View across the ship mound
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Sutton Hoo - Burial Ground of Kings *

The gold belt buckle * The title of this page is taken from Martin Carver's excellent 1998 account of Sutton Hoo, its history and excavation. The Anorak has taken the liberty of removing the question mark that Carver included, leaving no room for doubt that kings were buried there. So much depends on the definition of "king" that the Anorak hopes to be forgiven for the alteration.

Sutton Hoo has been called "Page One of English History". One of the most significant sites in UK archaeology, Sutton Hoo is a group of mounds at the centre of an extensive burial ground, standing on a spur of land above the River Deben near Woodbridge in Suffolk. The first excavations were carried out in 1938, although the mounds had been known about for centuries. What was uncovered proved to be one of the richest burials ever excavated, in terms of pure intrinsic value. At the heart of the largest mound was a buried ship containing a wealth of treasures associated with a powerful Anglo Saxon warrior-leader. The enigmatic helmet, the solid gold belt buckle and the ornate armour trappings from the grave are possibly among the best known images of English archaeology.

Shown right is a replica of the helmet at the on-site museum at Sutton Hoo that forms part of a reconstruction of the warrior's grave.
Helmet reconstruction

Reconstructed mound
A reconstructed burial mound showing the possible original topography.

In the late 1930s the land on which the Sutton Hoo burial ground stands belonged to a widow, Mrs Edith Pretty. After the death of her husband in 1934 Mrs Pretty had developed an interest in spirituality and it was possibly the local tales of what the mounds contained that struck her interest. Rumours of buried treasure and ghostly figures, including a man on a white horse, that haunted the area after dark were well known in the remote corner of Suffolk that they occupy. Coupled with a childhood interest in archaeology, the stories must have proved enticing to the relatively young woman who lived so close by. She engaged a local man, Basil Brown - self-taught archaeologist - to investigate the site. Although he carried out an augur study of the main mound it was agreed that he would start excavation on the nearby Mound 3. He was not the first to excavate there. Robbers had been in before him at some point in history and only a few scraps were found. They later turned out to be the cremated remains of a man and a horse and some trappings that were buried with them; a corroded iron axe head, pottery shards, a broken limestone plaque, a lid of a ewer and fragments of various wooden objects.
Brown repeated his attempts on several of the mounds throughout 1938 but held off trying the largest. It was not until May 1939 that work began on what was to become a significant part of English archaeology. Within a matter of days Brown found the first piece of corroded iron that he recognised as a ship rivet. And he made the innovative decision to leave it in situ and to try to find the outline of the ship that he now believed was buried there. Many of the rivets were identifiable only as a change of colour in the yellow sand, where a tinge of pink showed evidence of the presence of iron. But the work soon revealed the outline of a clinker-built wooden ship. Typically, the site was soon deemed too important for an amateur to continue work and the British Museum became involved. A team of excavators, including Stuart Piggott, took over, but not before Brown had the opportunity to identify the position of the central chamber and to catch a glimpse of a few of its treasures. On July 13 work began on the burial chamber itself and a week later the first of the gold and garnet treasures was unearthed.
Reconstructed shield
The reconstructed shield showing
some of the gold fittings

Reconstructed burial chamber
A reconstruction of the burial chamber at the
Sutton Hoo museum

Treasures were soon pouring from the mound and the hoard proved to be one of the richest ever found on English soil. The finds represented everything that a powerful leader would have had around him during his life. Whether those that buried him believed that he would need the same artefacts in the afterlife or whether the interment represented a huge show of wealth and power it is impossible to tell. All that can be done is to reconstruct the magnificence of the finds and the image of what the chamber must have looked like when it was created. The warrior was surrounded by the trappings of his wealth and status. His huge round shield was decorated with gold and garnet trimmings. Beside it stood a magnificent bronze sceptre in the form of a stag, standing on top of a whetstone. He was armed with spears and a scramasax. His forged iron sword showed evidence of skilled blacksmithing in its wave patterned blade and he was protected by a coat of mail. His clothes were richly decorated with a gold belt buckle and fittings. At his waist hung a purse crammed with silver coins and topped with a gold and garnet lid.

The chamber was hung with rich textiles and equipped with tools and equipment for a comfortable life. There were buckets that could have held wine, drinking horns, silver spoons, a huge silver dish, bronze bowls, pottery bottles, an iron lamp, combs, bells and a lyre to provide music for his entertainment.

Interestingly the one thing that was never found in the chamber was a body - the absence was explained by the acidity of the soil - but it is possible to discern many personal details about the warrior. Shoes placed in the grave suggest he had size 7 feet, for example (Continental size 40)
buckle pic
Details of the haul suggest that the leader had links all over the known world. Design elements show that at least one of the silver bowls was from North Africa. The large silver dish is believed to come from Constantinople.

The Beowulf Connection

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The eighth century English poem Beowulf is set in the time of the Sutton Hoo burial and many people have noted links between the finds of mound 1 and lines of the poem. In the fanciful tale Beowulf fights a series of monsters to save the kingdom of the Scyldings but there is a wealth of description about Anglo-Saxon life and customs in the story.

A boat with a ringed neck rode in the haven,
icy, out-eager, the atheling's vessel,
and there they laid out their lord and master,
dealer of wound gold, in the waist of the ship,
in majesty by the mast. A mound of treasures
from far countries was fetched aboard her,
and it is said that no boat was ever more bravely fitted out
with weapons of a warrior, war accoutrement,
swords and body-armour; on his breast were set
treasures and trappings to travel with him
on his far faring into the flood's sway.

When Beowulf agrees to fight the monster he gives instructions that some of his goods are to be sent back to his home in the event of his death.

But if the fight should take me, you would forward to Hygelac
this best of battle-shirts, that my breast now wears.
The queen of war-coats, it is the bequest of Hrethel
and from the forge of Wayland.

Let Unferth have the blade that I inherited -
this wave-patterned sword of rare hardness.

The Rest of the Site
Sand body

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As well as the famous mounds Sutton Hoo has a number of other areas where burials have taken place. At the eastern end of the mounds is a group of graves around mound 5 in which all of the bodies appear to have been mutilated in some way, beheaded or hanged. Many were buried face down . One had the remains of a noose still around its neck and one had its head removed and turned round through 180 degrees so that it faced backwards. Further east is another group around a set of post holes that appear to have supported a tall structure, possibly a gallows. In this group many apparently had their hands or ankles tied and some were buried in unusual postures such as kneeling. In at least one the head was removed and buried in a neighbouring grave.

In keeping with the main ship burial these graves had also been victims of the area's acid soil. No actual bodies remain but the shapes were discernible as hardened lumps of sand that had to be very carefully excavated in order to identify the unusual positions and conditions in which they had been laid to rest. These so-called "sand bodies" have been preserved as casts and one is visible below the floor in the Sutton Hoo museum. (See left)
Carver, Martin (1998) Sutton Hoo. Burial Ground of Kings? British Museum Press, London
Alexander, Michael (1995) Beowulf and Grendel Penguin 60s Series, Penguin Books, London