Sutton Hoo A few years ago I was visiting the British Museum in London when I found that they were having a touchy feely day. This is when the curators get out some of their great treasures and allow members of the public to hold and touch them. One of the objects that I was allowed to hold was a sword from the Sutton Hoo treasure, a vast Anglo Saxon ship burial hoard that had been found encased in an earth mound in Suffolk overlooking the river Deben and the town of Woodbridge.
Upstairs they had the whole treasure including the Iconic helmet that the great Anglo Saxon king wore in battle. To see the helmet, which incidentally, was in pieces when they found it, and to hold the great sword dating from the 7th century was a strange and exciting experience. For them to survive at all, down through the passage of so many years is astonishing enough, but more to the point is the light that these objects shine on a period of our English history that is not truly understood and often drifts between fact and myth. So what is Sutton Hoo, and how did it come to give up its secrets? At the least, Sutton Hoo is a large burial ground. As far back as the 6th century and probably before, noble and eminent people had been buried in barrows or large earthen mounds, often with their possessions and sometimes with their favorite horse. Many of these mounds can still be seen today although much reduced by the passage of time and agricultural activity. One mound, but not the one with the boat, has been restored to its proper height and so gives a good indication of what the whole site must have looked like.
That the burial was discovered at all was down to the enthusiasm of the landowner, Mrs. Edith Pretty. Inspired by a recent trip to Egypt she came back full of curiosity about what was in the barrows. She thought there might be something historically interesting buried in them but was completely unprepared for what was eventually found, a wonderful funnery treasure, complete with a 27 meter, long ship. It was one of the greatest discoveries ever found in England.
It is generally agreed that the person occupying the burial long ship was Raedwald, a 7th century King of East Anglia, which today would have included the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. He reigned from 599 till his death in 624 and from about 616 he was the most powerful of the English kings south of the River Humber. Raedwald was the first East Anglian King to convert to Christianity, although he still kept a temple to the Old Gods, and the Venerable Bede mentions him as the fourth ruler to hold Imperium over other southern Anglo Saxon Kingdoms. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, written centuries after his death refer to him as a Bretwalda, an Old English term meaning Britain Ruler or Wide Ruler.
In order to get the dig started Mrs. Pretty asked Guy Maynard the Curator of Ipswich Museum for advice and he referred her to Basil Brown an archeologist familiar with the area. After much discussion it was decided to dig in Mound 3, even though Mrs. Pretty herself favored Mound 1. Because there was so much earth to be moved Mrs. Pretty volunteered the services of her gardener, John Jacobs, and her gamekeeper William Spencer. Even with the three of them the task was enormous. The mound was 25 meters wide and nearly 1.5 meters high. Basil started by digging an exploratory trench from west to east and when he got to the center of the mound he dug down 2 meters and came across the remains of a human skeleton and the bones of a horse together with axes and a jug. That was all they found in the rest of the mound, but Basil was interested enough to have a go at Mound 2. Here he carried out more or less the same methods and again digging down near the center he found a Saxon grave that had been ransacked with all the objects removed. The grave robbers had made a complete mess of the tomb and the incumbent had disappeared. Even so Basil Brown found some silver shield adornments and bits of silver gilt for horn cup decorations, as well as a blue glass jar and a couple of iron blades.
Undaunted Basil still toiled on and excavated Mound 4. This was the most disappointing one yet. All he found were some cremated bones and some bronze fragments together with some material of good quality which indicated that the tomb had been intended for somebody of high standing. Later studies of the bones showed that they were of a young adult and a horse. By now it was 1939 and war clouds were gathering ominously over England. As the summer approached, Basil Brown realized that with a War imminent Mound 1 needed to be excavated, and the work would have to be done quickly. Mrs. Pretty, for her part had always wanted to see what was in Mound 1 so she was happy to once again sponsor the dig.
Once again Basil used the same methods that had served him well with the other mounds. Very soon he discovered an iron rivet and thought idly that this might indicate a Saxon ship buried in the mound. Happily he moved methodically towards the center and after only two hours he found himself removing earth from what looked like the bow or stern of a ship. This is the moment that Basil Brown came into his own and frankly saved this great find from being completely ruined. Basil has often been depicted as a plodding amateur, using archeological techniques that nowadays would be treated with contempt by the experts. However he was very methodical and what’s more had great experience of the area and was very conversant with the effects of sandy acid soils on bio-degradable materials such as those to be found at Sutton Hoo. Because of this knowledge he quickly realized that none of the wood had survived the centuries, but what had survived were their imprint and the rivets that had held it all together, they were still in their original places.
With much painstaking work, gently removing the top layer of soil and following the lines of rivets, the full wonder of the ship became apparent. The timbers had rotted, and the by the process of oxidization had diffused into the sand creating a sort of fossilized cast that virtually showed the complete construction of the ship which appeared to be what we would know today as clinker built with the planks overlapped and riveted. The vessel had 26bulkheads and was over 27 meters long with a beam of 4.5 meters. A later survey suggested that the ship had been propelled by 40 oarsmen, 20 on each side. Because of its shallow draft it was assumed that the boat would have been used to carry goods along rivers and estuary’s rather than longer sea crossings, as fully laden it would have had hardly any freeboard and therefore would have been unseaworthy and difficult to handle in rough seas. There were also signs that repairs had been made to the hull, so this ship was not purpose built as a burial ship, but rather used for that purpose as necessary.
As the dig progressed poles were placed on top of the mound over the ship, so that Basil could work from a swing, thus avoiding damaging the ship. As they finished with one part of the ship, Basil and his helpers, recovered it with a layer of sand. As the ship became more and more uncovered, and the excavation approached the center of the mound, Basil came across signs of an earlier excavation. Here the refilled pit had only gone down 3 meters and Basil calculated that it had not reached the ship. For the first time Basil Brown allowed himself to contemplate the possibility that he might find a completely undisturbed burial chamber.
As the year turned to June and Basils methodical approach uncovered more and more of the ship, he must have been thinking endlessly about the burial chamber, and it is to his credit that he didn’t give in to temptation and rush straight for the prize. Unfortunately he was about to be robbed of the opportunity to find what he had strived for. By now word had leaked out about the Sutton Hoo ship and Guy Maynard the Curator from Ipswich decided that the dig should be put on a more academic footing. A team of leading archeologists led by Stuart Piggott were drafted in, and although Basil was retained, he was basically sidelined and left to do the donkey work while the experts got on with the detailed work. When it came to the burial chamber and all the other artifacts that were found, Basil Brown was forbidden to touch or remove any of them. This seems a bit harsh to me. Whilst it is true that Brown did not have the expertise to do the more delicate work and to take the excavation much further it must have hurt him deeply, especially as it was his knowledge and care that had led to the boat being discovered in the first place.
The burial chamber, situated between bulkheads 10 and 16 would have possibly had some sort of wooden roof over them to form a small cabin. In here would have been laid the King and his treasure. In the event all the wood and bones had rotted and oxidized into the soil so the shape of the chamber was hard to define, but there between bulkheads 10 and 16 was found the personal belongings of a very important person, King Raedwald. As the summer progressed and the outbreak of War came ever closer, all the finds were taken away to be put in storage for safe keeping. The site was recovered and as War became a reality research into Sutton Hoo tailed off. Many of the records and photographs were destroyed in the London Blitz, and because East Anglia was so flat, trenches were dug all over the place to deter German glider attacks. It seems impossible now, but two glider ditches were dug right through the Sutton Hoo site. Even more incredible, is the fact that the burial mounds were used for mortar practice. Well there was a War on, you know.
Amazingly after the War, and eight years since the treasure was uncovered, the site had survived well enough for the British Museum to send down a team under Bruce Mitford. He was even more methodical than Basil Brown had been, and wrote many books on the subject, some casting doubt on what the other experts had found. Even today that argument is ongoing. However one thing is very clear to me. Without Basil Brown and the enthusiasm of Mrs. Pretty, nothing would have been done. They discovered the ship. You can’t argue with that.
So who owned all the artifacts, and how did the ship get into the mound? Well the ship appears to have been dragged up the valley from the River Deben. That must have taken many men and a huge amount of effort. The ship was then buried with the King and a large mound raised over it. The artifacts were awarded to Mrs. Pretty as they were not considered to be Treasure Trove (the law can be very complex on this issue) The academics were dumbstruck as they thought they should have them. In the event Mrs. Pretty donated the whole lot to the Nation and gave Sutton Hoo to the National Trust so that you can visit it today.
What’s there? Well, earth covered burial mounds, and a lot of sheep, set in wonderful picturesque countryside overlooking the River Deben. You can also wander around Mrs. Pretty’s house, and see Basil Brown’s work room. It all sounds a bit tame, but it really is a great day out. The National Trust has done a great job with the interpretation center and has had some wonderful replicas made of the treasure. Mind, you ought to go to see the real thing at the British Museum. Also it is very atmospheric to walk in the footsteps of those far off Kings, along land that hardly seems to have changed down the centuries. To see their burial mounds is quite comforting, as it gives a sense of timeless continuity,that in some way, seems to be so typically British. There is a great progam by the BBC called Chronicle, which did a program on Sutton Hoo in 1989. it is well worth watching. Just click the link below.
How to get to Sutton Hoo