The Sutton Hoo Treasure

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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 same year:

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.

Treasure

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 avoirdupois).
    • 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 reconstruction).
    • 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 Greek.
    • a large bronze hanging bowl decorated in enamel and millefiori.
    • 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;

Analysis

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 1972:272).

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 work.

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 here, here, and here

Legacy

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.[1]. 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 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Bibliography

External links

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sutton_Hoo

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