Articles

The Most Impressive Medieval Grave in Europe: What Is The Sutton Hoo Treasure?

The Most Impressive Medieval Grave in Europe: What Is The Sutton Hoo Treasure?



We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

A shoulder clasp found during excavations at Sutton Hoo. Image credit: Public Domain.

Sutton Hoo remains one of the most important Anglo-Saxon archaeological sites in Britain: the area was used as a burial ground in the 6th and 7th centuries, and remained undisturbed until a major series of excavations took place from 1938 onwards.

So, what was so important about the finds? Why have they captured the imagination of millions? And how exactly were they found in the first place?

Where is Sutton Hoo and what is it?

Sutton Hoo is a site near Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK. It lies about 7 miles inland, and lends its name to the nearby town of Sutton. There is evidence the area has been occupied since the Neolithic period, but Sutton Hoo is mainly known as a cemetery site, or grave field, during the 6th and 7th centuries. This was the period when Anglo Saxons occupied Britain.

It had around twenty barrows (burial mounds), and was reserved for the wealthiest and most important in society. These people – mainly men – were buried individually along with their most valuable possessions and various ceremonial items, as per the customs of the time.

For 600 years the Anglo-Saxons came to dominate England. This period of English history has sometimes been perceived as one of little cultural development and the Anglo-Saxons as an unsophisticated people. However, there is plenty of evidence to negate this view, as Dr Janina Ramirez explains.

Listen Now

The excavations

The site remained relatively untouched for over 1,000 years. In 1926, a wealthy middle class woman, Edith Pretty, bought the 526 acre Sutton Hoo estate: following the death of her husband in 1934, Edith began to become more interested by the prospect of excavating the ancient burial mounds which lay about 500 yards from the main house.

After discussions with local archaeologists, Edith invited the self-taught local archaeologist Basil Brown to begin excavating the burial mounds in 1938. After promising initial digs that year, Brown returned in 1939, when he unearthed the remains of a 7th century Saxon ship.

Whilst the ship itself was a major find, further investigations suggested that it was on top of a burial chamber. This news launched it into a new sphere of archaeological finds. Charles Phillips, an archaeologist from Cambridge University, quickly assumed responsibility for the site.

The size and importance of the finds at Sutton Hoo quickly led to tensions between various interested parties, notably between Basil Brown and Charles Phillips: Brown was ordered to stop working, but he did not. Many credit his decision to ignore orders as key to preventing robbers and thieves from looting the site.

Phillips and the British Museum team also clashed with the Ipswich Museum, who wanted Brown’s work properly credited, and who announced finds earlier than planned. As a result, the Ipswich team were somewhat excluded from subsequent discoveries and security guards had to be employed to monitor the site 24 hours a day to protect it from potential treasure hunters.

What treasure did they find?

The first excavation in 1939 unearthed one of the major Sutton Hoo finds – the burial ship and chamber beneath it. Very little of the original timber survived, but its form was preserved almost perfectly in the sand. The ship would have been 27 metres long and up to 4.4 metres wide: it is thought there would have been room for up to 40 oarsmen.

Although no body was ever found, it is thought (from artefacts found), that this would have been the burial place of a king: it is widely accepted it is likely to be that of the Anglo Saxon king Rædwald.

The discoveries within the burial chamber confirmed the high status of the man buried there: they have hugely reinvigorated the study of Anglo Saxon art in Britain, as well as showing links between various European societies at the time.

The treasure found there is still one of the greatest and most important archaeological finds in modern history. The Sutton Hoo helmet is one of the few of its kind and was created by a highly skilled craftsmen. An assortment of ceremonial jewellery was also found nearby: they would have been the work of a master goldsmith, and one who had access to pattern sources only found at the East Anglian armoury.

Why was the treasure so significant?

Other than our enduring fascination with treasure, the finds at Sutton Hoo remain one of the largest and best Anglo Saxon archaeological discoveries in history. They transformed scholarship on the subject and opened up a whole new way of seeing and understanding this time period.

Before the Sutton Hoo treasure, many perceived the 6th and 7th centuries as the ‘Dark Ages’, a time of stagnation and backwardness. The ornate metalwork and sophisticated craftsmanship not only highlighted cultural prowess but complex networks of trade across Europe and beyond.

The items found also illustrate religious changes in England at the time, as the country moved towards Christianity. The incorporation of insular art (which is a mixture of Celtic, Christian and Anglo Saxon designs and motifs) was also noteworthy to art historians and scholars as one of the highest status forms of decoration at the time.

What happened to the treasure?

The outbreak of the Second World War halted further excavations at Sutton Hoo. The treasures had initially been packed off to London, but a treasure trove inquest held in the village of Sutton determined that the treasure rightfully belonged to Edith Pretty: it had been buried with no intention of rediscovery, which made it the property of the finder as opposed to the Crown.

Pretty decided to donate the treasures to the British Museum so that the nation could enjoy the finds: at the time, it was the largest donation ever given by a living person. Edith Pretty died in 1942, never living to see the treasures at Sutton Hoo on display or properly researched.

Further Excavations

After the end of the war in 1945, the treasure was finally properly examined and studied by a team from the British Museum led by Rupert Bruce-Mitford. The famous helmet had been found in pieces, and it was this team which reconstructed it.

A British Museum team returned to Sutton Hoo in 1965, after concluding there were still multiple unanswered questions about the site. Scientific methods had also progressed significantly, allowing them to take earth samples for analysis and to take a plaster cast of the ship impression.

A third excavation was proposed in 1978 but took 5 years to materialise. The site was surveyed using new techniques, and several mounds were explored for the first time or re-explored. The team purposely chose to leave large areas unexplored for the benefit of future generations and new scientific techniques.

A story of bloodshed, tribal rivalries and a warrior class obsessed with and defined by the battlefield has emerged from the discovery of a burial site at Bamburgh Castle

Watch Now

And today?

The majority of the Sutton Hoo treasures can be found on display at the British Museum today, whilst the site itself is in the care of National Trust.

The 1938-9 excavations were the basis of a historical novel, The Dig by John Preston, which was turned into a film of the same name by Netflix in January 2021.


The True History Behind Netflix’s ‘The Dig’ and Sutton Hoo

In the summer of 1937, as the specter of World War II loomed over Europe, Edith Pretty, a wealthy widow living near Woodbridge, a small town in Suffolk, England, met with the curator of a local museum to discuss excavating three mounds of land on the far side of her estate, Sutton Hoo. (The name is derived from Old English: “Sut” combined with “tun” means “settlement,” and “hoh” translates to “shaped like a heel spur.”) After Pretty hired self-taught amateur archaeologist Basil Brown, the dig began the following spring.

Over the next year or so, Brown, who was later joined by archaeologists from the British Museum, struck gold, unearthing the richest medieval burial ever found in Europe. Dating back to the sixth or seventh century A.D., the 1,400-year-old grave—believed to belong to an Anglo-Saxon king—contained fragments of an 88-foot-long ship (the original wood structure had deteriorated) and a burial chamber filled with hundreds of opulent treasures. The British Museum, which houses the trove today, deemed the find a “spectacular funerary monument on epic scale.”

The importance of the Sutton Hoo burial cannot be overstated. Not only did the site shed light on life during the early medieval Anglo-Saxon period (roughly 410 to 1066) but it also prompted historians to revise their thinking about the Dark Ages, the era that followed the Roman Empire’s departure from the British Isles in the early fifth century. Contrary to long-held beliefs that the period was devoid of the arts or cultural richness, the Sutton Hoo artifacts reflected a vibrant, worldly society.

Basil Brown (front) led excavations at Sutton Hoo. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

“The discovery in 1939 changed our understanding of some of the first chapters of English history,” says Sue Brunning, a curator of early medieval European collections who oversees the British Museum’s Sutton Hoo artifacts. “A time that had been seen as being backward was illuminated as cultured and sophisticated. The quality and quantity of the artifacts found inside the burial chamber were of such technical artistry that it changed our understanding of this period.”

Given the inherent drama of the excavations at Sutton Hoo, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood offered its own take on the events. The Dig, the new Netflix film starring Carey Mulligan as Pretty and Ralph Fiennes as Brown, is adapted from a 2016 novel of the same name by John Preston, nephew of Peggy Piggott, a junior archaeologist on the Sutton Hoo team. The film follows the excavation, including the stories of the main characters, tensions between them, and romantic involvements. Pretty, who had a young son, has always been fascinated by archaeology and recruits Brown to begin excavating the mounds which they both believe to be Viking burial grounds. When Brown unearths the first fragments of a ship, the excavation proceeds full steam ahead.

Minus a few plot points inserted for the sake of dramatic storytelling (Brown’s relationship with British Museum archaeologist Charles Phillips wasn’t nearly as contentious as portrayed, for instance), the movie mostly adheres to the real story, according to screenwriter Moira Buffini. But Buffini professes that in the script, she did omit Pretty’s obsession with “spiritualism” and penchant for speaking to the dead.

Even with its historical discrepancies, the Netflix film does a public service in that it introduces the extraordinary Sutton Hoo story to a new generation of viewers. At the same time, The Dig illuminates the role archaeology plays in unearthing previously unknown narratives.

Buffini, who adapted Jane Eyre for the screen in 2011, conducted extensive research on Sutton Hoo, poring over Brown’s notebooks, inquest reports and photos and drawing inspiration from “each bit of treasure recorded, measured and drawn for posterity.”

“One is struck by the tenderness Brown felt for all of the artifacts,” Buffini says. “He spoke of the respect and almost familial love hidden in the artifacts, and how there was incredible culture and craftsmanship outside and beyond the Roman Empire.”

Gold shoulder clasp with inlays of garnets and glass (Rob Roy via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 2.5)

Over the course of several excavations in 1938 and 1939, Brown and the archaeological team found 263 objects buried in the central chamber of the enormous Anglo-Saxon ship. Iron rivets, identified as being part of the seafaring vessel, was the first clue that alerted the archaeologist of the huge ship buried on the site, according to Brunning.

As the archaeologists dug deeper, they found themselves stunned by the scale, quality and sheer diversity of the trove. Among the artifacts unearthed were fine feasting vessels, deluxe hanging bowls, silverware from Byzantium, luxurious textiles and gold dress accessories set with Sri Lankan garnets.

The grave’s burial chamber was laden with weapons and high-quality military equipment. A shield found inside is believed to have been a diplomatic gift from Scandinavia shoulder clasps appear to be modeled on those worn by Roman emperors, suggesting the armor’s owner drew from different cultures and power bases to assert his own authority.

The artifacts also included a gold belt buckle with a triple-lock mechanism, its surface adorned with semi-abstract imagery featuring snakes slithering beneath each other. Brown found 37 gold coins, which were probably held in a leather pouch, and an ornate purse lid, which would have covered the pouch. It hung from three hinged straps from a waist belt and was fastened by the gold buckle. The purse-lid, adorned with reddish garnets, is considered one of the finest examples of cloisonné, a style in which stones are held by gold strips.

Though metal items survived in Suffolk’s acidic soil better than organic objects like fabric and wood, the team did find a number of unexpected artifacts, including a well-preserved yellow ladybug.

“Every part of the burial site is an important piece of the puzzle, even something as simple as small wooden cups,” says Brunning. “Most people (who see the collection) tend to walk past them because they’re not shiny. But when we analyze these objects and look at how they are laid out and the type of labor that went into them, they would have taken time to make. So even the smallest, most shriveled objects are important.”

Elaborate ship burials filled with treasures were rare in Anglo-Saxon England, particularly toward the latter end of the early medieval period. The wealth of grave goods found at Sutton Hoo—as well as the positioning of the ship and its contents, which would’ve required a considerable amount of manpower to transport—suggest its onetime inhabitant was of a very high social status, perhaps even royalty, but the individual’s identity remains a mystery. (An oft-cited candidate is King Raedwald of East Anglia, who died around 625.) By 1939, notes the British Museum, all that was left of the deceased was a “human-shaped gap among the treasures within.”

According to Brunning, Raedwald ruled around that time and “may have had power over neighboring kingdoms, which would have earned him a good send-off.”

A replica of the famed Sutton Hoo helmet (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The most iconic item to come out of Sutton Hoo is a helmet decorated with images of fighting and dancing warriors and fierce creatures, including a dragon whose wings form the headgear’s eyebrows and tail its body and mouth. Garnets line the eyebrows, one of which is backed with gold foil reflectors. Found highly corroded and broken into hundreds of fragments, the armor was painstakingly restored by conservators at the British Museum in the early 1970s.

On July 25, 1939, Pretty hosted a reception at the Sutton Hoo site to celebrate the conclusion of the dig. The land next to the excavation site was fashioned into a viewing platform. The British Museum’s Phillips delivered a short speech about the ship, but was drowned out by the roar of the engine of a Spitfire flying overhead as England prepared for war. Shortly after that, news of the excavation’s findings started to appear in the press, in part from information leaked by a member of the excavating team. A few days later, the Sutton Hoo artifacts were transported to the British Museum, and after some legal wrangling, they officially became part of the collection as a gift from Pretty.

The public first got a look at the artifacts in a 1940 exhibit, but that opportunity would be short-lived as they were secreted away in the tunnels of the London Underground for safekeeping during the war. After the Allies’ victory in 1945, the trove was returned to the British Museum where conservation and reconstruction work began.

But analysis of the artifacts generated more questions, and the Sutton Hoo burial ground was re-excavated using advances in science to improve analysis. In 1983, a third excavation of the site led to the discovery of another mound, which contained a warrior and his horse.

Today, the Sutton Hoo artifacts remain on exhibition at the British Museum, where each year, in non-pandemic times, visitors view the extraordinary treasures of an Anglo-Saxon king buried in grandeur 1,400 years ago. More than 80 years after Brown started sifting through the sandy soil of Sutton Hoo, the treasures he unearthed are undiminished. As he wrote in his diary in 1939, “It’s the find of a lifetime.”


Sutton Hoo

Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.

Sutton Hoo, estate near Woodbridge, Suffolk, England, that is the site of an early medieval burial ground that includes the grave or cenotaph of an Anglo-Saxon king. The burial, one of the richest Germanic burials found in Europe, contained a ship fully equipped for the afterlife (but with no body) and threw light on the wealth and contacts of early Anglo-Saxon kings its discovery, in 1939, was unusual because ship burial was rare in England.

The impression of the rotted-away ship’s timbers in the trench of sand 25 feet (7.6 metres) deep and the remaining rivets showed the ship to have been a mastless clinker-built rowboat more than 80 feet (27 metres) long. The dating of coins found at the site and the presence of both Christian and pagan features suggest that it may have been the cenotaph of Raedwald (died 624/625), an East Anglian king who had converted to Christianity and subsequently returned to paganism. The identity of the king is still in question, however, and another candidate is Aethelhere who died in 654 fighting for Penda, pagan king of Mercia, at Winwaed. The rite of ship burial and certain items in the grave have parallels in Sweden and suggest a hitherto unsuspected Swedish origin for the East Anglian royal dynasty.

In the burial site there were 41 items of solid gold, now housed in the British Museum, along with a quantity of imported silverware. One great silver dish bears the control stamp of the Byzantine emperor Anastasius I (491–518). In addition, silver bowls, cups, and spoons inscribed in Greek and a bronze bowl from the Middle East show the range of the kingdom’s contacts. The royal tomb and its grave goods throw much light on the civilization depicted by Beowulf.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy Tikkanen, Corrections Manager.


Sutton Hoo’s Story Goes Deeper Than The Dig

The archaeologist in charge of the Sutton Hoo burial mounds recounts what has been discovered at the famous English site since the 1930s excavation portrayed in the movie The Dig.

I first saw the Sutton Hoo burial mounds in 1982. They lay in an English field overlooking the River Deben, overgrown with bracken and overrun with rabbits. As an archaeologist, I knew a little bit about them—enough to feel a burn of excitement plus a twinge of sadness at the state they were in. The next day I put in my application to be the director of a new excavation campaign there: I resolved to solve the mystery of the mounds and make the site into a monument we could be proud of.

T he place had sprung to fame 43 years earlier, just before I was born, through the surprising discovery of a buried ship under the biggest mound. It was the size of a large yacht (27 meters long). Along with it, archaeologists found a resplendent treasure, with an artistry and wealth unparalleled in England. There were objects of gold, garnet, silver, and bronze, exquisitely worked with animal patterns, together with fragments of many kinds of textiles, an otter fur cap, and a flowering plant. At one end of the ship were spears and a shield at the other lay cauldrons for cooking, silver bowls, drinking horns, and wooden bottles for feasting and in the center rested the sword and harness, purse, and helmet of a dead man, along with a pile of his clothes. He had been a warrior and a leader, a prominent person in a wealthy community of still-pagan North Sea nations.

There are more than a dozen burial mounds at Sutton Hoo. This one, Mound 2, has been reconstructed to its original height. Geoff Dallimore/Wikimedia

T his was the discovery celebrated in the recently released film The Dig. The movie tells the story of the excavation, promoted through the initiative of the landowner Edith Pretty (played in the film by Carey Mulligan) and first dug by local excavator Basil Brown (played by Ralph Fiennes). Thanks to some superlative performances, the film offers an irresistible portrait of English society (and its cherished customs) on the brink of World War II.

T he burial was quickly assigned to a king and, given its location in Suffolk County, to a king of East Anglia. By virtue of the art style, it was placed in the seventh century. The buried man was in all likelihood Raedwald, an Anglo-Saxon who dallied with Christianity and died around A.D. 625. For many, this has remained a sufficient explanation for the Mound 1 treasures, now housed in the British Museum and attracting a wide following.

H owever, just as the character of British society has radically changed since 1939, so has the meaning of Sutton Hoo, thanks to a further 75 years of intensive research.

The original 1939 excavation, shown here, was the subject of the movie The Dig. William Phillips/Wikimedia

T his research—begun after the war and led by the British Museum, now owner of the finds—was naturally focused on the objects excavated in 1939, piecing the fragments together and showing the wide range of contacts of the East Angles: from North Britain to Sweden to France and the Mediterranean. The symbolism in the artifacts showed unmistakably that these people belonged to an extensive pagan community of North Sea and Baltic countries, but there was also some exotic silverware bearing Christian insignia from the Mediterranean. A re-excavation of Mound 1 in the 1960s checked for anything that was missed, and the director, Rupert Bruce-Mitford, gathered all the results into a magnificently detailed three-volume account of the ship’s contents.

B y the early 1980s, as this book reached the public, the people who studied early medieval Europe were pressing for new excavations at Sutton Hoo. Some were hoping for more treasures, a sight of other kings, or a new flagship project to preen the nation’s identity. But the mood of the archaeological community had changed: These old ideas were no longer the principal drivers.

T he new questions were different: What was the ship doing in that spot—why that, why there, why then? What did it signify? It was said to “rewrite history” by shining new light on this particular time and place. Very well. What then was to be the new narrative?

(RE)THINK HUMAN

G et our newest stories delivered to your inbox every Friday.

T hese were my thoughts as I received the news that I had won the chance to direct the new campaign, sponsored by the British Museum, the BBC, the Society of Antiquaries of London, and the Suffolk County Council. The results of our 1983–1992 campaign were published in 2005.

The author (third from left) leads a tour at Sutton Hoo in 1985. Tuija Rankama/Martin Carver

W e began with a survey of the whole site to get an inkling of what remained. We found it contained 18 mounds in total. We chose a crossed-shaped area that contained seven mounds in order to examine how the burial rites had developed through time. All but one had been excavated or damaged before (as we had expected), so we developed many new techniques to squeeze the maximum information from what remained.

T he upshot was that Sutton Hoo could enjoy a new reality. Our investigation showed that there were actually three cemeteries here: a family burial ground of the sixth century, the elite barrows of the early seventh century (including the ship), and two groups of executions from the eighth through the 11th centuries, featuring the remains of hanged bodies and the postholes of a gallows.

The mounds were further excavated during the latest campaign, which ran from 1983 to 1992. Nigel Macbeth

T here were links between the first two cemeteries: For example, cremations in bronze bowls seen in the first family burial ground were also a theme of mounds 3, 4, 5, and 18, the early burials of the elite cemetery. Mound 17 came next: A man about 25 years old had been laid in a tree-trunk coffin that had curved clasps. He was buried with a sword, shield, spears, a small bronze cooking pot, a picnic of lamb chops—and the ornamental bridle of his horse, which lay in a pit adjacent. He was equipped for his last adventure.

T hese were followed by two ship burials: one with a ship over the burial chamber in Mound 2 (excavated three times before) and the famous Mound 1. The most recent burial was that of a woman in Mound 14 who wore silver ornaments and was probably lying on a couch. The execution burials were laid in one group around Mound 5 and in another on the edge of a thoroughfare running along the ridge beside the mounds. There was no doubt that the victims were intended to be seen by those passing by.

T hese new findings prompted a new view of Mound 1 and its surrounding burials. They could now be seen as a kind of theater in which an Anglian people celebrated the kingdom they were creating through a succession of grand burials that expressed the political aspirations of the day.

This map shows the kingdom of East Anglia during the early Anglo-Saxon period, with Sutton Hoo in the southeast corner. (South Folk is now Suffolk.) Amitchell125/Wikimedia

I n the fifth century, immigrants had made their way up the River Deben from North Germany to settle in Suffolk. One hundred years later, the area had become very wealthy—as shown by recent finds at Rendlesham, an Anglo-Saxon palace site farther upriver. The family that had buried its dead on the banks of the river (our first cemetery) had aspired to leadership roles in the late sixth century. In an eventful episode lasting only 50 years, they went on to create the second cemetery—an elite cluster of barrows celebrating their climb to international prominence.

T he well-preserved Mound 1 and Mound 17 showed that objects had been specially selected to make a statement about the dead: a poem of remembrance constructed in objects. This is how a nonliterate people wrote their histories.

W e learned that in the Mound 1 burial, the dead man was originally in a large tree-trunk coffin, with a sword and helmet on top and clothes inside it at his feet. It was a piece of theater, leading me to suppose that it was Raedwald’s politically astute wife who had designed it. The message seemed to be: “Times are changing, and we must stand by our people without provoking the Christian alliance that is coming our way.”

A reconstruction of the day of the burial at Mound 1. Victor Ambrus

A s we learn from history books, in the late seventh century, East Anglia acquired a series of Christian kings. The executions were mainly those of young men, who presumably failed to conform with the new regime and paid the price: They were denied burial in the churchyard. Instead, they were buried in the company of the once-brilliant leaders of earlier days, who had no written records but who left an indelible mark on the English landscape.

T hanks to its previous owner, the site of Sutton Hoo is now in the care of the National Trust “for everyone, for ever.” The trust has built a splendid onsite museum with heritage lottery funds. Opened in 2002 by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney (an enthusiast for Sutton Hoo), the visitor center attracted a million visitors in its first 10 years. And work goes on—on the Sutton Hoo site, in the region, and across the river, where we are now building a full-sized reconstruction of the Mound 1 ship. Each year brings new discoveries of the people who settled in Britain in the fifth century who built Sutton Hoo and became the English.


The discovery at Sutton Hoo: when the Dark Ages were lit up

The year 1939 saw a rare ray of light shine into the Dark Ages, and made people realise that the Anglo-Saxon period did not deserve that gloomy moniker. In 1938, Edith Pretty, owner of Sutton Hoo House in Suffolk, had commissioned a local archaeologist, Basil Brown, to investigate the huge tumulus on her land. Brown did not do as he was asked. On examining it he saw that a trench had been dug into its centre, assumed it to have been robbed and moved on to the smaller surrounding tumuli. Having found next to nothing, in the following year he returned his attention to his original subject. He quickly unearthed rivets in rows, and as the outline of a boat slowly emerged it became apparent that the earlier grave robbers had ceased their digging just inches short of a burial hoard of unexampled beauty.

While the wood of the ship and the flesh of the man had dissolved in the acidic Suffolk soil, the gold, silver and iron of his wealth remained. For the first time, indeed for the only time, historians had a chance to see the sort of objects that a great man of the seventh century had in his hall. From a range of ornate war gear – a sword, an axe-hammer, a huge circular shield decorated with wild animals, a coat of mail, a collection of spears – to auspicious displays of wealth – a silver dish three-quarters of a metre in diameter, a complex buckle wrought from pure gold, fine shoulder clasps – to feasting equipment – a cauldron, drinking horns, a lyre – the man had all he needed to live in eternity as he had on earth. His boat was pointing west and in his purse were 40 gold pieces, one for each of the ghostly oarsmen who would row him to the other place.

The real story of The Dig

Sutton Hoo’s seventh-century treasures have fired up the imaginations of history lovers for decades, most recently inspiring new Netflix film The Dig. Professor Martin Carver talks to David Musgrove about the real history of the remarkable 1939 excavation…

What can we learn from the discovery at Sutton Hoo?

The burial shows us that this corner of Suffolk was extraordinarily well connected to the world around it. Much of the craftsmanship, particularly the helmet and buckle, was clearly influenced or accomplished by Scandinavian work. The silver dish was made in Byzantium c500. The gold coins, which allow us to date the burial to the 620s or soon after, are Frankish. One of the bowls appears to be from Egypt. After looking at Sutton Hoo it is impossible to think of early Anglo-Saxon society as being cut off from the rest of the world, impossible to think of their leaders as little Englanders, but rather we are forced to consider them as self-consciously part of a wider European society stretching from the Mediterranean to the North Sea.

Seeing the funerary magnificence of Sutton Hoo not only revealed to historians the exotic tastes of early medieval bigwigs, it also served as a reminder of how they should observe the period. To assume that seventh-century Anglo-Saxons were ‘primitive’ is to assume that an absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

Thinking in these terms raises great questions about the grave. The assumption has long been that the inhabitant of the mound was a king of East Anglia, probably Redwald, who converted to Christianity before lapsing into paganism. Who else but a king would be buried with such finery?

But as Professor James Campbell of Oxford has argued, to assume we have a royal burial is to ignore the fact that the tomb is almost entirely without context. It is something of a minor miracle that the spoils of Sutton Hoo remained undisturbed until the 1930s. The largest burial mounds must always have been the most alluring for entrepreneurial grave robbers and, consequently, we should expect that these obvious, unguarded burials were interfered with at some point in the intervening centuries. The Anglo-Saxons themselves were not innocent of the crime – in Beowulf, the dragon who kills the eponymous hero is disturbed from his tumulus by a thief. This is to say that we cannot know exactly how prevalent burials like Sutton Hoo once were. It may be that there was a time when they were not that unusual.

We do not know, and have no way of knowing, how much treasure there was in seventh-century England. There may have been a great many men who had become rich from conquest and protection racketeering. There may even have been many who had access to examples of such craftsmanship (whoever made the exquisite shoulder-clasps and belt was evidently not doing it for the first time). And so Sutton Hoo also acts as a reminder of how much we do not know about Anglo-Saxon history, about how we must think before we make even the shallowest assumptive leap.

If the grave’s precise status is in doubt, its uniqueness is not, and the treasure is a much needed feast for the eyes in a period starved of visual aids. While the Anglo-Saxons have left us some manuscripts, some coins, the occasional church that survived the great Norman renovations, a post-Conquest tapestry, and the clutter of archaeology, compared to all subsequent eras, there is not much to see. Consequently, the splendour of Sutton Hoo was immediately destined for iconic status and publishers have been consistently keen (as we have here) to use the helmet as a cover illustration.

This one relic from Anglo-Saxon England has, in some ways, come to define the whole period. As a reminder of the centrality of militarism to the age this is fitting but it has, perhaps, also done something to harden in the public imagination the idea that the Anglo-Saxons were nothing more than noble warriors. This is unfortunate because we now understand a great deal about the complexities and sophistication of late Anglo-Saxon government and know that, by the eighth century at the very latest, they were much more than barbarian champions of military households. We know this largely because of the work of archaeologists. Over the past 50 years our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon economy has accelerated beyond all expectation and, as it has, we have become vastly more aware of the government machinery which exploited and regulated it. Huge numbers of coins have been exhumed by metal detectorists showing how standardised royal coinage was circulating in Britain by the late eighth century, and how, by the mid-tenth century, there was a currency of perhaps several million coins, regularly recalled and recoined – presumably to tax, and assure quality.

This was very much a national system. During the reign of King Edgar (ruled 959 to 975) it seems few parts of England were further than 15 miles from a royal mint. Such clues show us how capable these kings were of centralised government, how good they were at imposing uniform standards over wide areas, and why we might describe their kingdom as a ‘state’. Thus archaeologists have unearthed a society’s progression from a world of plunder and tribute, to one of toll and tax.

But despite such rich academic discoveries, popular appreciation of the Anglo-Saxons since the Second World War has, if anything, been on the wane. The Victorians were fascinated by the origins of England and its government and so had a fondness and fascination for the state-building of Alfred the Great and his heirs. But there has been little room for the Anglo-Saxons in the modern British mindset. Whereas 19th century scholars revelled in their Teutonic past, by the mid-20th century, England’s German heritage evinced little pride, and the very concept of volk had been sullied by history’s most monstrous crimes. This intellectual backdrop meant that as Britain became a modern nation of many peoples, so Anglo-Saxon history came to be seen as insular, primitive, misogynistic and irrelevant to the point where the word ‘medieval’ has become a term of abuse deployed by those who know nothing of the medieval world.

Indeed, in recent times, our pre-Conquest predecessors have been co-opted by the far right (along with the cross of St George), and turned into symbols of a ‘pure England’. This manipulation is wrong, for the Anglo-Saxons were no more ‘ethnically pure’ than the English of today. Recognising this reveals just how dangerous and unhelpful the rejection of parts of our history can be: dangerous because, discarded, they can be poached by the ignorant and unhelpful because the internationalism of their time actually mirrors ours.

Because Anglo-Saxon culture lurks behind our laws and rights, behind our system of government, behind our towns and behind the words that one in five people on Earth can understand, it is neither nationalistic nor insular to say that we should take an interest in it.

There ought to be no room for nationalistic pride in the study and appreciation of history. We did not do these things we were not yet born. For many of us, these were not even the deeds of our ancestors. But they are, nonetheless, a large part of our cultural inheritance and, to a certain extent, that of the world. To ignore Anglo-Saxon culture is to needlessly rebury our treasure in the mound and leave it to the mercy of robbers.

Alex Burghart is one of the authors of the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (www.pase.ac.uk), a database of known people from the period – and formerly a tutor and researcher at King’s College London. He was writing to commemorate 70 years since the discovery at Sutton Hoo.

The Anglo-Saxons: a condensed history

The first centuries of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain are so obscure that very little can be said about them with any certainty (not that this has prevented some tireless academics from saying much). After the withdrawal of the Roman army from Britain in AD 410, peoples from Germany and Scandinavia are known to have settled here. Marked by an almost complete lack of evidence, by 597 an area which under the Romans had been urbanised, monetarised, and Christianised, had become rustic, had no real currency and was largely pagan.

In 596, inspired by some Anglian slaves he had seen in the marketplace in Rome, Pope Gregory despatched a group of missionaries to Britain to convert the Anglo-Saxons. Over the following 90 years gradually the different kingdoms accepted the new faith but not without occasional resistance – the huge pagan-style burial at Sutton Hoo appears to hail from a time when Christianity was in the land but not quite in everybody’s hearts.

Politically, the general (though by no means consistent) pattern of the period 600–900 was that a large number of small polities gradually conquered or merged with each other. Some, like Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex, also continued to expand their interests at their ‘Celtic’ neighbours’ expense. This was not an easy task: the Northumbrians were pushed back by the Picts at Nechtansmere in 685, and the Mercians would resort to buildings Offa’s Dyke against the Welsh.

By the death of Offa of Mercia (796), only five kingdoms remained: Wessex, Essex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria. Offa had conquered Kent, Sussex and East Anglia, and his successors inherited these gains. But in the 820s Wessex invaded the southern domains and an insurrection in East

Anglia drove the Mercians out. There the status quo remained until 865 when it was violently disturbed by Danish armies, commonly known as Vikings. Their forces swiftly conquered East Anglia, Northumbria, part of Mercia and very nearly Wessex until the organisational prowess (and good fortune) of Alfred the Great of Wessex (who ruled from 871 to 899) halted their advance.

A much ignored moment in English history occurred in c879 when, after centuries of rivalry, Mercia accepted Alfred’s lordship and a ‘kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons’ was born. This union, forged in the face of threats from Danish armies, was then inherited, albeit shakily, by Alfred’s son, Edward (ruled 899 to 924). Edward set about the conquest of the Danelaw, extending his power into the Midlands and East Anglia.

In turn Edward’s son, Athelstan (ruled 924 to 939) ‘completed’ the task begun in earnest by his father and, in 927, conquered Northumbria. With fewer proximal rivals, the unified kingdom of England flourished. During the mid- and late tenth century it developed a highly organised and centralised coinage, established royal patronage over episcopal and abbatial appointments and extended the West Saxon system of shires to the newly acquired parts of the kingdom.

Such administrative and economic success once again attracted the envious eyes of neighbouring peoples. During the reign of Æthelred II, the Unready (ruled 978 to 1016), seaborne Danes frequently exacted heavy tribute as the price of their keeping the peace. In 1016 the nature of this hostility shifted. King Cnut of Denmark (ruled 1016–1035) defeated Æthelred’s son Edmund at the Battle of Assandun, receiving half of England for his victory and succeeding to the rest on Edmund’s death a few weeks later. Cnut’s North Sea Empire was inherited by his son, Harthacnut, who ruled until 1042, at which time the kingdom reverted to Æthelred’s son, Edward the Confessor (ruled 1042 to 1066).

Along with 1966, 1066 is perhaps one of the most recognisable dates in English history. It is also one of the cleanest period breaks in the whole of world history. The future of the English language, the make-up of the English aristocracy, and the direction of English political culture were altered in a few hours at Hastings on 14 October 1066 when William of Normandy defeated and killed King Harold. William sealed his victory with a coronation in London on Christmas Day that same year (aping Charlemagne’s imperial crowning in Rome, 266 years before), thus beginning the age of the Anglo-Normans.


What is Sutton Hoo?

It's no surprise that a movie has been based on Sutton Hoo, as it's considered one of the most famous archaeological discoveries ever made in the United Kingdom. And there's already built-in drama: The cemetery contains multiple burials, although many have been heavily robbed. The most famous burial, and one that robbers missed, is known as the "great ship burial" and contains the remains of a 88.6-foot-long (27 meters) ship that has a burial chamber filled with 263 artifacts.

These artifacts include an intricate gold belt buckle that depicts a mix of snakes, beasts and birds of prey. They also include silverware and coins from the Byzantine Empire, a sword that has a hilt made of jewels and gold dress accessories that have garnet minerals from Sri Lanka.


Sutton Hoo: a brief guide to the Anglo-Saxon burial site and its discovery

The two Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, from the 6th and 7th centuries, were an extraordinary find, with one of the highlights being an undisturbed ship burial. The discovery not far from the Suffolk coast offers unique insight into Anglo-Saxon society and culture. Here's a quick guide to the site from BBC History Revealed

This competition is now closed

Published: February 1, 2021 at 8:25 am

Sometime around 1,400 years ago, a great ship was hauled up from the East Anglian coast to Sutton Hoo, the site of an Anglo-Saxon burial ground. Here, the ship became the last resting place of a king or a great warrior. This unknown figure was buried with his vast treasure, undisturbed until the site was excavated, initially by the landowner, Edith Pretty, in 1939. Pretty called upon the services of a self-taught archaeologist, Basil Brown, who made the discovery. What soon became evident was that this was no ordinary ancient cemetery. Further excavations took place through the 1960s and into the 1990s, uncovering the richest burial ground ever to have been found in northern Europe.

But who was buried here, and why? Well, these questions have kept archaeologists and historians guessing ever since the site was uncovered. The most likely theory would seem to name the deceased as King Raedwald, an Anglo-Saxon leader who triumphed over Northumberland, but courted controversy when he erected an altar for Jesus Christ alongside one for the ‘old gods’. Indeed, this fusing of Christian and traditional religious elements offers a fascinating insight into Britain at a time when Christianity was establishing a real stronghold.

The real story of The Dig

Sutton Hoo’s seventh-century treasures have fired up the imaginations of history lovers for decades, most recently inspiring new Netflix film The Dig. Professor Martin Carver talks to David Musgrove about the real history of the remarkable 1939 excavation…

While the most celebrated find is an intricate ceremonial helmet, there are also pieces made of gold and embellished with gems, many of which are considered to be the best quality found in Europe from that period. There is an ornate gold belt buckle, a decorated sword and its scabbard, buckles and clasps from clothing and a purse containing gold coins. Many of the pieces would have been produced by master craftsmen. Comparisons have been drawn between Sutton Hoo and sites in Sweden, while many point to links between the spot and the epic poem Beowulf, which opens with the ship burial of a king.

Who was buried at Sutton Hoo?

BBC History Revealed explains…

The simple answer is: we don’t know. Sadly, because of the acidic nature of the soils at Sutton Hoo, no trace of the body at the centre of the grave survived and, in the absence of an inscription or other historical reference, the identity of the person interred will probably never be known for sure.

However, the nature of the finds, which predominantly date from the early 7th century, have led some archaeologists and historians to suggest that this may have been the final resting place of a king, most probably Raedwald, ruler of the East Angles, who died sometime around AD 624.

Britain’s ‘Valley of the Kings’

While certainly the most dramatic find, the ship burial at what is known as Mound One is just one of 18 burial mounds at the site. Most have long since been plundered by grave robbers, but the tomb uncovered at Mound Seventeen was another hugely significant find, revealing a young warrior and his horse, buried complete with not just his weapons but also everyday items such as cooking tools and a comb. The objects found at these and the neighbouring mounds have proven vital in our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of sixth- and seventh-century-AD East Anglia. Sutton Hoo can claim to be Britain’s very own Valley of the Kings.

Can I visit Sutton Hoo?

While the majority of Sutton Hoo’s treasures are housed at the British Museum, the site itself is certainly well worth visiting. You can take the opportunity to walk around and explore the burial mounds, as well as check out the large visitor centre, which features permanent and temporary exhibitions.

The centre houses exquisite replicas of many of the most important finds, made using traditional methods, plus a number of original pieces. There’s also a full-size reconstruction of the burial chamber, which brings home the scale of the find. And all this is set within a beautiful 255-acre estate, offering walks with incredible views, and even an Edwardian house to explore should the weather take an inclement turn.

Away from Suffolk, the British Museum in London houses many of the treasures in a dedicated gallery. Edith Pretty generously donated the finds to the museum in 1939, and those on view include the iconic helmet, a giant copy of which adorns the front of the visitor centre at Sutton Hoo.

Find out more about visiting Sutton Hoo, managed by the National Trust.

This information first appeared in BBC History Revealed magazine


A dying tradition

In an attempt to understand how and why the practice died out, archaeologist Emma Brownlee, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Girton College who specializes in early medieval burial practices, dug into archaeological records that document more than 33,000 early medieval graves. Her analysis, recently published in the journal Antiquity, covered 237 cemeteries in northwestern Europe, the majority of them in England.

Using descriptions and drawings of tens of thousands of graves excavated over the past 60 years, Brownlee painstakingly calculated the average number of objects per grave, down to the last bead. She also gathered other important information, such as how long the cemeteries were in use, and what the most reliable dating techniques suggested about their age.

Then the number crunching began. Her map shows England abandoning grave goods as early as the mid-sixth century. By the time the Anglo-Saxon warrior was interred around 625, furnished burials were well on their way to abandonment.

“After the seventh century, nobody is being buried with things in their graves,” says Brownlee.

Since her data skews toward England, Brownlee cautions that English people didn’t necessarily lead the way. Nonetheless, her data shows that England finished its turn toward simpler burials by the 720s, while the rest of northwestern Europe took another half-century to follow suit.


How Sutton Hoo changed history

This 1,400-year-old Anglo Saxon grave is revolutionary the British Museum calls the Sutton Hoo burial site the "most impressive medieval grave to be discovered in Europe."

The finding provides an unprecedented insight into the Anglo-Saxon period of European history, but, more importantly, it fundamentally reshapes our understanding of what is known as the Dark Ages.

The archaeologists in the film rejoice, realizing that the ancient treasures indicate this period was not devoid of civic life — as was commonly thought — but instead, a society filled with a rich, cosmopolitan culture.

The movie isn't perfect. Both Mulligan and Fiennes fade into the background in The Dig's second act as the story shifts to focus on a love triangle between a young female archaeologist, her secretly queer husband, and a dashing young photographer determined to serve his country in the upcoming war.

While this subplot highlights the consuming totality of war — and how it can overshadow even a world-changing archaeological discovery — the love triangle ultimately feels less compelling than the friendship between Fiennes' and Mulligan's characters.

Equally compelling is the professional role of the female archaeologist in the love triangle — Peggy Piggott — who joins the dig with her husband, Stuart Piggott.

Piggot is brought onboard essentially for her small stature — an asset on a fragile dig site — rather than her education, and Phillips, as the traditional scientist, refers to her dismissively as Piggott's wife. But as she proves herself more than capable, she becomes an integral member of the dig.

Both Pretty's role as the "boss" of the dig, and Piggot's role as an archaeologist offer the audience a glimpse into the often over-shadowed role women have played — and continue to play — in the field.

According to a 2014 report, 46 percent of professional archaeologists in England were women in 2013, significantly narrowing the gender gap from only a decade prior (the field remains predominantly white).

The Dig is perhaps the coolest depiction of a female archaeologist onscreen since Laura Dern's turn as Dr. Ellie Satler in Jurassic Park.

The movie also raises interesting questions of archaeological ownership and credibility. Despite Pretty's efforts, Brown's crucial work on the dig went publicly unrecognized for decades, though his name now appears alongside Pretty's in the British Museum's collection.

Following the excavation, Edith donated all of the archaeological findings to the British Museum, where they are still on view to the public today.


&bull The Royal Burial Ground is a Scheduled Monument

&bull Grave robbers tried to rob the King's Mound, but missed the treasure by just a couple of metres

&bull Edith's son, Robert, left his roller-skates in the other ship burial back in 1938

&bull As the landowner at the time of the discovery, Edith Pretty was declared the owner of the priceless Anglo-Saxon treasures. She gave them all to the nation and they can still be seen and enjoyed today at the British Museum.