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

Alex Burghart looks back to the discovery of the fabulous Anglo-Saxon burial at Sutton Hoo, and ponders how far we've come in our knowledge of the period since 1939

Sutton Hoo helmet Anglo-Saxon

The year 1939 saw a rare a 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.

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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.

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.

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

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.

The treasure is a much needed feast for the eyes in a period starved of visual aids

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.

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This article was first published in the May 2009 edition of BBC History Magazine