Sutton Hoo: field of kings

13 mins read

This was no ordinary burial. The group that gathered on a grassy promontory overlooking the River Deben around AD 625 was participating in a ceremony that is without equal in Britain. First a huge vessel, 27m long and honourably scarred and patched through long service was hauled a mile uphill to the mounds of a cemetery site. There it was lowered into an equally huge cavity cut into the earth. Within the vessel a chamber was erected, and within the chamber the man who inspired this devotion was presumably laid to rest. Around him the objects that had served him in life were carefully arranged to ensure his status endured in the afterlife. Here was a warrior, with weapons and armour, a reveller with cauldrons and drinking horns, and, almost certainly, a king, with sceptre and standard. Although we are uncertain of his name, it would have weighed heavily on the hearts of many of those working tirelessly to send the deceased on his final voyage. Once his earthly possessions were assembled, a mound 30m in diameter and at least 3m high was piled over his grave.

While modern archaeologists would give much to learn information that was commonplace amongst those seventh-century mourners, what they in turn could not have guessed is that the riches they committed to the earth that day would survive unmolested for over a millennium. The beauty and variety of the objects sealed in the chamber have come to commemorate not just an individual, but an entire period, shattering preconceptions of a culturally moribund ‘Dark Age’. Surely the greatest treasure ever to emerge from the English soil, Sutton Hoo was the archaeological find of the century. Its story is one of kings, commoners and criminals, set against a tableau of war.

The Treasure

They let the earth hold the wealth of the earls, gold in the ground, where still it dwells, as useless to men as it was before

– Beowulf

The grave goods were stowed in a wooden chamber, about 6m long, occupying the centre of the ship. The more utilitarian objects, such as cauldrons and buckets, were consigned to the extremities of this sepulchre, while the most precious items were grouped around the centre. It was here that the ship’s final occupant was presumably laid to rest, and it was here that a trove of treasures of almost indescribable beauty awaited Phillips’ band of archaeologists for over 1,000 years. The Sutton Hoo artefacts can only be fully appreciated in the flesh, requiring a trip to the British Museum, where a portrait of Mrs Edith Pretty watches over the treasures she gifted to the nation. The following gives a taste of some of these magnificent artefacts.

The helmet was crushed when the burial chamber timbers collapsed. But enough survived to reconstruct a sophisticated piece of armour, boasting cheek, neck, and face guards. Eerie sightless eye holes were topped with bushy bronze eyebrows, furrowing into boar’s head terminals. Decorative iron panels were stamped with complex knotwork patterns or horsemen riding down hapless opponents, while a snake glided across the helmet’s crown, its blood red garnet eyes gazing malevolently forwards. Although the helmet seems to have been influenced by Roman cavalry helmets, its closest parallels lie in 6th — 7th century Sweden.

The shoulder clasps are a riot of gold, red and blue. Hidden away on the underside are the functional hinges and staples needed to fix them to a fabric garment, while the upper surface is a canvas for gorgeous geometric patterns and stylised wild boars.

The great gold belt buckle weighs over 400g, and effortlessly combines beauty and functionality. The back opens on hinges, revealing a hollow cavity containing pins to lock the belt strap in place. The front showcases a playful tangle of knotwork, from which sinuous birds and beasts nervously peer.

The sword is one of the finest examples of the Anglo Saxon weapon smiths’ art from Britain. A complex pattern-welded forging technique was used to create both a sharp blade and an aesthetically pleasing herringbone pattern. This would have been an expensive, and effective, piece of kit. Consigned to the chamber in a wool-lined wooden scabbard, the sumptuous gold and garnet decoration testifies to the weapon’s prized status.

The purse lid features two macabre depictions in gold and glass of a bird seizing its prey, and a man being savaged by wolves. This latter bears an uncanny resemblance to a bronze die found in Torslunda, Sweden, showing a man mauled by two bears. Within the purse were 37 gold coins minted in Merovingian Gaul. These are central to attempts to date the burial, and therefore establish who was interred there. The coins date to between AD 575 — 625, dovetailing with the death of the powerful king Raedwald recorded by the Venerable Bede. Raedwald is credited with a dominion that stretched as far as the Humber, and for 70 years has remained the hot favourite for the occupant of Mound 1.

The sceptre is a curious object, comprising a large whetstone (used for sharpening swords — although there is no evidence this object was ever treated so roughly), with a bronze stag on top. 8 unnervingly inscrutable faces gaze out from the whetstone, some sporting wonderful triangular beards. The purpose of this artefact remains controversial, but persistent suggestions that it is a symbol of kingly status refuse to go away.

Of the objects’ owner, there was no trace. Various explanations for this absence have been advanced over the years, including the complete consumption of flesh and bone by the acid soil, or even the absence of a body to bury in the first place. The ‘sand bodies’ detected in more recent excavations at Sutton Hoo have revealed just how effectively the soil can strip away human remains. Given the damage caused by the collapse of the burial chamber, it would probably be too much to expect the 1930s excavators, who had already achieved so much with so little, to spot the ghostly shape of any human form that lay within.

A grave find

The 1930s Sutton Hoo excavations were bookended by tragedy. While the curtain call was a catastrophe on an international scale, with archaeologists battling to complete their excavations as war swept across Europe, the opening one was of a very personal nature. In 1934 Mrs Edith Pretty suddenly found herself a widower, with a young child and the 400 acre Sutton Hoo estate to tend. This unexpected bereavement led to an interest in spiritualism and, eventually, the low, grassy mounds nestling in the heath to the south of Sutton Hoo House. Mrs Pretty resolved to have them excavated, and employed local man and self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown to undertake the task.

At Mrs Pretty’s insistence the first target was also the largest: the substantial earthwork now called Mound 1. But Brown had reservations, and when initial probing proved inconclusive, he persuaded his employer to let him get his eye in on one of the smaller features. What followed was something of a debacle, with the contents of the mound variously identified as a ‘casket’, a ‘boat’ and a ‘dew pond’. Whatever the truth, the burial chamber had clearly been heavily robbed. More digging produced more robbed burials, but Mound 2 also contained tantalising traces of a boat burial. A handful of rivets were still in place, while a sliver of glass and fragment of a sword blade hinted at the riches that had rewarded the raiders. By the close of the first season the results were promising, but far from sensational.

The second season opened on the 8th May 1939, with Mrs Pretty sending Brown back to Mound 1 to try again. Within 3 days the first boat rivet was discovered, and poking around in the vicinity quickly revealed several more. Realising that the rivets were still in place, tracing the ghostly outline of a long vanished ship’s prow, Brown concentrated on exposing the hull of what quickly proved to be an enormous vessel. At 27m long, it was the largest pre-Viking period boat ever found in Europe. As rumours of a Suffolk ship burial leaked out, the academic world began to take a keen interest in the affairs of Mrs Pretty’s back garden. It was agreed that a professional team should be assembled, but with the British Museum and the London ministries preparing for war, the timing could hardly have been worse. Eventually, with a shoestring budget and a team awaiting call up, Charles Phillips took over.

The precautions paid off, and on the 21st July the first of a flood of riches was unearthed: a small but astonishingly intricate gold and garnet scabbard stud. What followed was to rewrite Anglo Saxon archaeology, and remains the stuff of legend. More gold, cauldrons, drinking horns, shoulder clasps, a sword, buckle, sceptre, chainmail and, of course, the iconic helmet were prised from amidships of the great vessel. As work progressed these finds were kept hush hush, and a famous anecdote records the ribbing the excavators faced at a local bar.

“Found much gold today?” the locals joked.

“Yes, my pockets are full of the stuff” replied one of the team without missing a beat, while the great gold buckle weighed heavily on his jacket.

The secrecy paid off and the excavations were successfully concluded on the 30th July. After an inquest Mrs Pretty donated the contents of the burial chamber to the British Museum. The finds were despatched to London, just in time to be rushed back underground, where they sat out the Second World War in a disused tube station.