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

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

2011: time to get started

Neal Spencer, British Museum

I’ve just arrived in Khartoum – the 30°C temperature is described as ‘freezing’ by the locals – the rest of the team fly out later this week.

In an earlier post, Michaela outlined our aims for work in the post-New Kingdom cemetery. As I’m now in Sudan, it seems appropriate to summarise what we’re aiming to do in the town.

Brushing the floor of a 3,100-year old house

For the first time, the southern zone in the walled town will be investigated under the supervision of one of our archaeologists, Charly Vallance. The Egypt Exploration Society never excavated here in the 1940s and 1950s, so there’s a good possibility that we’ll find intact floors and occupation deposits inside the buildings.

We know from the magnetic data that the buildings are small in scale – perhaps lower class housing? But we’re especially intrigued by the possibility of finding occupation phases from after the collapse of Egyptian rule around 1070 BC. Our ceramicist, Marie Millet, conducted a survey in this area last year, and found distinctive later pottery, so we’re hopeful that some of the buildings date to this period.

This may help us answer questions about how life changed (or did not!) with political upheaval.

We’ll continue working in the northwestern group of houses, hoping to reveal the early phases of two houses – Mat Dalton and Tom Lyons will supervise this work. One of the main difficulties here is that with such well-preserved architecture, we often have to remove later phases to be able to access the earliest buildings. Such a decision is never taken lightly, and only happens after the building in question has been fully recorded with photography and technical drawings.

As ever, there’ll be a range of other work taking place. Jamie Woodward (University of Manchester) and Mark Macklin (University of Aberystwyth) will drop in for a flying visit, to take some samples of windblown sand in the dried-up river channel, to hopefully establish when the water stopped flowing there.

Our archaeobotanist, Philippa Ryan, will be working at the house on botanical remains we collected, but also sampling for phytoliths on site itself – these tiny fragments of plant material can tell us a lot about food-processing, diet and other activities.

As always in archaeology such plans can change very quickly due to the discovery of a particularly complicated set of contexts, a difficult-to-excavate object or group of finds, but also sudden shifts in the weather – howling gales or very high temperatures quickly curtail how much we can do.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, , , , , , ,

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