Sutton Hoo is a site located in the county of Suffolk in the southeast of England. The land is home to a series of mounds that pop up over the area, and this is where a Mrs. Edith Pretty, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and her Husband Frank, a retired colonel, settled down in 1926. Unfortunately 12 years later, Edith became widowed with a young son and had withdrawn herself from society.
Edith and her friends were spiritualists, which wasn’t anything strange in the 1930s, because a lot of people were at the time. But the story goes that either she or a friend of hers claimed to have seen visions of shadowy figures walking around the mounds- in particular, a stately warrior atop a hose on one of the largest ones. Oooh I just got chills… Is it getting spooky up in here, or is it just me?
Edith seems to have been quite a curious person. It’s know that she had traveled to Egypt, and therefore would have been familiar with the process archaeology and the notion of things lying in wait to be discovered underground. Of course, there was also the fact that there were always rumours and stories of gold being hidden in mounds like this. Luckily, Edith was a woman of means and had both the privilege and the wealth to open these mounds up and have a little look inside.
In 1937, Mrs. Pretty contacted the Ipswich museum in regards to her mounds, and they recommended the self-taught local archaeologist by the name of Basil Brown. The rest, as they say… is history.
Basil Brown, was quite a passionate archaeologist, and with the help of gardener and the gamekeeper, he began to carefully excavate some of the mounds at Sutton Hoo using tools from Mrs. Pretty’s arsenal of household items, essentially. Like coal shovels and pastry brushes. I think that’s pretty fantastic to say the least. Pure, no nonsense archaeology, on what was meant to be just a small, informal dig that would soon be considered: “The greatest single discovery in the history of British Archaeology”
Brown’s first season of excavation took place in 1938, where a few smaller mounds were excavated. Mounds 2, 3 and 4 contained a few objects and some evidence of human remains, sure… but nothing of significance. But nothing he found that year would prepare him for what he was to find in the summer of the next one…for Brown and his rag tag pair of helpers would uncover one of the earliest, richest and most important ship burials from the early medieval period of North-west Europe.
The summer of 1939, Brown turned his attentions to the largest barrow on the site, known as Mound 1, and after a few exploratory trenches, he came across a layer of hard soil, stained with rust, containing rivets at regular intervals. Brown soon realised that he had found the impression and oxidised rivets of a ship. The wood itself had decomposed over the years, which happened because of the conditions of the soil in the area. Don’t forget, wood and other organics decompose very easily in the archaeological record, and a lot of the time, we miss the soil marks and impressions of where they were.
Somebody without the skill and keen eye would have just dug right through it! Thanks to Mr. Brown, the ghostly image of the ship that once was came to be uncovered, and it was the find of a lifetime. The excavations showed the ship to be a mastless rowboat measuring over 80 feet long with the capacity to hold 40 oarsmen! This size was comparable to Scandinavian ship burials dating to what appeared to be a similar time period that had been found earlier in the 20th century, and I can just imagine what was going through Basil Brown’s head during the dig. He must have been beside himself with the possibilities of the find he had on his hands.
Word of what was being uncovered in the English countryside soon began to spread. Another archaeologist by the name of Charles Phillips visited the site just before what they believed to be the burial chamber was to be opened. He then decided that the work was too much for the little ragtag team of underdogs Mrs. Pretty had employed. Phillips took over the excavation in July of 1939 with other professionals from Cambridge and the British Museum. Over the next 17 days, the most astounding finds would be uncovered.
The burial chamber had collapsed, and many objects weren’t in the best shape… but when you think of a treasure trove, this is it! In this burial chamber, they found 41 items of solid gold like belt buckles and shoulder clasps, weapons, remains of a shield, gold and garnet jewellery, tonnes of containers and metal bowls, imported silver, silverware inscribed in Greek, a bronze bowl from the Middle East, drinking horns, a so-called purse that did actually contain coins inside from all across Europe… and something else... But we’ll get back to that later!
Every object was so finely made and richly ornamented, and it was clear that this burial mound was for someone of great importance, possibly an ancient king. Upon analysis of the finds, the archaeologists concluded that the burial was Anglo-Saxon, dating to around 625 CE. No body was uncovered during the excavations, which lead to a few theories, such as this burial being merely a cenotaph to a dead king. But it’s also a possibility that the acidic soil of the area had dissolved the bones.
It was pure luck that these items were left undisturbed. Evidence was found that grave robbers had probed the site in the past, but fortunately they dug in the wrong place, only narrowly missing the treasure.
There was no time to sit and revel in this discovery, however. Remember, they were digging in July of 1939. World War two was looming and could be declared at any time, so the excavation team was under incredible pressure to work quickly. Some have called it a form of rescue excavation, and we do owe a lot of gratitude to the archaeologists who worked at the site to ensure that everything was excavated and documented properly before war broke out.
Of course, with Sutton Hoo being the largest Anglo-Saxon ship burial ever discovered, and being filled with evidence of a warrior king, it’s probably no surprise that the site became charged with symbolism as war was declared on Germany on a few months later. With this wartime patriotism at an all time high, Edith Pretty ended up donating the finds to the British Museum. But to keep them safe from the bombings of the war, they artefacts, many still covered in mud, were boxed up and hidden underground in a disused London tube station. And this is where they remained until 1947/1948.
Finally, when the artefacts could be brought above ground for proper study, conservation, publishing and display, another amazing find was discovered among the assemblage. Herbert Maryon, the curator of the British Museum at the time, noticed some small metal plates, and thought they could form some sort of death mask. He jumped at the chance to make a reconstruction. Turns out it wasn’t a death mask at all… but a helmet!
The infamous Sutton Hoo Helmet reconstruction. Image copyright: Trustees of the British Museum
The first reconstruction was a bit controversial, as a helmet of that design would have barely protected the face and neck of the wearer. The helmet was then reconstructed again in 1968 by the then keeper of Medieval antiquities, Rupert Bruce Mitford, and it looks much better and more protective.
The helmet is made of iron, but was covered in tinned bronze panels. The helmet was decorated, for example we found a scene of a horseman riding over a fallen soldier and another of dancing warriors with spears and fun-looking headdresses. Don’t even get my started on the face detailing on this thing. To be honest, the helmet could be a video in itself so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I do want to take a moment and appreciate the moustache action going on there, as well as the garnets highlighting the eyebrows.
Apparently when you wear the replica they made, your voice kind if echoes and drops in tone, which I’m sure would give you major gravitas on the battlefield.
Another cool thing we can tell about the burial from this helmet is that the burial chamber must have been quite large and sturdy due to the fragments of this helmet. The tiny fragments that it was smashed into, indicates that the helmet must have been rusted and corroded before the burial chamber collapsed and smashed the helmet, meaning the burial chamber would have had to withstand the weight of the mound for quite some time.
But now for the big question, who did this helmet, and the rest of the ship burial, belong to? Due to the nature and quality of the artefacts, there was no doubt among scholars that it was for someone of extreme importance. One of the earliest interpretations in the 1940s and 50s believed the ship and the grave goods to be provisions one would need for the voyage to an afterlife in accordance to Anglo-Saxon religious beliefs.
An interpretation like this strengthens the ties the burial has to the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. There’s a section in the poem that discusses burials, which do seem to match up pretty nicely. Coincidence? Probably. But the evidence from Beowulf does encourage us to form a sort of interpretation of Sutton Hoo to imply that the culture that created this burial believed that death involved a voyage to another world. But then again, I’ve read that modern academics doubt the existence of an Anglo-Saxon belief in an afterlife in the seventh century, and the requirement to be equipped for it.
Later archaeological interpretations suggest it was a societal conversion to Christianity, with the burial of the last pagan king of a particular regnal line whose Christian heirs buried the body and the ‘polluted pagan items’. And another suggestion is the opposite, meaning it was the burial of a Christian king by pagan heirs disposing of goods affiliated with Christianity. It’s even been suggested that this wasn’t even a royal burial! There are, of course a few other interpretations, but you can see just how muddy archaeology can get, even when we have the context for all of the artefacts!
There’s one more possible interpretation, that you may have heard of, and seems to be the most popular possibility. The dating of the coins found at the site, along with the presence of both Christian and pagan iconography, has lead some scholars to suggest that the burial belonged to Raedwald, the East Anglian king who reigned from around 599-625 CE. He apparently converted to Christianity, but sanctioned the worship of both the Christian religion and the traditional Anglo-Saxon religions. With the wealth of the burial and the date, this theory lines up pretty well and has become a widely accepted option.
Of course, attributing the Sutton Hoo burial to King Raedwald will remain a possibility because we have no way of identifying the true owner for certain. There aren’t any proper identifying markers, and because there were no human remains recovered, there was no chance of doing any DNA analysis.
What we can tell from the burial is that there are strong correlations with cultural traditions in Sweden at the same time. The helmet has similar iconography to some examples found in Sweden, and the use of ship burials was common practice around the North Sea and the Western Baltic a few hundred years before the date of Sutton Hoo. These practices were introduced to Eastern England through cultural transferences via trade and international relations around the 5th century AD. So the burial at Sutton Hoo could represent taking the practice to the extreme.
Regardless of who was actually buried with the ship amongst all these fantastic yet haunting goods, Sutton Hoo is one of the most famous and identifiable archaeological sites in the world. I think what makes the discovery of Sutton Hoo so captivating isn’t particularly what was found, but the story behind it all. The inconceivable circumstances, the mystery, the colourful characters, the suspense, the race against time, and all the challenges that had to be overcome for the burial of this ghostly king to come to light.
So there you have it friends, the story of Sutton Hoo and the archaeological evidence behind the new Netflix film The Dig. Of course, The Dig is based off of a novel that was based off of the true story… so I do feel there will be some Hollywood liberties taken with it, but now you have the backstory and you can go watch the film armed with a little more familiarity and appreciation for what this find really meant for the field of archaeology.
Antiquity Editorial June 2019
Britannica Academic: Sutton Hoo
Voyage to the Other World: The Legacy of Sutton Hoo
Calvin B. Kendall and Peter S. Wells
The Enigmatic Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial: Fresh Insights from
Assemblage Theory, Georgina Pitt, Parergon, Volume 36, Number 1, 2019, pp. 1-29
British Museum : An Introduction to Sutton Hoo
British Museum: The Anglo-Saxon Ship Burial at Sutton Hoo
National Geographic: The Ghostly Treasure Ship of Sutton Hoo