Sutton Hoo, (grid reference TM288487) near Woodbridge,
Suffolk, is an Anglo-Saxon cemetery and the site of an early
7th century ship burial. The ship-burial was discovered in
1939 and contained a wealth of artefacts. Sutton Hoo is of
primary importance to early medieval historians because it
sheds light on a period in English history that otherwise
has little documented evidence remaining - it has been
called 'page one of English history'. It is one of the most
remarkable archaeological finds in England because of its
age, size, far reaching connections, completeness, beauty,
rarity and historical importance.
Sutton Hoo is located on
a high bluff on the eastern bank of the River Deben, about 7
miles (15km) from the sea. The word 'hoo' means 'spur of a
hill.' Burial mounds have been discovered here, and often
robbed, since 1601. A rudimentary investigation was carried
out in 1860, and referred to in the Ipswich Journal of the
- ROMAN MOUNDS or BARROWS. - It is not known by many
that not less than five Roman Barrows, lying close to
each other, may be seen on a farm occupied by Mr.
Barritt, at Sutton, about 500 yards from the banks of
the Deben, immediately opposite Woodbridge. One of these
mounds was recently opened, when a considerable number
(nearly two bushels) of iron screw bolts were found, all
of which were sent to the blacksmith to be converted
into horseshoes! It is hoped, when leave is granted to
open the others, some more important antiquities may be
discovered. These barrows were laid down in the
Admirality surveys by Captain Stanley during the stay of
the Blazer, when taking the soundings of the above-named
river some years since.
- Ipswich Journal 24 November 1860
Modern archaeological investigation of the site began in
1938, when the new landowner Mrs. Edith May Pretty assisted
by Suffolk excavator Basil Brown, opened three mounds. These
excavations showed that the cemetery was Anglo-Saxon and
that it had been previously disturbed. Two of the mounds
(Mound 3 and 4) contained cremations and one (Mound 2)
included iron rivets of a type used in early clinker-built
ships. Excavations continued in 1939 when the ship-burial
was discovered in Mound 1. Further excavations were
undertaken in the late 1960s and also between 1986 and 1992.
There are many barrows, or burial mounds, at the site and
Sutton Hoo most commonly refers specifically to the
ship burial at Mound 1, although it could also refer
to all the burial mounds. The site is made up of twenty
barrows, most of which are still unexplored by modern
methods. In addition, twenty-seven entirely different
burials have been found outside the mounds. The circular
layout of twelve of these around mound 1 strengthens the
theory that they were perhaps sacrificial burials made at
the same time as the ship-burial. Other mounds at the site
include Mound 2 where a cremated man and horse were
found; and Mound 3 where another ship burial was
found, although not nearly as large as Mound 1 and had been
robbed, probably in the 1860s.
Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo is dated to circa
625, based on a single dated gold coin found with the
treasure to Frankish king Theodebert II (595-612). The ship
was about 27 meters (89 feet) long and 4.2 meters (14 feet)
wide amidships and would have been powered by 40 oarsmen. It
was placed in the mound with the bow facing to the East and
away from the river. A burial chamber was constructed
mid-deck and, based on the arrangement of the armour, the
body within was laid with its feet to the East and head to
the West. There were no remains of a body found at the time
of the initial excavation but more recent analysis has found
chemical traces showing that a body had been present. The
most likely candidate for the burial is King R�dwald.
Only the ship's rivets survived because of soil acidity
but impressions left in the ground allowed a detailed
reconstruction. It did not contain a functional keel, and
there is debate if it held a real sail since there was no
evidence of a mast, but the ship was overall of excellent
craftsmanship. The arrangement of the rivets provided
evidence of repair-work being carried out on the ship,
indicating that it had previously been a fully operating
ship rather than being purpose-built for the burial.
The Sutton Hoo treasure from Mound 1 is extensive. The
artefacts have been removed from the site and are on display
in the British Museum. Items include:
- Personal items of adornment include:
- shoulder-clasps in cloisonne, gold and garnet.
- a great golden buckle, 13.2 cm (5.2 inches)
long, weighing 414.62 grams (14.625 ounces
- a purse lid framed in gold with plaques executed
in garnet and millefiori.
- the purse of leather has disappeared, it
contained 37 Merovingian gold coins weighing
between 1.06 and 1.38 grams, three unstruck
blank coins, and two small gold bars. Combined,
these forty pieces may be symbolic payment to
the forty oarsmen. The two gold bars, about four
times in weight to a gold coin, would have been
payment to the helmsman.
- a carved whetstone decoratively mounted with
iron rings and a bronze stag, believed to have been
a royal scepter.
- The weaponry includes:
- a helmet, a rare find in Germanic graves, is of
a spangenhelm style and decorated with designs seen
elsewhere in Sweden in the 6th century. It was made
in one piece, however, which suggests an English
manufacturer. It is also notable for its lack of
Christian imagery unlike the contemporary 'Coppergate
helmet' from York. It remained unreconstructed from
its excavation to the end of World War Two, then was
reconstructed for display at the Festival of
Britain. This reconstruction later proved
unsatisfactory (it would have made it restrictive
for the wearer, for example) and, for 6 months in
1971, British Museum conservator Nigel Williams took
it apart into 500 pieces and reconstructed it as we
see it today (finding, for example, the jaw of a
dragon-head from the face mask in a piece mis-boxed
and therefore not used in the original
- The wooden shield has almost entirely decayed
but was round with an iron central hand-hold and a
decorative central bronze plaque.
- A rusted iron sword, the remains of which are 85
cm (34 inches) long, had a gold guard plate.
- chain mail.
- six spears of different types.
- an axe-hammer with an iron handle.
- Other items
- a set of ten silver bowls that fit into one
another, eight bowls are well preserved.
- a pair of nielloed silver baptismal spoons
inscribed with the names of Saulos and Paulos in
- a large bronze hanging bowl decorated in enamel
- a silver dish has a stamp dating it to the reign
of Byzantine emperor Anastasius (r. 491-518). Other
silver and bronze items came from the Mediterranean
in more contemporary times.
- a bard's lyre of maplewood contained in a beaver
skin bag (traces of which remain).
- a pair of drinking horns of aurochs decorated
with silver gilt foil.
- domestic items such as a cauldron with a
suspension chain over 11 feet long;
- the remains of textiles of many kinds;
Although only trace human remains have been found, King
Raedwald of East Anglia, the fourth bretwalda of England,
who died at about the time of the burial, is the favourite
candidate for who is buried in Mound 1. The proximity of
Sutton Hoo to a royal centre of authority at Rendlesham (4
miles north-east) indicates a connection between Sutton Hoo
and the East Anglia royal house. The amount and value of the
treasures found is indicative of the owner's 'widespread
connections' and appropriate for a king's burial.
Sutton Hoo is one of few comparable ship-burial sites
found outside of Scandinavia. The burial, helmet and shield
are virtually identical to those found at the Vendel Age
burial sites of Vendel and Valsg�rde in Sweden suggesting
very close ties to the royal dynasty of Sweden, the
Scylfings of Beowulf. Another theory (Newton 1993)
suggests that the Wuffinga dynasty was descended from the
Wulfinga dynasty of Beowulf and Widsith, which
also suggests Swedish, or rather Geatish, origins for the
East Anglian dynasty (Newton 1993, see also Farrell
Archaeologists connected with the site theorize that
Christianity was beginning to make itself felt and high
caste pagans responded with ever more elaborate pagan
rituals. Cremation was now adopted, in defiance of Christian
practice, leading up to the royal ship burial. Although he
was accompanied by objects of Christian significance, his
burial may have been attended by human sacrifice.
The Sutton Hoo legend - excavation
In addition to its great importance as an archaeological
site, Sutton Hoo has captured the imagination of the general
public due to the legend surrounding the discovery of the
ship-burial under Mound 1.
In 1938, Mrs Edith May Pretty was the landowner for the
Sutton Hoo site. Her home had an imposing view down the hill
towards the mounds, and she had often wondered what these
strange, rabbit infested, mounds were. One night, she had a
vivid dream in which she saw images of a funereal procession
and of great treasures buried under what is now known as
Mound 1. She made contact with a local archaeologist, Basil
Brown, and took him down to the site, suggesting he start
digging at Mound 1. However, that mound showed obvious signs
of disturbance, leading Mr Brown to suspect that it had been
robbed and that there would be nothing of interest left
beneath it. Instead, he started work on Mounds 3, 2 and,
finally, 4 over the course of 1938. These excavations did
reveal interesting treasures, but the mounds had been robbed
and nothing exceptional was found.
Mrs Pretty kept on insisting on a full excavation of
Mound 1 and, in 1939, Mr Brown began work. He soon
discovered the enormously important treasure trove that
makes Sutton Hoo famous. Reputedly, the centre of the burial
chamber was found beneath the exact spot where Mrs Pretty
had told him to dig a year previously.
The question arises as to why the robbers, who had
previously disturbed Mound 1, had not located the burial
chamber. The answer is yet another of those amazing
coincidences that forms the Sutton Hoo legend. Over time,
the Sutton Hoo site had been split into different fields and
boundary ditches had been dug across the land. One of those
ditches ran very close to the edge of Mound 1 and this gave
the mound a lopsided appearance. The previous disturbance
identified by Mr Brown had been dug straight down through
the apparent centre of Mound 1. However, this dig missed the
actual centre by the smallest of margins and the burial
chamber remained undiscovered until Mr Brown's team began
These stories alone would have been enough to get the
legend of Sutton Hoo into the history books. However, Mrs
Pretty made one final decision which ensured her a special
place in Britain's archaeological history. Under UK law at
the time, the owner of the treasure trove found at Sutton
Hoo was determined to be Mrs Edith Pretty. In an act of
almost unrivalled generosity, she decided to give the
treasure as a present to the whole country, so that everyone
could share the excitement of the treasure for themselves.
Sutton Hoo is felt by many to be a magical place, and the
legend surrounding its discovery and excavation only add to
its allure and mysterious atmosphere. Various versions of
this story are told
The Sutton Hoo treasure is held at the British Museum
following Edith Pretty's decision to gift it to the United
Kingdom. The National Trust visitor centre, opened in Spring
2002, contains a full recreation of the burial chamber and
the ship and sometimes displays some of the original
artifacts on loan from the British Museum.
Further excavations has been conducted intermittently
since the original dig. An excavation conducted while the
National Trust visitor centre was being prepared revealed an
additional cemetery located about 500m north of the main
cemetery.. Additional excavations and investigations are
performed when money and resources are available.
The discovery of Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo provides a glimpse
into England's past and further clarification of its
national identity. The discovery in 1939 on the eve of the
Second World War, when England as a nation was under threat,
brought increased attention and interest to the site in the
years that followed. Other Anglo-Saxon finds are made on an
almost yearly basis throughout the country, such as caches
of coins or brooches, but Sutton Hoo is still considered the
greatest find. One of the interesting aspects of the burial
is that it countered pre- excavation scepticism on the part
of many historians as to the veracity of the size of
treasure hordes described in works such as Beowulf and the
- Bede, Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors trans.,
1969. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English
- Farrell, R.T., 1972. Beowulf, Swedes and Geats. Part
- Mayr-Harting, Henry, 1972. The Coming of
Christianity to England. New York.
- Carver, M.O.H., 1992. The Age of Sutton Hoo. The
Seventh Century in North-Western Europe, Woodbridge
- Newton, S., 1993.
The Origins of Beowulf and the Pre-Viking Kingdom of
East Anglia. Cambridge.
- Carver, M.O.H., 1998. Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of
- Newton, S., 2003.
The Reckoning of King R�dwald: The Story of the King
linked to the Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial. Cambridge.