Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

1400 years ago, people from early medieval England hauled a ship up a hilltop and buried their king and his treasure within.

The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial (early medieval English) at The British Museum including: Buckles and assorted pieces, Sword belt, Helmet, Great Gold Buckle, Purse Lid, Shoulder-clasps, early 7th century, gold, millefiori, and garnet as well as Bowl and spoons (Byzantine), c. 500–650 C.E., Coins (Merovingian Frank), n.d., gold, Drinking-horns, early 7th century, and the Anastasius Platter (Byzantine), c. 491–518 C.E., silver, all found in Suffolk, England. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re on the second floor of the British Museum in London, and in the center of one of the English history galleries is an enormous glass case filled with the artifacts from Sutton Hoo, and one of the areas of focus holds just a few objects that you can barely see until you get up close.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:23] These beautifully crafted gold, garnet, and glass objects were found in a burial that dates probably from the early 7th century. This is the period we call Anglo-Saxon, and this was a burial site of a very important person.

[0:40] England at this time was divided into a series of kingdoms. The incredible wealth displayed in this burial seemed to indicate that this was a royal burial. Today, we think it may have been King Rædwald. The most famous pieces are a purse lid and two gorgeous shoulder clasps.

Dr. Zucker: [1:02] They’re usually joined by a spectacular belt buckle, but that’s been borrowed for an exhibition at the British Library, which we get to go see tomorrow.

Dr. Harris: [1:10] Let’s look closely at the purse lid first.

Dr. Zucker: [1:12] We should mention that this is a reconstruction. The gold, the garnets, the glass is all original. The white background would’ve originally been bone or perhaps walrus ivory.

[1:23] What we’re seeing is the most intricate, most detailed knotting of forms, where line intertwines, where animals and humans and abstract line create these spectacular patterns. They’re so minute that I can barely see them with my eyes.

Dr. Harris: [1:40] What we’re looking at is something that art historians often call an interlacing animal style, which is typical of Anglo-Saxon England.

[1:48] The designs along the top are abstract interlacing. But along the bottom, we see figures and animals. On the corners, symmetrical designs. A human figure with animals that are sometimes described as wolves on either side of the figure.

Dr. Zucker: [2:06] And in the center, a bird of prey, often described as an eagle, which seems to be attacking a smaller bird, perhaps a duck.

[2:13] The craftsmanship is stunning. Not only do you see inlaid garnet, but you also see a glass technique called millefiori, an Italian word which means “a thousand flowers.” You take canes of glass and bundle them together, warm them so they fuse, and you can slice them into these thin, beautiful, patterned fields.

Dr. Harris: [2:32] We also have the technique of cloisonné — gold strands that enclose glass or garnets.

Dr. Zucker: [2:39] You see this exquisite use of garnet and millefiori in other objects that were found at Sutton Hoo as well, including an unparalleled set of what we think were shoulder clasps.

Dr. Harris: [2:51] We think these held armor in place. The large rectangular field is filled with stepped rhomboids — these squared shapes that, if you look very closely, have stepped edges.

Dr. Zucker: [3:04] What the jeweler has done is to take gold leaf, gold foil, and just stamp it with a pattern and to place that behind the garnet, so that while the garnet is not faceted, it still reflects light in the most extraordinary way.

Dr. Harris: [3:17] We see very fine working of gold called granulation.

Dr. Zucker: [3:22] Here, the jeweler has used a complex technique to fuse tiny granules of gold in very precise ways to the surface of the clasp itself.

Dr. Harris: [3:30] We see interlaced serpents. We can just make out their eyes and their heads and their tails.

Dr. Zucker: [3:35] The eyes are easy to recognize because those are little bits of inset blue glass. This interlacing is very familiar to people who have looked at slightly later medieval manuscripts.

[3:46] So, all of this was found at a place called Sutton Hoo in the ancient kingdom of East Anglia. What the archaeologists found were the imprint of a large ship, a ship that had been used and had been hauled up from an estuary close by for this important ceremonial burial. No trace of the body and almost no trace of the ship remains, we think because of the acidic soil, but the gold survived.

Dr. Harris: [4:11] The word Anglo-Saxon refers to this period between Roman rule and then the Norman invasion in 1066. The word Anglo-Saxon comes from the Angles and the Saxons, people who migrated to the island of Great Britain in the 6th century.

Dr. Zucker: [4:28] From what we would now consider northern Germany and perhaps southern Denmark.

Dr. Harris: [4:31] And some of the grave goods that were discovered at Sutton Hoo may indicate the earliest Christianity here in England.

Dr. Zucker: [4:38] For example, some of the bowls that were found have crosses engraved into them.

Dr. Harris: [4:43] Two spoons are inscribed with the names Paul and Saul, that is, Paul from the New Testament.

Dr. Zucker: [4:51] The finds are extraordinary in their own right, but they also tell us a lot about this culture. They remind us that Britain was not an isolated island and that there was extensive trade. We have garnets from Sri Lanka. There’s even an enormous silver platter that was made a hundred years earlier in the Byzantine Empire.

Dr. Harris: [5:10] We’ve even found bitumen in the tomb, which has recently been shown to come from Syria. So we’re talking about a world where the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and as far north as Britain were all interconnected.

Dr. Zucker: [5:24] This is among the most sophisticated jewelry that was produced in the early medieval period anywhere in Europe.

[5:30] [music]

The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery, The British Museum

Sutton Hoo and Europe 300–1100 C.E., The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery © The Trustees of the British Museum

The most famous Anglo-Saxon treasures in the Museum come from the Sutton Hoo burial site in Suffolk. Here mysterious grassy mounds covered a number of ancient graves. In one particular grave, belonging to an important Anglo-Saxon warrior, some astonishing objects were buried, but there is little in the grave to make it clear who was buried there.

Sutton Hoo

On a small hill above the river Deben in Suffolk is a strange-looking field, covered with grassy mounds of different sizes. For several hundred years what lay under them was a mystery.

Left: Painted portrait of Edith Pretty (© British Museum); Right: Basil Brown (photo: Suffolk Archaeological Unit)

Left: Painted portrait of Edith Pretty (© British Museum); Right: Basil Brown (photo: Suffolk Archaeological Unit)

In 1939 Mrs Edith Pretty, a landowner at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, asked archaeologist Basil Brown to investigate the largest of several Anglo-Saxon burial mounds on her property. Inside, he made one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries of all time. Brown started digging under mounds 2, 3 and 4, where he found a few, mostly broken, Anglo-Saxon objects which had been buried alongside their owner’s bodies. Sadly, grave robbers had taken most of what was there. With a little more hope he started on the biggest mound, Mound 1. He did not know that the treasures under Mound 1 would turn out to be the most amazing set of Anglo-Saxon objects ever found.

Photo of the excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, by Barbara Wagstaff, 1939. © 2019 The Trustees of the British Museum

Excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, 1939 (photo: Barbara Wagstaff, © 2019 The Trustees of the British Museum)

Beneath the mound was the imprint of a 27-metre-long ship. At its centre was a ruined burial chamber packed with treasures: Byzantine silverware, sumptuous gold jewelry, a lavish feasting set, and most famously, an ornate iron helmet. Dating to the early 600s, this outstanding burial clearly commemorated a leading figure of East Anglia, the local Anglo-Saxon kingdom. It may even have belonged to a king.

Belt Buckle, Sutton Hoo, gold, 13.2 x 5.6 cm (The British Museum)

Belt Buckle, Sutton Hoo, early 7th century, gold, 13.2 x 5.6 cm © Trustees of the British Museum

Gold coins and ingots from the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, early 7th century, Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, England, © Trustees of the British Museum.

Gold coins and ingots from the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, early 7th century, Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, England © Trustees of the British Museum.

The burial can only be dated on the basis of the coins that were found there. There was a purse among the burial goods, which contained 37 gold coins, 3 coin-shaped blanks, and 2 small gold ingots. The presence of the coin-shaped blanks suggests that the number of coins was deliberately rounded up to 40. The coins cannot be dated closely, but seem to have been deposited at some point between around 610-635. They all come from the kingdom of the Merovingian Franks on the Continent, rather than any English kingdom, although coin production had started in Kent by this time. Sutton Hoo was in the kingdom of East Anglia and the coin dates suggest that it may be the burial of King Raedwald, who died around 625.

The Sutton Hoo ship burial provides remarkable insights into early Anglo-Saxon England. It reveals a place of exquisite craftsmanship and extensive international connections, spanning Europe and beyond. It also shows that the world of great halls, glittering treasures and formidable warriors described in Anglo-Saxon poetry was not a myth.

Mrs Edith Pretty donated the finds to the British Museum in 1939.

© Trustees of the British Museum

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Cite this page as: The British Museum, "Sutton Hoo Ship Burial," in Smarthistory, March 3, 2017, accessed May 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/the-sutton-hoo-ship-burial/.