Long read | The man at Sutton Hoo

Since the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon burial at Sutton Hoo in 1939, the contents of the Suffolk mounds have fascinated historians. As a star-studded historical drama sparks a fresh flurry of fascination with the dig, we present an in-depth exploration of the excavation and what the finds can tell us about the culture and connections of the time, by late eminent Anglo-Saxon scholar Professor James Campbell

The Sutton Hoo helmet. (Image by Getty Images)

Note: This long read was written in 2015. Professor Campbell died in 2016 and his article is published posthumously with full permission and in cooperation with his estate

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In 1926 a Colonel and Mrs Pretty bought a big modern house in Suffolk. It stood near Woodbridge on a 100ft bluff, beside the river Deben, with a wide view over the town. A feature of the estate was a group of some (as then appeared) dozen mounds. Mrs Pretty was interested in the possibility of their being burial mounds, and reinforced this plausible supposition by psychic inquiry. In 1938 – by then a widow – she sought the advice of the curator of the Ipswich museum. He put her on to someone who did part-time archaeological work for them, a Mr Basil Brown. Learning owes a lot to Mr Brown. Nowadays there are not so many people like him: with not much of formal education, self-taught, very able, a natural archaeologist. His humble status shows in the terms on which Mrs Pretty employed him: 30 shillings weekly, sleeping accommodation in her chauffeur’s house, the assistance of two labourers. In 1938 Brown set carefully to work on three of the mounds. All three had previously been robbed and damaged. But what he found was interesting indeed: not least the remains of a ship 65 feet long, human and horse remains, and strange things, for example part of a Byzantine plaque of a ‘winged victory’. In 1939 Brown began to dig up the most conspicuous mound. He most carefully felt his way into the discovery of the remains of a ship, a big one, some 90 feet long. Midships were the remains of what he rightly took to be a burial chamber. The great importance of his discoveries became known. In July more professional, academic, archaeologists took over. When the excavation concluded, a week before the Second World War broke out, an astounding burial deposit had been unearthed.

Tranmer House, the former home of Edith Pretty who organised the archaeological excavation of a group of some dozen mounds on her estate.(Photo by: Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Tranmer House, the former home of Edith Pretty who organised the archaeological excavation of a group of some dozen mounds on her estate.(Photo by: Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Inside the mounds

Something should be noticed before anything is said about the wonderful things that were found. Most, apart from the golden ones, would not have been saved for us had it not been for the subtle dexterity with which they were excavated. No less remarkable was the skill with which they were restored. Thus the helmet (almost too familiar, because the publisher who does not fancy it on a dust jacket has not yet been born) was originally found in innumerable fragile fragments. In earlier centuries the contents of such excavated tombs (and there may well have been many such) would have vanished; the gold into the melting pot, the rest into dust.

A view of the excavation of the ship burial site at Sutton Hoo. The archaeological team rushed to complete their investigations before world war was declared. (Image by Alamy)
A view of the excavation of the ship burial site at Sutton Hoo. (Image by Alamy)

The burial chamber was orientated East-West. The body lay towards the western end. Near it lay a sword, magnificent gold and garnet ornaments, a purse containing 37 Merovingian gold coins (and three blanks), and silverware. A helmet and a mail shirt lay further off. Against the west wall were a variety of objects, most remarkably a magnificently decorated shield and an extraordinary great carved whetstone, mounted by a bronze stag. To the east of the body lay an enormous silver dish. Against the east wall were cauldrons and a long iron chain for suspending one from a hall roof. A major problem was this: there were no clear remains of a body. In the early years after the discovery this was taken to mean that the deposit was simply commemorative, a cenotaph. Some of the distinguished archaeologists involved were adamant on this. One of them, OGS Crawford, wrote that “the idea that a body was buried in the ship originated in the imagination of an uninformed newspaper writer”. It was later realised that in such soil conditions as those at Sutton Hoo, organic matter can completely disappear. This realisation came perhaps later than one might have hoped, for the phenomenon was quite well known. So, almost (though not utterly) certainly, a corpse had been buried there.

If so, whose corpse? Who was it who had been buried in the biggest ship from Dark Age Europe ever discovered and surrounded by an unparalleled grave deposit? While the excavation was on, it was visited by HM Chadwick, the doyen of Anglo-Saxonists. He published his opinion that the man concerned was a king and probably Raedwald, king of the East Angles from maybe about 600 until sometime between 616 and 627. Both the guess about kingship and that identifying the king have been challenged, but both proved durable. All the same: guesses is all they are. Chadwick recognised this in writing that though the treasure must be royal this does not mean that the man in Mound I was necessarily a king. Not all the opinions of his successors have been so tempered.

What we know of Raedwald comes from Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica. Bede tells us that at some stage Raedwald enjoyed overlordship over the rulers of southern England. We are given a gripping account of how he harboured a prince called Edwin who was fleeing from Æthelfrith, king of Northumbria. Æthelfrith sought to make Raedwald give Edwin up, threatening him and making repeated offers of reward. Raedwald acquiesced, but in the end his wife persuaded him that it would be dishonourable to betray a guest. In 616 Raedwald defeated Æthelfrith and so ensured his replacement by Edwin. A most interesting thing Bede tells us is that Raedwald was at some stage converted to Christianity, but was led away from the faith “by his wife and certain evil teachers”. Not led entirely away though, for he had a temple which held both a Christian altar and a pagan one.

Notwithstanding Chadwick’s eminence his guess at first failed to carry conviction. The obstacle was numismatic, the date of the coins in the purse. Experts contended that the latest of these were unlikely to be, or even could not be, earlier than c650. From the beginning there were those who argued that the burial must have been something like a generation earlier. Informed opinion seemed to harden against these sceptics. The strength of the case for the later date was most forcefully put by a young keeper at the British Museum, Rupert Bruce-Mitford. Writing in 1952 he concluded that “it is quite impossible to identify the grave with Raedwald” and that “no date before 650 can be considered”. He added that “purely archaeological considerations” suggested a late date, in particular affinities between the jewellery and the illumination of a late seventh-century gospel book, the Book of Durrow.

Could this be the same Rupert Bruce-Mitford who as the leading expert, edited the Sutton Hoo finds in four magnificent volumes (1975–83) and contended determinedly that the Sutton Hoo Mound I almost must be the grave of Raedwald? It was indeed he. How could this be? In 1940, a French scholar – Pierre le Gentilhomme – had shown that the latest coins in the Sutton Hoo purse belonged not to the 650s but rather to the 620s. So the coins did not exclude Chadwick’s hypothesis after all. But before considering Raedwald’s claim to be the Man at Sutton Hoo, some attention is needed for a wider question. Do we have to assume that whoever it was, was a king, let alone Raedwald in particular?

The Sutton Hoo helmet on display
The Sutton Hoo helmet on display. It was originally found in innumerable fragile fragments. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Fit for a king?

The conviction of Bruce-Mitford that the man of Mound I was “beyond all doubt” a king must carry weight. Why such emphatic conviction? First, of the dozen or so approximately comparable grave deposits found elsewhere in England, that in Mound I is easily the richest, as it seems to have been the richest of those explored at Sutton Hoo itself (notwithstanding that all but one of these had been robbed). Only one undisputed burial of a Dark Age king has been found in all of Europe. It was uncovered at Tournai in 1653. The subject’s signet ring identifies him as the Frankish king Childeric who died in 481 or 482. Some at least of the contents of Childeric’s tomb were published in 1655 (though not the silver – if there was any). In scale and interest the finds are roughly comparable to those for our Mound I, if something inferior. So, taking Childeric’s tomb as a measure for a barbarian king’s burial, our man matches up. Sutton Hoo’s location reinforces the royal case in a loose way. Sutton Hoo is a dozen miles from Ipswich which in the seventh century developed as an important centre of trade, one of such as seem to be associated with royal authority. About as far off is Snape, where another, lesser but important, ship burial has been found. Some four miles up the Deben is Rendlesham, which Bede shows to have been in the mid-seventh century a royal vill, a vicus regi, with royal presence. Six miles further away is Iken, probably the centre of activity for a seventh-century saint, Botolph, of whom little is known apart from his enduring fame, but someone who could have had major dynastic connections. In short, Sutton Hoo lies in an area important to East Anglian kings for more reasons than one. Rupert Bruce-Mitford added apparently clinching evidence for the ‘must have been a king’ case. This is the presence of what he maintained were regalia: in particular the intensely remarkable whetstone: elaborately carved, mounted in bronze with a bronze deer on top, unused, almost brutally grand and heavy. Bruce-Mitford regarded it as a sceptre and suggested that it should be regarded as the symbol of Raedwald’s position as bretwalda. This Anglo-Saxon term was used in the ninth century to represent the position of the kings whom Bede says held authority over others.

One of the mounds at the Anglo Saxon archaeological site of Sutton Hoo
One of the mounds at the Anglo Saxon archaeological site of Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, England. (Photo by: Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Why Raedwald then, why contend that the man in Mound I must be he? Well, the date of the coins could fit a considerable part of the dates for his reign which are the best we can manage. Second, although there are other East Anglian kings who can be fitted into the dating suggested by the coins, Bede’s accounts indicate that for him, Raedwald was easily the most important of these, and so this king seems most fitting for the grandeur of Mound I. Add the ‘whetstone and bretwalda’ contention to the royal importance of this corner of Suffolk, and the Raedwald case rests.

It is not quite QED. It is not for nothing that Professor Martin Carver, while inclined to the view that the Sutton Hoo cemetery is a “dynastic” one, nevertheless entitled a book not Sutton Hoo. Burial Ground of Kings, but Sutton Hoo. Burial Ground of Kings? What are the objections? First, a pedantic quibble, like many such, too justified. There is no proving that Raedwald lived beyond 616. If he did not, the dates of the latest coins exclude him. Second: consider the nature of seventh-century kinglyness. In England, and elsewhere, rules of succession, so far as there were any, did not fully resemble those later familiar. Almost anyone with royal blood could succeed if he could make his way, no doubt usually fight his way. The likely position is caricatured, at a distance, by what Gregory of Tours (died 594?) says about the Frankish king Clovis (died c511). Clovis used to say how sad it was that he had so few relatives. He would be grateful to have any of them signalled to him. He was grateful: he had them killed. This was a world in which a king was surrounded by other great men, men who might rival him in potential power. The weight of such is illustrated in England by a recorded instance in which the death of an English king’s brother was recompensed by a blood price equal to that of a king himself. Kings were not the only very rich men in England. A revealing instance is that of Benedict Biscop (628?-689), founder of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, the man whose wealth endowed the learning of Bede. Suppose Biscop had wished to provide his father with a really lavish, old-fashioned burial. Could he have spared a ship, silver plate, fine weapons, splendid personal ornaments, an enigmatic whetstone, cauldron and so forth? The likelihood is that it would barely have dented his resources. On regalia Bruce-Mitford’s views seem anachronistic. Certainly in medieval Europe such objects as crown, orb and sceptre were intrinsic to the ceremonies of power and so to power itself. It is far from clear that such almost sacramental significance was given to such things earlier. Certainly far more than practical significance was attached to, in particular, swords and helmets. Bede describes a king taking his sword off when he sought to be humble. Certainly a king’s treasure could be almost venerated as something related to the status and power of his people. But it is not easy to find regalia in a modern or medieval sense. The whetstone is indeed a most extraordinary thing, far more than utilitarian. It is relevant that a numinous quality was attributed to whetstones which were associated with thunderbolts. But that the Sutton Hoo whetstone was a “bretwaldic sceptre” is just a guess, even a fancy.


Listen: Professor Martin Carver discusses the real story of the 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


Weights and measures

So far as our evidence takes us, the wealth of the treasure in Mound I is outstanding. That is, by comparison with other burial deposits in England and abroad. To assume that its wealth was extraordinary in the context of wealth outside the graveyard is unconvincing. Probably there was a great deal of bullion in seventh-century England, much surviving from Roman Britain. An indication of how much former Roman gold and silver could have been there is given by a remarkable discovery made at Hoxne, Suffolk, 20 miles north from Sutton Hoo, in 1992. A Mr Eric Lawes possessed a metal detector. A friend of his asked him to help find a hammer which he had lost in a field. Mr Lawes failed to find the hammer. What he did find was a dream treasure: 14,780 Roman coins, 565 of them gold, nearly all the remainder silver ones. These were accompanied by more than 200 other gold and silver objects, 29 of them pieces of very pure gold jewellery, the heaviest a chain weighing 250 grams. The bullion content of this Roman treasure, buried in the fifth century, in important ways puts Sutton Hoo in the shade. There may have been many such treasures to find; not for nothing may the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle say that when the Romans left they “collected all the treasures which were in Britain and hid some in the ground”. There could well have been many treasures besides that of Hoxne. Indeed another of at least 650 gold solidi was found at nearby Eye in 1780. The Anglo-Saxons or their ancestors may well in any case have gained much wealth as the servants or plunderers of the empire. If the Anglo-Saxons probably acquired a lot of bullion in Roman Britain, they also had a history as agents of and predators on the empire, which had doubtless brought its rewards.

It is useful to bear in mind that there were treasures in Dark Age Europe which made those of Sutton Hoo look small

Some further indication of the abundance of bullion in early England is given by the penalties and prices set out in seventh-century English laws. (It has to be borne in mind that what was expressed in terms of gold or bullion may commonly or generally have been paid in some other form.) The ‘shilling’ of these laws was a gold tremus, such as were found in the Sutton Hoo purse, or an equivalent weight of gold. The lowest penalty indicated is ten sceattas, that is to say half a shilling, specified in the laws of Æthelberht of Kent (died 616) as compensation for the loss of a nail from any toe other than a big toe. The highest sum mentioned is a 1,200 shilling wergeld for a nobleman in the laws of Ine of Wessex (abdicated 726). A slave is valued at 50, 60, or 70 shillings. On these valuations the coins in the Sutton Hoo purse would not have sufficed to buy a single slave. They would have sufficed to have compensated for the loss of no more than 80 seventh-century Kentish toenails from toes other than the big toe. There was not enough gold in the Mound I burial to have paid the blood price of one West Saxon or Kentish ceorl.

While looking at the wealth of the burial from another angle it is useful to bear in mind that there were treasures in Dark Age Europe which made those of Sutton Hoo look small. Particularly striking here is a battered cloisonné gold and garnet strip, a miserable fragment of the ‘Cross of St. Eloi’ which was, until the Revolution one of the treasures of St Denis. It is indeed a miserable fragment, but thanks to the cross’s appearing in a picture dating to c1500 we know it to have been at least three feet high.

To signal abundant bullion in England or enormous treasures in Gaul is not to understate the relative importance of the deposit in Mound I as a burial treasure. But we need to remember that is rich and luxurious contents represent only a very tiny proportion of what once existed. So, we should be a little careful about what we deduce from its wealth.

A “honeypot” for speculation

Nevertheless some of the most arresting things about the burial are the unprovable, sometimes implausible, speculations which it has attracted. It is a honeypot for academic speculators. Very prominent among these is Professor Martin Carver, whose brilliant reinvestigation of the archaeology of the site commands admiration. His great scrupulousness in the field is matched by an inclination to somewhat over-dogmatic speculation, as is the case with other great archaeologists. They are apt to believe that archaeology can reveal more about the political or social past than is really possible, and so they torture their evidence until it is made to say more than it should.

Professor Carver sees Sutton Hoo as an expression of “experimental kingship”, seemingly an attempt in a “newly-formed kingdom” to “pursue an autonomous non-Christian road to statehood”. He thus puts Sutton Hoo and East Anglia into a context of “state formation”. It is now fairly often supposed that many of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the so-called ‘Heptarchy’ were created not too far from c600. This may be true of some. But it has to be said that for East Anglia that there is no convincing evidence one way or the other. Maybe as Rome fell, Anglian rulers succeeded to the whole of the Roman province of the Iceni, approximating to later East Anglia, maybe not. We have only tiny scraps of written evidence and an ‘archaeological record’ which is far more holes than cloth. An illustration of the difficulty of establishing the nature and establishment of the East Anglian kingdom is this: suppose East Anglia was a united kingdom by c600 (as it may have been long before). Is it really likely that major royal authority would have been concentrated into a fairly small area in the south-east corner of the kingdom? Is it not likely that there would have been important – but unrecorded – royal activity elsewhere, for example in the Roman provincial capital at Venta Icenorum, near Norwich which came to replace it as the leading centre for a wide area? (One must wonder whether a major early trading site does not remain to be discovered at Norwich, corresponding to that at Ipswich.)

Some of the most arresting things about the burial are the unprovable, sometimes implausible, speculations which it has attracted

Professor Carver’s imaginative remarks remind us of the need to speculate about change in order to guess with even modest meaningfulness about what the burial in Mound I might, in part, indicate. It is much more a matter of questions than of answers. What was the nature of the economy which lay behind the fine gear in the 90ft ship? Two questions (among many): how far was it predatory, one in which the bases of wealth and power were successful war and plunder? With these goes the possible, even likely, importance of the slave trade. English slaves were exported, and exported as far as Italy. The famous story of Pope Gregory the Great’s encounter with some of these poor people in the market place at Rome as good as proves this. In 679 a Frisian merchant is found cleaning up after a battle on the Trent: buying a captive whom he takes in chains towards London to send overseas. There are references to Saxon slaves across the Channel. Some of this trade was with Merovingian Gaul. This trade took an Anglo-Saxon woman, Balthild. She eventually became queen and later regent of Neustria, dying not before 680. If the existence of this trade is beyond doubt, its scale is beyond ascertaining. Still, if one seeks to account for the Merovingian coin in our man’s purse, and explanation could be that the bullion came, directly or indirectly, from slaving.

A second general question is this: what does our burial have to do with Ipswich? During the seventh century Ipswich developed into a major trading place, whose very size demonstrates that its activities must have extended beyond (or below) luxury goods. Indeed in the course of the seventh century it became a centre for the first fairly widely-distributed wheel-made pottery to be made in Anglo-Saxon England. Shreds of this were in the spoil from Mound I and Mound II, and they are contemporary with the contents of these mounds. It is no more easy to date the stages of Ipswichian development than it is to ascertain the date of Mound I. It is easy enough to show that “apparently the same period” is under consideration. How might one relate to the other? Might it be that Mound I reflects not only the profits of predation, but also the creation and dawning exploitation of a consumer society?

Let us consider the Mound I man from another angle. In arresting phrases Professor Carver says that Sutton Hoo “can be seen” (Dark Age prose) “as a short-lived and extravagant ceremonial centre of the late sixth and early seventh century AD, the purpose of which was to provide a focus for a policy of pagan independence”. This is a truly notable – if extravagant – piece of intellectual conjury. Little could Basil Brown have known when he dismounted from his bicycle and started off on Mound I in the summer of 1939 that he was on the track not only of a splendid treasure in a splendid ship, but also of a policy. The guiding idea behind Professor Carver’s most stimulating suggestion has its origins, I believe, in interpretation of burials in the Sudan. It is that outstandingly pagan burials may be an expression not of confidence, but of almost insecure pagan response to Christian threat. Professor Carver puts his suggestions on this forcefully. Another professor in the University of York similarly argued by African analogy to reach an opposite conclusion. Richard Fletcher drew on another African parallel. This is the case of Moshoeshoe, king of Lesotho, and his relations with Christian missionaries from 1833. Moshoeshoe was on good, even close terms with them; with their advice his kingdom became more Europeanised and partly Christian. One of his sons became a Christian, but only temporarily. The king himself never converted, the religious issue was too divisive. Fletcher said that we may see in Mound I, supposing its inhabitant to have been a king, evidence of an ambiguous and tentative reaction to Christianity, analogous to that of Moshoeshoe. So lively minds in comparative can put opposite interpretations on Mound I: what signifies aggression in one signifies compromise for another.

What then are the signs of Christian influence in that burial? Most striking are two silver spoons: one inscribed PAULOS and the other SAULOS. A baptismal present? Plunder? Who knows? Maybe the fine nest of ten silver bowls fairly recently arrived from Egypt tells a Christian story, for they bear a cross motif. Then again, maybe the cross is merely incidental. Most remarkable of all is a magnificent golden buckle. The play in it is tiny: it could not have buckled a strong belt. Second, it is a box as well as a buckle. It is hollow: the three studs on its outer surface are the heads of pins which fit neatly into clips in the hollow interior. It may be intended to hold a relic. In this period pious people who could afford relics would carry them on their person. The relic-carrying ‘buckle’ could have been attached to a thin strap attached to a main belt.

We have the same difficulty as with the spoons and the bowls. Such things may, but need not, tell us something about its owner’s spiritual aspirations. Somewhat similarly one has to resist the temptation to deduce too much from either the presence of grave goods or the site of the grave. Christians could also be buried with grave goods or in prominent barrows. Witness the grave of a boy, about mid sixth-century, found under Cologne cathedral. It contains a child-sized helmet, furniture and adult weapons. So late as 1026/7 when Richard II of Normandy, undoubtedly a Christian, was buried, it was not in a church, but in a barrow above the sea at Fécamp. The Norman involvement with burial barrows is illustrated in an altogether extraordinary passage in the contemporary biography of William the Conqueror by William of Poitiers. The biographer says that Harold was buried in a tumulus on the sea-shore: “It was said in jest that he should be placed as guardian of the shore and the sea.” Actually, Harold was buried at Waltham but these tales tell one something about 11th-century burial mentality, and the power of the idea of a barrow overlooking the sea. Another contemporary, Guy of Amiens, also describes Harold’s burial on a high cliff, “guardian of the sea and shore”.

Crafting the treasures

One of the certain things about the occupant of Mound I is that he was part of a culture with access to exceedingly high technical expertise. The most stunning example of this is the gold and garnet jewellery. One glance is enough to show that the craftsmanship is fine. Closer examination shows that it is much finer. The garnets shine beautifully. This is because they are backed by gold foil. This foil is stamped with mechanically regular patterns of parallel lines, close patterns, so close that there are several lines to the millimetre – not the centimetre, the millimetre. How could a die for imposing such patterns be made? The most likely, and really the only possible, answer is: by the use of a machine involving a jig. A difficulty here is that no such machines are known until the 16th century. But there it is: they must have existed in the seventh. A parallel is offered by the Book of Kells (c800); some of its illumination is so fine on so minuscule a scale that it is not easy to believe that it could have been accomplished without the aid of a magnifying glass, otherwise unknown at the time.

Nearly as remarkable is the evidence of the garnets themselves. Garnets were valued by early jewellers because they can be divided by natural flaking. Such flakes are of uneven thickness. However, all the Sutton Hoo garnets are of uniform thickness. How had this been brought about? The most likely explanation is that it was done by attaching raw garnet slices to some surface with a temporary adhesive and then grinding them with an abrasive roller. Some kind of machine must have been employed. Or, consider the sword, which was of the ‘pattern-welded’ type. That is to say that the core of the blade was made of a number of strips of steel, twisted together and hammered flat, in such a way as to give strength and flexibility. The edges of the blade were of harder, cutting, steel. Such weapons were as good as any ever produced. Not least consider the ship, bearing in mind that some of the very highest Dark Age skills were those of carpenters, nearly all of whose work has been lost. The wood of the Sutton Hoo ship has vanished. Its lines can be traced, though, and elegant they were. Technical accomplishment is evidenced by some of the strakes having been composite. The rivets – all that tangibly remains of the ship – tell an interesting tale of precise care. Each is held on the side of the hull by a diamond-shape metal plate. All the diamonds are aligned together precisely.

An Anglo-Saxon ornament from the Sutton Hoo site, from the British Museum's collection. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
An Anglo-Saxon ornament from the Sutton Hoo site, from the British Museum’s collection. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

It is temptingly easy to dwell, one hopes not too maliciously, about what cannot be known, at best only guessed – and then somewhat widely – about the man in Mound I. What can be known with more certainty? He belonged to a world of Germanic power, long involved with Rome, with the influence or memory of Rome. This showed in ways no less striking than strange. Consider the famous helmet, with its ornamented and ominous mask. Such items of ceremonial gear had been imitated by the Romans from their long-term enemy across the Euphrates, the Sasanian empire. The earliest (early fourth century) Roman depiction shows the emperor Constantine wearing such a helmet. Yet the closest relations of the Sutton Hoo helmet have been found in Sweden; and very close the relationship is. How close is shown even by details of decoration. Conspicuous in this are the metallic depictions of what have come to be called ‘dancing warriors’: men with horned headdresses and clad in rather peculiar kimono-like garments. The very same warriors, instantly recognisable, appear in Sweden on helmets or helmet fragments from Valsgärde and Gamla Uppsala, and on a fragment from Caenby in Lincolnshire. (A late, and most remarkable, appearance of the ‘kimono’ is a relief in St Mark’s, Venice, worn by a figure said to be Alexander, depicted ascending to heaven.)

The ‘kimono’ is Sasanian gear. It is unmistakably worn by a Sasanian warrior of whom there is a statue in the museum at Teheran. Professor Almgren, who observed this notable coincidence, suggests that a Sasanian uniform has been adopted by some smart Roman regiment. If one had just to guess who these little figures were, one might be tempted to think of them as shamans, or something of the sort. But no, they reflect the long legacy of Rome.

The gold and garnet jewellery tells something of the same kind. Thus the wonderfully fine shoulder clasps relate to a very Roman form of ceremonial garment such that it consisted of two parts, one for the front of the chest, the other for the back, with the two being held together by clasps passing over each shoulder. The cloisonné gold and garnet style itself tells one something, if not precisely about the Roman world then about elements of common culture among the elites of its conquerors and successors. Jewellery of this kind from the fifth century became “virtually an international aristocratic style among the barbarian peoples”.

Of course not all such jewellery could be of the supreme quality of the pieces in Mound I. But it is rather common in the early Dark Age Europe. Over 400 pieces survive from much of the Roman world and its borderlands. It is a kind of indication of its popularity that two of the moulds for stamping the gold foil backing have been found: one in Holland, the other in Denmark. The style seems to have originated in Pannonia among the Huns in the early fifth century, and then to have diffused widely. It tells us something about relationships among elites over a wider area. It is important to bear in mind that such German elites had had a long relationship with Rome. So long ago as AD 9 when the German leader Arminius won a famous and determinative victory over a Roman army he did so as one who had previously risen high in Roman service. Comparable German careers are numerous. The archaeology of, for example, Lower Saxony and Westphalia, one of the areas from which migrants came to Britain, tells something of the same story for later periods.

Far-reaching contacts?

When the man of Mound I sat down to his dinner with fine Roman-style silver plate on his table, he was in a long tradition of ‘Romanitas’. We happen to know – though we might readily enough have guessed – that he was not the only grand figure to dine in such a style. In a famous story Bede tells us how when Oswald, king of Northumbria (634-642), was dining one Easter, he had a silver dish laden with royal delicacies before him. The use of grand goods of this kind was a legacy from the Roman world. So too was the Christianity which led Oswald to have his dish broken up and the little pieces given to the poor.

The tale of Mound I is of wide contacts not only with the past, but in the present. The most conspicuous Mediterranean object which lay in our burial was indeed rather old: the ‘Anastasius dish’. This dish, 72cm in diameter, more than 5.5kg in weight, was one of the very biggest found from the Roman world. It bears a stamp attributing it to the reign of the emperor Anastasius (491–518). The other silver ware at Sutton Hoo is much later. Thus a set of silver bowls probably came from Egypt, and are thought to have been made in about 600. One shows inter alia, a camel. A similar story is told by the so-called ‘Coptic bronzes’, found at Sutton Hoo and at other sites in Britain and other parts western Europe. This ware consists of fine vessels, made in Egypt or elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Anastasius dish was one of the very biggest found from the Roman world. (Photo by: Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The Anastasius dish was one of the very biggest found from the Roman world. (Photo by: Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

An entirely different kind of overseas contact is that with Sweden. Thus there is no doubt that the elaborate shield was made a century or more before, either in Sweden or by Swedish craftsmen. The closest relations of the famous helmet are in Sweden. And very close they are too. There is very significant, compelling other evidence for close connections with eastern Sweden, in particular with burials, of approximately the same date as those from Sutton Hoo, at Vendel and Valsgärde. In both places there are boat burials. A considerable number of these burials contain helmets in much the same style as that from Mound I. If they are not so fine, the resemblances can be very close. Thus the helmet from the Valsgärde grave 7 has a helmet which is not only decorated by foil stamped with figures; the figures closely resemble those on the Sutton Hoo helmet. Not only are the ‘rider and fallen warrior’ scenes there. More striking, so too are the ‘dancing warriors’ in the same position as on the Sutton Hoo helmet: over the eyebrows. The ‘dancing warriors’ also appear on a fragment of foil from Gamla Uppsala. The design is so close to that of the Sutton Hoo examples that it seems certain that the dies concerned had been made by the same craftsman. (The warriors appear at one place in England other than Sutton Hoo: on a foil fragment from an important burial at Caenby, Lincolnshire.) At Torslunda in Sweden dies have been found to make impressions such as those on the Sutton Hoo helmet.

Yet another current of influence is indicated by the presence of hanging bowls. These are copper alloy bowls, whose hanging chains were attached to the bowl by ‘escutcheons’, enamelled plates. The origin of these remarkable artefacts is debated, but it must lie in the Celtic lands. One of the Sutton Hoo bowls is a particularly fine specimen; in it swims a fine model fish on a spindle. The attractive idea has been bruited that this fish is actually a compass, by far the earliest example known from Europe. Alas, this attractive notion proves fallacious.

A silver bowl found at Sutton Hoo. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
A silver bowl found at Sutton Hoo. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The man in Mound I and those who organised his burial belonged to a society, or a level of society, which had had and retained a wide and distant range of connection. The nature of those can be established only in episodic and hypothetical ways. Byzantium: could there have been direct or indirect commercial contacts with the eastern Mediterranean? Well, maybe. A possibly significant trifle is a late sixth-century Byzantine seal impression, found in the mud of the Thames bank at Putney. The Byzantine historian Procopius claimed that Justinian (emperor 527–565) sent subsidies so far as to Britain. If so, there were diplomatic involvements. Procopius also, and importantly, says that Frankish rulers as a sign of their lordship across the Channel included Angles in diplomatic missions. He retails rather a lot of information about Britain in connection with this. Some of it is demonstrably wrong; but Procopius’s account is enough to make it likely that Anglo-Saxons went on missions to Byzantium. The tales could indeed indicate something about personal contact between the Anglo-Saxon lands and Byzantium. It is worth remembering that at the likely time of the burial of our man the Mediterranean was only just beginning to come under Islamic control. Alexandria did not fall to Islam until 641, Carthage not finally until 697. It is perfectly possible – if not particularly likely – that the man of Mound I had been to Byzantium. He could, for that matter, have been to or had relations in Italy. When the Lombards invaded Italy in 568–569 they were accompanied by Saxons. The historian Paul the Deacon comments on their loud clothes. The numerous and complicated weaves of textile fragments and impressions at Sutton Hoo are probably the remains of such.

That Germanic settlers in Britain would retain contacts with their relations it Italy is not obvious; but certainly some seventh and eighth-century Anglo-Saxons went on pilgrimage there readily enough. All too readily enough in the eighth-century opinion of St Boniface (747) who said that English women should not set out on pilgrimage to Rome, for too many fell by the wayside. There was hardly, he said, a city in Lombardy, Francia or Gaul, where an English adulteress or prostitute was not to be found. An extraordinary piece of evidence of Anglo-Saxon continental contact in our period comes from Geneva. It is a lead pattern for an Anglo-Saxon brooch. It is suggestive of the network of contacts, not least it may be of craftsman contacts, which lie behind the finds in Mound I.

The most important English overseas contacts in the Sutton Hoo period must have been across the North Sea, in part right across to eastern Sweden. It is impossible to be certain of the nature of the tales possibly told by the Swedish connections of the shield and helmet. For one thing the evidence is far too patchy to permit secure argument on the direction of influences. Rich goods could move about in various ways, and in ways such that groups of rich goods could move from one kingdom to another. They could move as plunder, as gifts, or as political payments. Bede says that when king Oswy of Northumbria was hard pressed by Penda of Mercia in 655 he offered to buy him off with “royal treasures and gifts of unbelievable number and consequence”. Such a reference both illuminates part of the role of such treasures as those at Sutton Hoo. It also levies a caveat against deducing with too much assurance about the man at Mound I from its contents. In transactions such as that proposed in 655, whole groups or packets of rich goods might be handed over, including groups which had come to the donor in similar circumstances. Thus, objects, or groups of objects, in Mound I need not tell us anything about, for example, the religious proclivities of its man, for he may have gained them as gift, booty or bribe. What is more, the goods, or some of them, may tell us rather little about the man. Whoever was responsible for the burial arrangements could have selected them from well-stocked treasures.

From Sutton Hoo and the Suffolk coast, the closest continental contacts are with the coasts on the other side of the rather narrow funnel which concludes the North Sea. From Sutton Hoo the distance to the modern Dutch coast is only about 100 miles as the seagull flies. It is little further to Boulogne where part of the surrounding population were Angles. One could get to either within a day’s sailing with a convenient wind. The North Sea coast opposite Sutton Hoo was largely in the hands of the Frisians, the greatest merchant people of the seventh century. The relationship of their language to English was close, and their influence on the institutions of East Anglia may have been considerable. That there is nothing identifiably Frisian at Sutton Hoo is an indication of how far the things found there are not a complete index of international involvement.

The place of the Sutton Hoo finds in art or aesthetic history is an interesting one. Consider, for example, the extraordinary whetstone, with its rather well carved heads, each with a different hair style. Anglo-Saxon stone sculpture is said to begin with the fine crosses of early Christian Northumbria, the earliest of which may well be of c700. Not so; the earliest Anglo-Saxon stone sculpture is the Sutton Hoo whetstone. And note the importance of its being a whetstone, and so very hard. One would need a singularly good chisel and remarkable skill to carve such a thing. No less remarkable than the stone carving is the bronze deer which crowns the whetstone. The deer may have come from some other object, for the bronze is of a different composition than that of the other fittings. The animal is to an extent formalised by the joining together of its legs; but that is more for stability than for effect. The origins of such representation in metal models lie in Roman and Celtic influences. What is one to make of such representationalism? There are other examples at Sutton Hoo, for example the camel depicted on one of the silver bowls which come from an entirely different direction: the eastern Mediterranean. Thus the man between two beasts of the purse is almost a cliché of steppe art, and has quite remote oriental origin. Some of the most impressive decoration is formalised animal ornament of a kind fairly recently developed in the Germanic world. The best, but not the only, example is the interlace on a great buckle. The immense skill involved in such work makes one wonder how numerous such objects may have been. For how could there have been such attainment without extensive practice? The bronze deer and the stone heads remind one that there were other kinds of representational art in the England of that day, though nearly all traces of them have been lost. (But then Fabergé jewellery displays extreme skill, but is not that abundant.) Bede tells us that some pagan images were made of pottery. One small example of such an image survives from East Anglia – a lid from a cremation urn showing a strange seated man, he probably had something divine about him. A comparable item from Germany (now lost, but shown in an 18th-century drawing) depicts a boar. Cremation urns normally have formalised patterns. The pottery figures are a reminder that formalisation and representationalism can be practised by the same artist at the same time.

In considering a picture of a barrow by the early 17th-century Flemish artist Momper, there is a problem. Is he depicting something of a contemporary scene, or is it more an imagined one? In any case he gives serious food for thought about Sutton Hoo. There are striking elements in the picture. First, the mound is crowned by a gallows, with a hanging man. Second, near it grows an old tree, round which a number of peasants are dancing, hand in hand. It is noteworthy that the barrow is not in a fairly remote spot, as Sutton Hoo now is, rather is it in the middle of a village.

Sutton Hoo, so it has been fairly recently discovered, was, or became, a place of execution. A number of graves there contain human remains without grave goods such that it seems that they were sacrificial or execution victims. Some seem to be contemporary with the major burials. Others belong to later centuries up to the 11th century. There may well have been continuity between sacrifice and execution. Hanging had a special and religious significance in the Germanic world. Tacitus says that in Germany the imposition of physical penalties was restricted to priests, and we may notice that the two earliest English royal law codes say nothing of physical penalties. That Sutton Hoo remained or became an execution site may relate to this. It is worth noting that it was a more public place that now it seems. It was related to major track ways and a major river crossing. What of the ancient tree in the Momper picture? The association of trees with cult in Germanic religion is certain. Not for nothing did the English missionary Boniface fell a famous holy tree at Gaesmere. Remains of more trees than one have been found at Sutton Hoo. In particular one has a likely relationship to the ‘execution cemetery’, but it has not been possible to date its remains. It is a reasonable guess (I would not say more) that the Momper picture does give one an inkling of the significance, it may be the long-continued significance, of Sutton Hoo as a centre of cult and power.

More to be found?

Is there more to be recovered at Sutton Hoo? Yes, there must be. The excavations and reconsiderations led by Professor Carver have made great additions to knowledge of the site as a whole. The very fact that the earlier nearly adjacent cemetery was found almost by accident when foundations were dug for the new ‘visitors’ centre’. A most remarkable find was made in 1986 in Bromeswell parish, just a mile or so north of Sutton Hoo. It was a large Byzantine vessel of copper alloy; it bears hunting scenes and a Greek inscription, in lettering which suggests a sixth-century date. It is one of eight known examples, probably from the same workshop, probably at Antioch. One of its siblings has been found elsewhere in England, another seems to have been a gift to a church in Mesopotamia. No one knows what it was doing at Bromeswell, but it does remind one that the ‘Sutton Hoo complex’ may have extended a long way. Professor Carver has rightly mentioned the possibility of there having been a palace somewhere about. Much as the sites in south east Suffolk suggest that there are, or were, many such in East Anglia; so do the finds in and about Sutton Hoo suggest that they are only part of what is, or was, there or nearby.

Is there more to be recovered at Sutton Hoo? Yes, there must be

Only one of the burials is certainly female. All seem to be close to one another in date. There is considerable variation in funerary rite; there are some internments and some cremations, two ship burials, some burials with horses. Are then the burials those of some kind of sodality? Could it be that there were such organisations, and that the somewhat later popularity of monasticism among the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy may be partly accounted for by there already having been male associations? The variety of burial practices suggests that an element in the creation of the cemetery may have been theatrical funerals with an element of competition by eclecticism.

So, what are we to make of the man who was buried – or, just possibly, nearly commemorated – in Mound I at Sutton Hoo? Certainly he has shown himself to be an attractive centre for speculation. Was he or was he not a king? If he was, was he or was he not king Raedwald? Is such a burial as his indicative of kingdom-creation and new royal power? Do the contents of his grave tell us anything about conversion to Christianity? Learned voices have proclaimed affirmative answers to these questions. Some have waxed a little dogmatic on these themes. If, on the one hand, and on the contrary, it is certain that nothing like certainty can be attained in these matters, nevertheless, on the other, the pursuit of relevant debate is interesting indeed. Heaven knows who the man of Mound I was. But he has certainly proved a leader in stimulating research, thought, and the understanding of a distant past. From one point of view he is an ignus fatnus, from another a guiding star.

What can we know about him for sure? We have to keep an open mind on how far the objects in the burial were his, objects rather than treasures selected from a larger store by the organisers of his funeral, or selections from booty or gifts or bribes which need not tell us much directly about East Anglia. All the same that ship and the wonderful objects amidships tell an unmissable and enthralling tale such as only discoveries can tell. The message is one of complexity and of sophistication. At Sutton Hoo, king or no king, we are certainly in the company of the rich and the powerful. Their world was one which for many generations had lived partly in the shadow of Rome. The helmet, the shoulder clasps, the silver, all take us to Old Rome or New Rome. Sometimes the connections are old and had been long diffused among the great of the barbarian world. That the style of the Sutton Hoo helmet derived ultimately from third century Sasanian Persia and may have come to Sutton Hoo via Sweden shows great elaboration in long diffusion.

It is important that gold and garnet cloisonné jewellery had been a chosen style among the barbarian, often Romanised, great over much of Europe for over a century before the Sutton Hoo pieces were made. If in some ways the German world had seen the influence of Roman ebb, in others it was growing. Seventh-century England saw a process of Romanisation: the adoption of Christianity was one aspect of this. The use and striking of coin was another. The adoption of elements of Byzantine dress by important women was yet another. It is worth bearing in mind that travel need not have been more difficult in the seventh century than it was in the 17th century. Maybe the records were worse in the seventh century, not the roads. The very arguments about ‘influences’ on the treasures of Sutton Hoo in themselves indicate a wealth of possible relationships. One example among many: the ‘hanging bowls’ indicate links with Celtic lands, possibly with Ireland. It was at a time not far distant from the burial in Mound I that an Irish missionary, Fursley, came to East Anglia. There are place-names in East Anglia which can suggest – to the suggestible – Irish settlement. There is no seeing how these things must, though one can see how they might, link together. The importance of Sutton Hoo is in indicating possibilities. The range of these is such as to indicate a widely connected ruling group. Details and specifics are hard to find; the general fact of wide connection is certain.

One certainty is multiplicity of contacts. Another is sophistication of techniques. It is absolutely certain that in wood and steel and gold-and-garnet, in ships and swords and jewellery, complete mastery was available. This may be the most important thing which Mound I and its companions teach us, and another question is raised at once. How far down did such techniques go? How many ships were there so well built as that in Mound I? Were the ports and rivers crowded with good shipping? There were chisels available that would cut whetstone. Whetstone and millstone are comparable in hardness. The crucial tool for building a mill is the chisel which will cut millstone. So they had the key to the watermill: did they already have many of these? People could make marvellous weapons, but were marvellous tools available? Well, Mound I tells us of at least one such.

The man of Mound I has proved no less illuminating than enigmatic. He has inspired a range of questions, understandably obvious questions. Was he a king? If so, was he king Raedwald? Was he a Christian? Was the grandeur of his grave goods an expression and consequence of a new kind of rule? Various answers have been given to these questions, answers sometimes too affirmative and dogmatic. This may be a good thing: assertion breeds counter-assertion and debate breeds understanding. All the same dubito ergo sum must be the motto of the Dark Age historian. On such issues Sutton Hoo can, in the last resort, do no more than to provoke discussion of a range of possibilities, a range which ought to be extended rather than narrowed. The great gift from archaeology is the partial recovery of the physical reality of the past. It is one thing to read in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica of reges, of principes, and of ornamenta regia; another to actually see such ornamenta. No text could tell one of the marvellous refinement of the skills with which they were made. One cannot be too sure that the objects of Sutton Hoo demonstrate anything very specific about the man in the ship. But taken together they prove the complex roots and ‘internationality’ of the royal and noble world. Sutton Hoo tells us much of the culture and connections of a ruling class, and the deep skills of its craftsmen.

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Professor James Campbell was a leading historian of Anglo-Saxon history and a fellow at Worcester College, Oxford, from 1957 until his retirement in 2002