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, eastern England. Inside, he discovered a spectacular undisturbed burial in a vast ship.
The burial dated to the early AD 600s, when Sutton Hoo belonged to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia. The extraordinarily rich grave goods suggested that the ship burial commemorated a very high-ranking 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 to the burial ground above. Over time, its wooden oak planks and ribs decayed, replaced by compacted sand. This left a clear impression of the hull in the ground, studded with iron rivets.
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. Rivers and the sea were key to communication and travel. In many ways, it was easier to go by water than by land, so people in Denmark and the Netherlands would have been the Anglo-Saxons' close neighbours.
Reconstructing the Sutton Hoo ship is a challenge, because 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 on the open sea, or if it just had oars for rowing along the coast and rivers.
We do know that it had once been a working vessel, as there were signs of repairs to the ship’s body.
The burial chamber, probably with a pitched roof, was constructed in the middle of the ship. In this small room, once decorated with sumptuous textiles, lay the dead man surrounded by incredible treasures.
These included rare and beautifully-crafted gold and garnet ornaments, Byzantine silver vessels and decorated 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 its contents remained hidden for more than 1000 years, until they were revealed again in the summer of 1939.
Although boat and ship burials are known from Scandinavia and mainland Europe, they are extremely rare in Anglo-Saxon England. The Sutton Hoo ship burial is the richest ever discovered in Britain.
The objects recovered from the Sutton Hoo ship burial proved to be an archaeologist's dream – an early Anglo-Saxon time capsule.
The discovery became a public sensation, with newspapers comparing it to Howard Carter finding the intact tomb of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen.
The Sutton Hoo helmet is the most iconic object to survive from Anglo-Saxon England. It is decorated with pictures of warriors and powerful animals. The helmet’s crest is formed of a two-headed serpent, while the face-mask is a dragon-like beast. The eyebrows are the creature’s wings, the nose is its body, and the moustache its tail. Boar’s heads tip each outstretched wing.
The helmet was made of iron and probably weighed about 2.5 kg. It had a leather lining and holes under the nose for the wearer to breathe.
Swords were the most prestigious weapons to Anglo-Saxon warriors. Costly and sometimes elaborately decorated with precious metal fittings, they could become treasured heirlooms passed down for generations. Some warriors were buried with their swords beside them.
The Sutton Hoo sword was made by a master-craftsman. Its hilt (handle) fittings are gold and the pommel is set with red garnets in an intricate pattern. The sword was buried in a leather-bound wooden scabbard lined with sheep wool, whose oil kept the iron 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. The result was a blade with intricate patterns resembling rippling water, swirling smoke or animal markings.
Shields were a crucial piece of kit for Anglo-Saxon warriors, but the Sutton Hoo shield is the most ornate known. Like the helmet, it is similar to examples from eastern Sweden, suggesting the people of East Anglia shared cultural links with this part of Scandinavia.
The shield’s wooden board decayed away but the metal fittings survived. In the middle is a heavy iron boss decorated with pairs of intertwined animals. The other fittings include a bird-of-prey and a six-winged dragon, perhaps intended as protective symbols.
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 unique ‘sceptre’ that is one of the most extraordinary objects known from the early Anglo-Saxon period.
The ‘sceptre’ is in fact a huge four-sided whetstone (for sharpening blades). Each end is carved with four sombre faces, perhaps representing gods or ancestral figures. The whetstone is topped with a stag, a symbol of strength and speed in the early Germanic world.
A corroded coat of mail armour was also buried with the dead man. It had been folded several times, with a leather garment or skin and several silver vessels stacked on top of it.
Made from small iron circlets hand-linked together, the mail coat had been at least thigh-length and, despite being heavy, would have been flexible and offered good protection. The huge amount of work involved in making mail armour suggests that it belonged to someone very important.
‘Their mail-shirts glinted, hard and hand-linked; the high-gloss iron of their armour rang.’
Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon poem
(translation by Seamus Heaney)
Most Anglo-Saxon men wore a waist belt fastened with a buckle. The appearance of this buckle was a way of expressing social status: the more elaborate the buckle, the more important the man.
The great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo is the most magnificent example known. It weighs 412.7 grams and is decorated with 13 animals, including serpents, birds of prey and mysterious four-legged creatures. The buckle is hollow like a box and opens and closes on a hinge with a complicated mechanism. It may have stored a personal small item, possibly a relic.
The gold and garnet shoulder-clasps would have been sewn onto a heavy fabric, most likely a padded textile. They follow older, Roman models of military dress and may have been symbols of authority.
The ends of the clasps are decorated with wild boars, which represented strength and courage in the Anglo-Saxon world. This made them appropriate symbols for a warrior.
The clasps’ gold framework is lavishly inlaid with garnets and chequered glass plaques (millefiori). Setting stones on the curved surface of the clasps required an outstanding level of skill from the craftsman.
These shallow bowls were part of a set of 10 found in the Sutton Hoo ship burial. 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 was once thought that these were Christian references to the conversion of Saint Paul, but it is possible that the engraver simply made a mistake and put an ‘S’ instead of another ‘P’.
This large silver platter was made in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). Four stamps on the back tell us it was made during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Anastasius I (AD 491–518). This means the platter was already about 100 years old when I was buried at Sutton Hoo in the early AD 600s. Perhaps it was a cherished heirloom.
This copper alloy hanging bowl is the largest of three from the burial. We cannot be certain how it was used, but it may have been for hand washing.
Hanging bowls were not Anglo-Saxon in origin, and were probably made by neighbouring British peoples from the north and west of Britain or Ireland.
These fragments are the remains of a musical instrument called a lyre. Made from maple wood, 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 buried 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 gilded silver fittings. These are stamped with designs of interlacing creatures and human masks, with the tip of each horn ending in a predatory bird’s head.
The size of the horns suggests they came from an aurochs, a large type of ox extinct in Britain by the Anglo-Saxon period. The horns were probably imported from mainland Europe.
Although no trace of a body was found inside the burial chamber at Sutton Hoo, scientific analyses of soil samples for residual phosphate (a chemical left behind when a human or animal body has completely decayed) suggested that one had been placed there.
The acidic conditions at the bottom of the ship probably caused the remains to decay to nothing, just like the ship's timbers.
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 gold and garnet cloisonné designs, 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 suggests that the owner was of extremely high rank, probably 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 survived.
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 too.
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 king.
With the burial dated to sometime in the early AD 600s, there has been speculation about exactly who he might have been. If he was a king then five possible contenders fit the date-range provided by the coins found inside his purse:
Raedwald, who 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, the remarkable discovery of his lavish burial challenged people to rethink what Anglo-Saxon society must have been like.
Traditionally, the centuries following the collapse of Roman rule in Britain had been seen as ‘The Dark Ages’. The Sutton Hoo ship burial proved to the world that they were nothing of the sort.
Instead the Anglo-Saxon world was one of great kingdoms and exceptional craftsmanship.
Powerful individuals lived sophisticated lives, with loyal warriors ready to defend their lands.
And society, far from being isolated, was connected with much of the known world, from the Celtic west to Scandinavia, the eastern Mediterranean and beyond.
The finds from Sutton Hoo were donated to the British Museum by Mrs Edith Pretty in 1939.
— Susan Holmes, Interpretation
— Sue Brunning, Curator
— David Prudames, Producer