Sometime around 1,400 years ago, a great ship was hauled up from the East Anglian coast to Sutton Hoo, the site of an Anglo-Saxon burial ground. Here, the ship became the last resting place of a king or a great warrior. This unknown figure was buried with his vast treasure, undisturbed until the site was excavated, initially by the landowner, Edith Pretty, in 1939. Pretty called upon the services of a self-taught archaeologist, Basil Brown, who made the discovery. What soon became evident was that this was no ordinary ancient cemetery. Further excavations took place through the 1960s and into the 1990s, uncovering the richest burial ground ever to have been found in northern Europe.
But who was buried here, and why? Well, these questions have kept archaeologists and historians guessing ever since the site was uncovered. The most likely theory would seem to name the deceased as King Raedwald, an Anglo-Saxon leader who triumphed over Northumberland, but courted controversy when he erected an altar for Jesus Christ alongside one for the ‘old gods’. Indeed, this fusing of Christian and traditional religious elements offers a fascinating insight into Britain at a time when Christianity was establishing a real stronghold.
While the most celebrated find is an intricate ceremonial helmet, there are also pieces made of gold and embellished with gems, many of which are considered to be the best quality found in Europe from that period. There is an ornate gold belt buckle, a decorated sword and its scabbard, buckles and clasps from clothing and a purse containing gold coins. Many of the pieces would have been produced by master craftsmen. Comparisons have been drawn between Sutton Hoo and sites in Sweden, while many point to links between the spot and the epic poem Beowulf, which opens with the ship burial of a king.
Who was buried at Sutton Hoo?
BBC History Revealed explains…
The simple answer is: we don’t know. Sadly, because of the acidic nature of the soils at Sutton Hoo, no trace of the body at the centre of the grave survived and, in the absence of an inscription or other historical reference, the identity of the person interred will probably never be known for sure.
However, the nature of the finds, which predominantly date from the early 7th century, have led some archaeologists and historians to suggest that this may have been the final resting place of a king, most probably Raedwald, ruler of the East Angles, who died sometime around AD 624.
Britain’s ‘Valley of the Kings’
While certainly the most dramatic find, the ship burial at what is known as Mound One is just one of 18 burial mounds at the site. Most have long since been plundered by grave robbers, but the tomb uncovered at Mound Seventeen was another hugely significant find, revealing a young warrior and his horse, buried complete with not just his weapons but also everyday items such as cooking tools and a comb. The objects found at these and the neighbouring mounds have proven vital in our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of sixth- and seventh-century-AD East Anglia. Sutton Hoo can claim to be Britain’s very own Valley of the Kings.
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Can I visit Sutton Hoo?
While the majority of Sutton Hoo’s treasures are housed at the British Museum, the site itself is certainly well worth visiting. You can take the opportunity to walk around and explore the burial mounds, as well as check out the large visitor centre, which features permanent and temporary exhibitions.
The centre houses exquisite replicas of many of the most important finds, made using traditional methods, plus a number of original pieces. There’s also a full-size reconstruction of the burial chamber, which brings home the scale of the find. And all this is set within a beautiful 255-acre estate, offering walks with incredible views, and even an Edwardian house to explore should the weather take an inclement turn.
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Away from Suffolk, the British Museum in London houses many of the treasures in a dedicated gallery. Edith Pretty generously donated the finds to the museum in 1939, and those on view include the iconic helmet, a giant copy of which adorns the front of the visitor centre at Sutton Hoo.
Find out more about visiting Sutton Hoo, managed by the National Trust.
This information first appeared in BBC History Revealed magazine