
and garnet shoulder-clasps would have been sewn onto a
heavy fabric, most likely a padded textile and probably symbolised authority, following older, Roman
models of military dress.
The ends of the clasps are
decorated with wild boars, probably a symbol of strength and courage, and
perhaps may be a
reminder of the wearer's qualities as a warrior.
The gold framework of the clasps is
lavishly inlaid with garnets and chequered glass plaques. Setting
on the curved
the clasps required an outstanding level of skill from the craftsman.
These shallow bowls were part of a set of 10. They come from the eastern Mediterranean and may have been brought to East Anglia as a gift, probably via the Frankish kingdom in continental Europe.
Each bowl is decorated with a cross pattern. The spoons are inscribed in Greek with two names, Saulos and possibly Paulos.
It used to be thought that these were Christian references with the spoons referring to the conversion of St Paul. But as most people in Britain at this time were pagans, it seems more likely that the engraver simply made a mistake and put an ‘S’ instead of another ‘P’.
This large silver dish has four stamps on the back that tell us it was made in the reign of the Byzantine emperor Anastasius I (AD 491-518). The dish must have been about 100 years old when it was placed in the chamber and could have been something of an heirloom.
This large bronze bowl is one of three from the burial. We cannot be certain how it was used, but it might have been for hand washing.
Hanging bowls like this one were not Anglo-Saxon, and were probably made by British peoples from neighbouring regions.
These fragments are the remains of a musical instrument called a lyre. Made from maplewood, it had six strings which were strummed or plucked.
Music played an important role in Anglo-Saxon society. People made music for its own sake, and also recited stories and poems to the accompaniment of lyres like this one. Gilded garnet-inlaid plaques with birds' heads decorate either side of the tuning pegs and beaver hairs found with the lyre suggest it was in a beaver-skin bag.
Each of these drinking horns could
hold around two litres of liquid, possibly mead or ale for passing around at
social gatherings. The actual horns did not survive and have been reconstructed
using the original silver-gilt fittings. These are stamped with interlacing
creatures and human masks, with the tip of each horn ending in a fierce
bird of prey.
The size of the horns suggests they came from an aurochs, a large type of ox extinct in
Britain by the Anglo-Saxon period, so they were probably imported, possibly from mainland Europe.
Although no trace
of a body was found, analyses of soil samples for residual phosphate (a chemical left behind when a human
or animal body has completely decayed), suggested a
been placed in
the burial chamber.
The highly acidic conditions at the
bottom of the ship probably caused the bones to decay to nothing, just like the
This magnificent purse lid, with its precious contents, has provided some clues. Like many of the objects found in the ship burial it is of the highest quality. Decorated with designs in gold and garnet cloisonné, which include twinned images of a man standing heroically between two wolves and an eagle swooping on its prey. Such a public display of wealth shows that the owner was of extremely high rank, and was possibly a lord or even a king.
The leather purse has rotted away,
but the 37 coins, three coin-shaped blanks, and two small gold ingots it held
These coins were crucial in establishing when the burial took place.
They are thought to date to between around AD 610 and AD 635, so the person was probably buried during this time.
Some people think the person
buried at Sutton Hoo was
from a high ranking family. Others believe he was a member of the royal family
of East Anglia. Many are convinced he was a
With the coins providing a date for the man’s death some time in the early AD 600s, there has
been a lot of speculation about exactly
might have been.
If he was a king then
there are five possible contenders who fit the date range provided by the coins found inside
ruled between AD 616 to his
death around AD 625-7
Eorpwald who died around AD 627-8
And Sigebert and Ecric, who
died sometime around AD 635.
The truth is we will never know his identity. But whoever he was,
it was the remarkable discovery of his lavish completely intact burial, that
to radically rethink what Anglo-Saxon society must have been like.
that followed the collapse of Roman rule in Britain had been
referred to as
‘The Dark Ages’. The Sutton Hoo ship
nothing of the sort.
Instead the Anglo-Saxon
one where great kingdoms and exceptional craftsmanship flourished.
Powerful individuals lived
sophisticated, cultured lives, with loyal warriors ready to defend their
And society, far from being
isolated, was connected with the rest of the known world, from the Celtic west,
Scandinavia, the eastern Mediterranean and beyond.
Contributor: —Susan Holmes, Interpretation
Contributor: —Sue Brunning, Curator
Contributor: —David Prudames, Producer