Return to Sutton Hoo

3 mins read

After such sensational discoveries it was inevitable that archaeologists would return to Sutton Hoo. Rupert Bruce-Mitford was the first to pick up where the 1939 team left off, re-excavating Mound 1 and removing the remaining ship rivets in the 1960s.

A more substantial campaign spanning 1983-2001 was masterminded by Martin Carver. This included another look at Mound 2, and revealed that Brown’s boat was in fact silt that had accumulated after 19th century digging. An article published in the Ipswich Journal in 1860 reports this activity, noting that a large quantity of iron bolts were discovered, and promptly recycled as horse shoes. Carver’s investigations confirmed that Mound 2 was a boat burial, with the burial chamber lying underneath, and revealed that some 800 rivets had evaded 19th century attention.

Happily post 30s research has concerned itself with more than just harvesting boat rivets, and Carver’s excavations revealed that bodies as well as ships could survive as ghostly outlines in the Sutton Hoo soil. Of these the most interesting was the discovery of Mound 17, the only one apart from Mound 1 to have survived intact. Two burials were preserved under this. One contained the ‘Sutton Hoo Prince’, a man in his twenties who had been interred with his sword, shield, cauldron and horse harness; the other contained the horse itself.

Sutton Hoo’s association with death did not end with the seventh century ship burials. Carver’s campaign revealed a multitude of lower status burials that continued into the tenth or eleventh centuries. These were clustered around Mound 5 and the eastern end of the cemetery. Unlike their predecessors, the unfortunates interred in these graves were not brought to Sutton Hoo as part of an act of reverential commemoration. They were brought there to be executed. Fragile, sandy outlines revealed that these individuals were decapitated or hung, with the site of a probable gallows lying at the centre of the group of bodies on the eastern edge of the cemetery. Public execution is known to have been practised in the 9th and 10th centuries, but the Sutton Hoo executions date back earlier, and Carver has wondered whether the magnificent kingly burials under the mounds took place against the backdrop of this ultimate statement of authority.

The most recent excavations were undertaken in 2000, in advance of the construction of a new visitor centre, 500m north of the main site. This revealed eight Anglo Saxon ring ditches, 19 inhumations and 17 cremations. These discoveries were particularly fascinating, as they appear to predate the mound cemetery. A number of the cremations were contained within urns, while one filled a bronze hanging bowl. All of the inhumations were accompanied by grave goods, and in 13 cases these were weapons, normally a shield and spear. One also contained a sword.

Ship Burials

Ship burials are rare in Britain. The closest parallel to Sutton Hoo comes from Snape, only 9 miles away, where a cluster of mounds overlooking the River Alde was thoroughly examined in the 19th century. Although the records are incomplete, it is clear that one mound overlay the remains of a 14m long vessel, the outline of which was preserved by row after row of metal rivets. Spearheads, a glass beaker, and a gold ring were found in the robbed burial chamber. Given the proximity in both location and date, it seems highly likely that the burials at Sutton Hoo and Snape are products of the same tradition.

While British parallels remain scarce, the close links between Sutton Hoo and two cemetery sites in eastern Sweden, at Vendel and Valsgarde, were immediately recognised. Excavated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these 6th and 7th century burials contained chieftains laid to rest in boats that were around 9m long and constructed in a similar style to that at Sutton Hoo. Valsgarde’s vantage over the River Fyris also evokes the East Anglian cemeteries’ position in the landscape. The nature and decoration of the grave goods is similar too, with strong similarities between a number of the Swedish helmets and shields, and those discovered at Sutton Hoo. However, despite the astonishingly uniform appearance, differences in manufacturing technique hint that the helmet at least was made in Britain. In general the quality of the workmanship in the Swedish burials does not match the high standards encountered in the Sutton Hoo burial. Even so, a direct link between the groups undertaking boat burials in a small corner of Sweden and England appears irresistible.

Visiting Sutton Hoo

For long, Sutton Hoo was in private hands, but in 1998 it was given to the National Trust. A Visitor Centre has been opened, and visitors are now welcome. It is situated off the B10832 road, two miles east of Woodbridge [TM288487]. Here is a short guide to what you may see on your visit.

Click here for the official  National Trust web site, with the opening hours.

(Note there is a charge for entering the car park. Opening hours are restricted: it closes at 5 in the summer, and is only open at weekends in the winter. However it is, (I believe) possible to walk round the site even when the Visitor Centre is closed).

Click here for the web pages of the Sutton Hoo society who occasionally conduct excellent guided tours of the site.