We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
 Sutton Hoo burial (early 7th cent.), parade helmet Sutton Hoo burial (early 7th cent.), parade helmet
Sutton Hoo burial (early 7th cent.) is named from the place where a king or aristocrat probably lay buried in the barrow known as mound 1. Sutton Hoo, in the extreme south-east of modern Suffolk, is situated on a high bluff on the left bank of the River Deben some 7 miles from the sea, from which in the past it could have been visible. It is necessary to say ‘probably’ because no indisputable human remains were found there, though this is almost certainly attributable to the action of acid soil. This person's burial is of primary importance for early medieval history because it was accompanied by an untouched and exceedingly rich funeral deposit. Barrows at Sutton Hoo have been recorded (and too often robbed) since 1601. Modern archaeological investigation began in 1938. In 1939 a magnificent ship burial was discovered in mound 1. Further excavations were undertaken in the late 1960s and (in association with a wide programme of enquiry) in 1986–92. Very nearly all finds are in the British Museum.

The man honoured in mound 1 was interred in a ship some 90 feet long. Although its wood had perished entirely, its rivets survive, and meticulous excavation of its impression in the sand has permitted detailed reconstruction of a big open vessel, rowed by forty oarsmen, in which a burial chamber had been constructed amidships. The king or aristocrat concerned had very rich personal accoutrements (including cloisonné gold and garnet shoulder-clasps, and a great golden buckle), weaponry (including a highly decorative parade helmet, chain mail, six spears of different types, and a unique ‘axe-hammer’ with an iron handle), silver and bronze vessels, objects of apparently great (but undoubtedly mysterious) significance (in particular a carved whetstone decoratively mounted in bronze), such domestic items as a cauldron with a suspension chain over 11 feet long, and the remains of textiles of many kinds.

Mound 1 is one of up to twenty barrows. Most are unexplored by modern techniques, but some contained rich burials disposed in differing ways and apparently belonging to the same chronological horizon as that in mound 1. Thus mound 3 contained the cremated remains of a man and a horse, with important objects of Mediterranean origin; mound 2 contained a boat burial organized differently from that of mound 1. Twenty-seven entirely different burials have been found outside the mounds. These are of men buried without grave goods (apart from one accompanied by what may have been a plough), many of whom had died violently. The radial disposition of twelve of these around mound 1 strengthens the supposition that the burial of the man commemorated was accompanied by human sacrifice, though the question arises as to how far these burials may be those of a later ‘execution cemetery’.

The grandeur of some of the burials and the proximity of Sutton Hoo to a royal centre of authority at Rendlesham (4 miles north-east) indicate a connection between Sutton Hoo and the East Anglian royal house. It has been forcefully contended that mound 1 is the burial of . Dating is crucial here and depends on the coins in the burial (thirty-seven Merovingian gold tremisses). These include few regal coins capable of exact dating; but the most modern research suggests that the earliest coins are later than 582 (or more probably 595) and that the latest could be as early as 613. Thus the deposit could have been made in the 620s or even a little earlier. These dates permit the possibility of the burial's being that of Rædwald, whose reign ended between 616 and 627. But there is only a terminus post quem; the written record for East Anglia is too meagre to give a secure framework; too few rich burials have survived to permit calibration of this one in a context in which a considerable number of men may have been powerfully rich, while not being kings as Rædwald was. It follows that, whatever Sutton Hoo's links to the East Anglian royal house, efforts towards specific identification must be inconclusive. A linked question is that of whether such an item as the grand, unused, mounted whetstone was (as has been suggested) ‘regalia’. The most that can be said is that only a very important man could have owned such a thing and that it could have had numinous implications.

Sutton Hoo demonstrates a rich availability of techniques and complication of contacts and resonances. Arguments as to whether the ship could have had a sail and on the significance of its lacking a real keel relate to the question, at present insoluble, as to how specialized a craft it may have been, but do not alter the plain facts of its scale and the skill of its construction. The jewellery demonstrates highly sophisticated techniques: an example is that the cloisonné gold and garnet items have the garnets backed by gold foil stamped with most minutely regular patterns, such that the best explanation for the production of the required dies is the deployment of a jig apparatus, not otherwise known for some centuries. The textile fragments have a wide variety of complicated weaves.

A paradigm case of the range of relationships demonstrated is the elaborate parade helmet, with its mask and embossed figures. Such helmets are of a kind which the Romans imitated from their Sassanian (Persian) enemies in the earlier fourth century. Meaningfully close relations of the helmet (as with the shield) appear in Swedish burials at Vendel and Valsgärde of the seventh century and later; that these are also ship burials gives Sutton Hoo a dimension such as to suggest Swedish origins for the East Anglian dynasty. The largest silver dish bears a stamp dating it to the reign of the eastern Roman emperor Anastasius (r. 491–518). Other silver and bronze ware had come from the eastern Mediterranean much more recently. Three ‘hanging bowls’ were of Celtic origin. Some objects have Christian links: two silver spoons are inscribed respectively Saulos and Paulos in Greek lettering. The great gold buckle is probably a portable reliquary, to hang from, not fasten, a belt.

Thus, although it is impossible to know who the man commemorated in mound 1 at Sutton Hoo was, its contents and location tell a lot about him. He was probably connected with the East Anglian royal house. The maritime implications of his being buried in a ship accord with the possible implications of rich grave goods with connections extending from Sweden to Byzantium. Although he was accompanied by objects of Christian significance his burial may have been attended by human sacrifice. He was a man such that objects at his disposal reflected varied craftsmanship of the highest quality. Some of them indicate the continued influence on such a barbarian grandee of the external pomps of Rome.

The burial has been the subject of continuing close analysis and over-strenuous interpretation. Suggestions such as that it has to be regarded as a rearguard demonstration of grand pagan ritual are inconclusively interesting. The gift of the Sutton Hoo treasures to the nation by their owner, Edith May Pretty (d. 1942), following excavations by the amateur archaeologist , was a great and inadequately recognized act of generosity.

J. Campbell

Sources  

R. Bruce-Mitford and others, The Sutton Hoo ship burial, 3 vols. in 4 (1975–83) · A. C. Evans, The Sutton Hoo ship burial (1986) · C. B. Kendall and P. S. Wells, eds., Voyage to the other world: the legacy of Sutton Hoo (1992) · M. O. H. Carver, ed., Sutton Hoo research committee bulletins, 1983–1993 (1993) · M. O. H. Carver, ed., The age of Sutton Hoo: the seventh century in north-western Europe (1992) · V. I. Evison, ‘The body in the ship at Sutton Hoo’, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, 1 (1979), 121–38 · K. East, ‘The Sutton Hoo ship burial: a case against the coffin’, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, 3 (1984), 79–84 · M. P. Pearson, R. van de Noort, and A. Woolf, ‘Three men and a boat: Sutton Hoo and the East Saxon kingdom’, Anglo-Saxon England, 22 (1993), 27–50 · I. Wood, ‘The Franks and Sutton Hoo’, Peoples and places in northern Europe, 500–1600, ed. I. Wood and N. Lund (1991), 1–14

Likenesses  

parade helmet, BM [see illus.]