British Museum blog

Sutton Hoo, treasure hunters and a lucky escape

Sutton Hoo helmet
Sue Brunning, curator, British Museum

Fifteen years ago I visited the British Museum as an undergraduate. As someone who’d most recently studied the English Civil War, I’d taken a course on Anglo-Saxon England because I was curious to learn what life was like at a time when the date only had three numbers in it. Our professor brought us to Room 41, the gallery of Early Medieval Europe – and there I had a fateful encounter with the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Dating to the early AD 600s, this remarkable Anglo-Saxon grave in Suffolk was arranged inside a 27-metre-long ship and covered with an earth mound, known to posterity as ‘Mound 1′. The burial’s spectacular nature has fuelled speculation that it belonged to a king of East Anglia. Seeing it back then for the first time, I was genuinely inspired. I’ve studied the Anglo-Saxons ever since.

Curators Sue Brunning (r) and Rosie Weetch (l) installing the Sutton Hoo helmet in the gallery

Curators Sue Brunning (r) and Rosie Weetch (l) installing the Sutton Hoo helmet in the gallery

Tomorrow, after four years of very hard teamwork, Room 41 re-opens following a major refurbishment that was generously facilitated by Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock, with additional support from the DCMS /Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund. Sutton Hoo takes pride of place in the centre, acting as a gateway into the rest of the gallery. Visitors entering through Room 40 will be met by the striking face of the helmet, standing sentinel at the head of his ship. My spine still tingles when I gaze into its hollow black eyes, especially out of hours in the quiet, dark gallery space. A haunting sight; but something else chills me when I look at these treasures – the true-life tale of how close we came to losing them forever.

The Sutton Hoo ship excavation in 1939. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Suffolk, England. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Sutton Hoo ship excavation in 1939. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Suffolk, England. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Drawing showing the cross-section of the mound where the treasure hunter's pit was discovered

Drawing showing the cross-section of the mound where the treasure hunter’s pit was discovered

When excavating Mound 1 in 1939, archaeologist Basil Brown found signs of what he described in his diary as a ‘Medieval disturbance’. These comprised a 10-foot-deep pit dug into the top of the mound, containing pottery sherds (more of which were found during further excavations in 1969), animal bone and traces of a fire. Experts identified the pottery as Bellarmine ware, dating to the 1500s or 1600s. Not much to write home about, you’d think; but these seemingly banal traces are, to me, some of the most hair-raising discoveries in Anglo-Saxon archaeology. They show that, at some time in the Tudor period, a group of treasure hunters (if that was their aim) had targeted Mound 1; but after digging vainly for some time, they stopped, built a fire, ate a meal and departed, leaving their waste behind. Archaeological drawings show that they would have had their prize if they had dug just a few feet further west. The sorry results of more fruitful looting expeditions are illustrated by the other burial mounds at Sutton Hoo. Mound 2, another ship burial, was found to contain only the tiniest hints of its former magnificence: a chip of a blue glass vessel; part of a pattern-welded sword; and fragments of gilded silver drinking-horn mounts.

Pottery sherds found in Mound 1, Sutton Hoo.

Pottery sherds found in Mound 1, Sutton Hoo.

While writing this blog, I visited the Sutton Hoo reserve collection to photograph sherds of the hapless looters’ jug. Handling them was an unnerving experience. Sutton Hoo is so central to our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxons that a world without it is unthinkable. Its alternative fate is too horrifying for me to contemplate: the great gold buckle melted down; the garnets of the shoulder clasps chipped out and recycled; the iron fragments of the helmet ignored and discarded. For an Anglo-Saxonist, the tale of what Charles Philips, another excavator at Sutton Hoo, dubbed ‘the lunch of the disappointed’ is more hair-raising than any vampire or werewolf yarn. It’s incredible to think that we owe the new gallery’s centrepiece to the miscalculations of a few opportunists. That makes me feel even luckier to be the curator of this precious collection.

 

The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100 opens 27 March 2014 in Room 41. Admission is free.

The finds from Sutton Hoo were donated to the British Museum by Mrs Edith Pretty.

The site is managed by The National Trust – to visit and find out more, go to www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

 

Filed under: Archaeology, Room 41, Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300-1100, , , , , ,

In search of the Vikings


David Prudames, British Museum

Last week, the extremely exciting news broke of the discovery of the ship-burial of a high-status Viking in Scotland.

The excavation was undertaken by a team of experts from a number of institutions working on the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project, which is exploring evidence on the Ardnamurchan peninsula on the west coast of Scotland for the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age periods (from about 9000 to about 1000 BC).

Laid to rest at least 1,000 years ago, this must have been an important individual as his remains were found surrounded by what’s left of a large ship (mainly just rivets, as the wood it was built from has rotted away) and possessions including a sword, shield, knife, axe, bronze ringed pin and whetstone.

There’s an article about the discovery on the Guardian newspaper website, as well as a video of the axe being excavated. On the BBC website there are a couple of videos about the finds, one of a BBC Scotland news report and a short interview with Oliver Harris, a member of the excavation team.

Some of the finds shown in these videos are very similar to objects in the collection of the British Museum, where the Vikings are well-represented.

My colleague Barry Ager told me about another boat burial dating back to more or less the same period as this one. It was discovered in Lilleberge Norway in the nineteenth century, and there is a large collection of iron rivets from it in our collection online.

The Cuerdale hoard of Viking silver

The Cuerdale hoard of Viking silver

There’s a selection of interesting Viking objects in an online tour on our website, including a hair comb made out of an antler; an iron spearhead found in the River Thames, and the remarkable Cuerdale hoard discovered in the nineteenth century – the largest hoard of Viking silver from western Europe (over 40kg of it), stashed away during a time of upheaval.

Excavation of the ship at Sutton Hoo in 1968

Excavation of the ship at Sutton Hoo in 1968

This fascinating discovery also reminded me of a much earlier ship-burial, objects from which are on display here at the British Museum. The burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk is not Viking, rather it held the remains of an Anglo-Saxon of clearly high status and surrounded by some incredible finds, many of which have become rightly famous – the magnificent helmet in particular.

A new display in Room 2 at the British Museum shows some of these finds in the context of the wider early medieval world of Europe and beyond, while their permanent home undergoes a refurbishment.

It interestingly places the both Anglo-Saxons and Vikings – among others – in the wider context of contact and trade across a vast area from Scandinavia to north Africa, the Atlantic to the Black Sea.

Filed under: Archaeology, Collection, , , ,

Receive notifications of new posts by email.

@britishmuseum

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,413 other followers