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

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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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This gold ox figurine is on loan from the University of Pretoria @upmuseums, and features in our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, which opens today!
The ox is part of a group of gold sculptures that were found in Mapungubwe, the capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa. They were part of a royal burial dating from around 800 years ago, and are an exceptionally important archaeological find. The other gold objects are a sceptre and a bowl, as well as sculptures of animals – a rhinoceros and a wild cat. They must have been made at great expense and the ox and wild cat were reconstructed in 2009 from gold fragments.
You can book tickets to this fascinating exhibition by following the link in our bio. South Africa: the art of a nation runs until 26 February 2017. 
Gold rhinoceros. From Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa, c. AD 1220–1290. Department of UP Arts, University of Pretoria. 
#BritishMuseum #SouthAfrica #gold #sculpture #Mapungubwe #UniversityofPretoria Here’s a great close-up of Esther Mahlangu’s BMW Art Car by @rosh.thanki. It really emphasises the strong geometric lines that characterise Ndebele patterns. Mahlangu used traditional house-painting designs of the Ndebele people from South Africa to decorate the car. The patterns can be said to be an expression of cultural identity despite marginalisation and the car was painted in 1991 to mark the end of apartheid. You can see Mahlangu’s signature in the yellow part of the bumper.
Tag #myBritishMuseum to share your photos with us!
This stunning car is part of our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition which has just opened! You can book your tickets by following the link in our bio. 
Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935), detail of BMW Art Car 12, 1991. © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives. 
#BMW #ArtCar #Ndebele #SouthAfrica #geometric #pattern #BritishMuseum #regram ‘Colour is important in South Africa – we make it important. Colour places you, colour tells where you are within the geography of South Africa. And when I thought of colour, I realised that I cannot ignore the incident that happened in 1989.’ Mary Sibande

This 2013 work is called ‘A Reversed Retrogress: Scene 1 (The Purple Shall Govern)’. Sibande cast these figures from her body. The one in Victorian dress, called Sophie, refers to her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, who were maids in white South African households. The second figure, in purple, represents Sibande herself.

The Purple Shall Govern relates to the statement ‘the people shall govern’, from the 1955 Freedom Charter and post-apartheid constitution. It also refers to the Purple Rain Protests of 1989, when protesters captured the police water cannon being used to spray them with purple dye and turned it on their assailants. Over the following days the slogan ‘the purple shall govern’ was painted on walls around Cape Town. Although a tension remains, Sibande is saying goodbye to Sophie, her past, and confronting the ‘purple’ present and future.

See this incredible work in our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, which is now open! (See the link in our bio for tickets)

Sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan. Logistics partner IAG Cargo.

Mary Sibande (b. 1982), A Reversed Retrogress: Scene 1 (The Purple Shall Govern). Mixed media, 2013. © Mary Sibande. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery MOMO. 
#modernart #MarySibande #purple #SouthAfrica #BritishMuseum #exhibition Here @edoardofanfani captures the youthful look and friendly expression of this statue of Amenhotep III. The colossal limestone statue originally stood with hundreds of others in the temple of Amenhotep III, which was on the west bank of the River Nile near the ancient city of Thebes. 
Statues depicting the pharaoh often show him with his eyes appearing to look down on the viewer, and a slight smile emerging from his lips. He is wearing heavy makeup, with sweeping eyeliner that nearly touches the temples, and stylised eyebrows. Share your photos with us using #myBritishMuseum 
#AncientEgypt #Sculpture #Statue #Pharaoh #Egypt #eyebrowsonfleek This great photo by @comertcomi shows one of ancient Egypt’s most highly respected animals. Cats were associated with the goddess Bastet and she is often represented as a domestic cat. This statue is a particularly fine example, with gold rings and silver decoration. The collar also contains a silver wedjat-eye and sun-disk which are protective symbols. It also has a scarab on its head – scarabs were associated with rebirth in ancient Egypt. The eyes were perhaps originally inlaid with glass or stones. 
Share your photos with us using #myBritishMuseum
#AncientEgypt #Sculpture #Statue #Cat #Egypt #🐱 #catsofinstagram #regram #repost This week we’re focusing on Egyptian statues and sculpture at the Museum. This great shot by @sisterofpopculture shows the majestic statue of Ramesses II. Made of pink and grey granite, the sculptor has skilfully used the natural colours in the stone to suggest the difference between the face and body. 
This colossal statue was originally part of a pair that stood outside the Ramesseum (the pharaoh’s huge memorial temple). He is also known as ‘Ramesses the Great’ – he ruled for 66 years and his influence reached to the furthest corners of the realm. 
Share your photos with us using #myBritishMuseum
#AncientEgypt #Sculpture #Statue #Pharaoh #Egypt #regram
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