Curator's corner
Eighty years (and more) of Sutton Hoo

When I was a first-year history undergraduate, I came to the British Museum on a field trip. The Anglo-Saxon period was brand new to me at the time – the only reason I knew of ‘Sutton Hoo’ and its fame was because a helmet that had been found there was on the front of my textbook. What I saw that day changed the course of my life and set me on the path to becoming curator here at the Museum. But what is Sutton Hoo and why did it cast such a spell on me? Now is the perfect time to reflect on these questions, because this summer marks 80 years since this incredible discovery was first brought to light.

The Sutton Hoo ship during excavation, 1939.

The Sutton Hoo ship burial is one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time. In simple terms, it is the grave of a Very Important Person who died in the early seventh century, during the Anglo-Saxon period. This was a time before ‘England’ existed. Instead, there was a group of smaller warring kingdoms that would not coalesce into a single realm for another three centuries.

An ancient kingdom

Sutton Hoo lay within the kingdom of East Anglia (today the region of Suffolk and Norfolk), which was apparently pretty mighty when the burial took place. But calling it simply a ‘burial’ feels inadequate. It was, in fact, a spectacular funerary monument comprising a 27-metre-long ship beneath an earth mound nearly three metres high and 30 metres in diameter.

At its heart was a burial chamber, the deceased’s final resting place, surrounded by eye-popping riches – gold dress accessories set with Sri Lankan garnets, silver vessels from distant Byzantium, fine feasting equipment, deluxe hanging bowls, luxurious woven textiles, a stag-topped whetstone carved with human faces.

Gold shoulder clasps inlaid with garnet cloisonné and glass, Britain, c. AD 560–610.
Gold belt buckle, Britain, early 7th century AD.

There was also glittering war equipment including a pattern-welded sword, a massive decorated shield, a unique coat of mail armour and the iconic helmet with its enigmatic face formed by the body of a flame-winged dragon.

Iron and tinned copper alloy helmet, Britain, early 7th century AD.
A Herculean feat

Just take a moment to imagine the time, effort and workforce involved in realising this vision of eternal commemoration – dragging the ship up from the river below, digging the huge trench, manoeuvring the ship into it, cutting and preparing the trees for the chamber, building the chamber, dressing it with incredible finery and then raising the towering mound. If I could go back in time, I’d go to that funeral. Make no mistake – the person buried at Sutton Hoo was meant to be remembered. It’s no wonder that he’s thought to have been no less than a King of East Anglia, although his identity is lost to time like his bodily remains, claimed by the acidic local soil to leave only a human-shaped gap among the treasures within.

The Sutton Hoo Anastasius Dish, silver, Britain, AD 491–518.
War time excavations

The tale of the burial’s discovery is no less dramatic. In 1939, with Britain on the brink of the Second World War, Sutton Hoo landowner Edith Pretty asked local archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate the largest of several burial mounds on her estate. He’d dug adjacent mounds the previous year but found only fragments of Anglo-Saxon artefacts looted centuries before. Crucially, however, one had contained iron rivets, showing that the mound once covered a ship burial – so when Brown discovered more inside the largest mound, he realised what he was onto. Over the course of the summer, Brown and a growing team excavated the richest intact burial ever found in Europe. The dig was thrillingly documented in hundreds of photographs, drawings, film and first-hand accounts from those who were there. Brown’s own diary is a precious artefact in its own right, more like a scrapbook overflowing with stories, photographs, sketches, watercolours, newspaper clippings and pasted-in letters that leave no doubt of the impression this experience made upon him.

Diary of Basil Brown, including watercolour of the Sutton Hoo burial mound before excavation.

It’s hard not to get excited when he relates his first glimpse of the gold treasures, which ‘shone in the sunshine as on the day they were buried’ (below). In August 1939, a coroner’s inquest ruled that the ship burial’s contents belonged to Mrs Pretty under the terms of the Treasure Trove law but, in an act of supreme generosity, she gifted it to the nation, which is how it entered the British Museum collection. To this day it is still one of the Museum’s ‘must-see’ objects for visitors from across the globe.

The Sutton Hoo collection is significant for its sheer majesty alone, but its true significance lies in how it revolutionised our knowledge and appreciation of the era – and the people – that created it. Previously it was thought that post-Roman Britain descended into the ‘Dark Ages’, when these islands supposedly experienced a decline in civilisation, sophistication and cosmopolitanism in all areas of life Sutton Hoo helped to explode that myth forever. This single burial in a pretty corner of Suffolk embodied a society of remarkable artistic achievement, complex belief systems and far-reaching international connections, not to mention immense personal power and wealth. The imagery of soaring timber halls, gleaming treasures, powerful kings and spectacular funerals in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf could no longer be read as legends – they were reality, at least for the privileged few in early Anglo-Saxon society.

Diary of Basil Brown, describing his first sight of Sutton Hoo’s gold treasures.

This was only the beginning. Sutton Hoo’s spell has grown in power in the 80 years since its discovery. We now know that the mound cemetery containing the ship burial was part of a wider landscape of human activity that reached back for millennia, beyond the Anglo-Saxon era. Research on the Staffordshire Hoard, another gobsmacking Anglo-Saxon discovery made in 2009, revealed that the goldsmiths responsible for Sutton Hoo’s treasures could manipulate the material to enhance its qualities, using methods that can barely be fathomed.

In other recent discoveries, British Museum scientists found that black tarry lumps in the burial were actually pieces of bitumen that had originated beneath the hot Middle Eastern sun before they ended up beneath the damp, cool Suffolk earth. And my own study of the Sutton Hoo sword has convinced me that its owner was left-handed. Patterns of wear on Anglo-Saxon sword hilts often show us that the sword’s owner wore it at their left hip, enabling them to draw it across their body with their right hand. On the Sutton Hoo sword these wear patterns are reversed – suggesting it was worn on the right side and carried in the left hand. This characteristic may have made the person buried at Sutton Hoo even more singular in the community.

Gold sword upper guard-plate, Britain, 6th century AD.

This will not be the end of the story. New discoveries, modes of analysis and ways of thinking are sure to uncover even more exciting and mind-bending tales about this very special burial over the next 80 years. 2099’s Sutton Hoo blog is bound to be a good one!

The Sutton Hoo ship-burial is on permanent display, year-round, in Room 41 at the British Museum. A small display of archival material relating to Sutton Hoo is now on display in Room 2, until September 2019, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of its discovery.

The site of Sutton Hoo is run by the National Trust. The Exhibition Hall and Tranmer House is due to reopen in late summer 2019 following a major redevelopment but the estate, walks, Royal Burial Ground, shop and café are open to visitors. Find out more.