A Brief Introduction to Sutton Hoo

Sutton Hoo purse lid detail

In the summer of 1939, as World War Two loomed bleakly on the horizon, a discovery was made beneath the earth in a quiet corner of Suffolk on the eastern coast of England.

Archaeologists painstakingly brushed away layers of sandy soil to reveal the shape of a ship beneath a mound, and in the centre of the ship they found a burial chamber full of the most extraordinary treasures. 

Although it took some time to understand what these finds were, and what they meant, the discovery would prove to be an Anglo-Saxon royal burial of incomparable richness, and it would revoluntionise our understanding of early England. 

The Treasures 

The incredible treasures in the burial give us many clues about the person buried in the ship, as well as the community that laid them to rest. 

Articles of war, such as a sword, a number of spears, and a shield suggest a great war leader; the presence of a lyre evokes a musician and poet; the exquisite gold and garnet workmanship on many items represent a generous patron of the arts; items of purely symbolic function, like the Sutton Hoo sceptre, might imply a religious role. 

There are also barrels, drinking horns, hanging bowls, silver dishes, a purse of coins, and many more items. The whole collection creates the impression of a very rich and powerful individual, probably a king. 

At Sutton Hoo you can view our hand-crafted replica treasures, which demonstrate the expert craftsmanship and the richness of the grave goods. On certain days we run Out of the Case sessions for handling the items - see our What's On pages for more info. We also have a reconstruction of the burial chamber in the Exhibition Hall, evoking a sense of the funerary ritual and showing the items as they were laid out. 

The Helmet 

Most iconic among the treasures is undoubtedly the Sutton Hoo helmet. Highly corroded and broken into pieces by age and by the collapse of the chamber, the helmet took many years work by the British Museum conservator team to reconstruct. 

It remains the distinctive face of Anglo-Saxon history. 

Sutton Hoo Boy and Helmet

North European Origins 

The helmet demonstrates influence from earlier Roman cavalry helmets, and also from Swedish helmets of a similar era to the Sutton Hoo burial. The connection with Sweden and Scandinavia can be seen in a number of other items, including the Sutton Hoo shield and the drinking horns. It reminds us that East Anglia was the western shore of a Germanic culture that spread around the North Sea. 

The replica helmet at Sutton Hoo was made by the Royal Armouries and is displayed on a rotating plinth so that you can see all the equisite detail. The helmet can be interpreted as war gear, as a status symbol, as a clue to some of the beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons, and as a triumph of craftsmanship. 

Travellers and Traders 

The people buried at Sutton Hoo were not only closely connected to their Scandinavian neighbours, but clearly engaged in travel and trade across huge distances. Garnets that decorate many of the treasures most likely originated in Sri Lanka, and there were also items from the Byzantine Empire, from Egypt, and from all across Europe. 

The New Faith 

The dating of the coins help us locate the burial to around the year AD625, a time of political and religious change across England. Some of the silver bowls found in the chamber display cross-shaped decoration, possibly suggesting a Christian origin, and a pair of silver spoons bear the names 'Saulos' and 'Paulos', which would appear to be a reference to the Christian story of the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus. 

The burial of a great man in a ship, surround by his regalia, is clearly a pre-Christian ritual - burial practices would change enormously after the conversion to Christianity. The Christian imagery on the treasures tells a different story, and it would appear that the burial at Sutton Hoo took place at a crucial time of fundamental change in early England, from belief in the old gods to a new faith.

The Man on the Inside

A body was never discovered in the Mound One burial, and it has been suggested that the ship burial was a cenotaph, honouring a dead king whose body was lost, but the evidence of organic traces suggests that a body had been placed there, but dissolved in the acid-water build up over the years. 

As no written records were kept, we will never know who was buried here, but the leading theory by experts is that it was King Raedwald of East Anglia, one of the ruling Wuffing dynasty, who claimed descent from the god Woden, whose victories in war would have made him fabulously wealthy, and who infamously hedged his bets with an altar to Christ and an altar to the old gods in the same temple. 

The Significance of Sutton Hoo 

Sutton Hoo provides the richest source of archaeological evidence for this period of history of England's development. 

The traditional view of the Dark Ages is that they were an era that fell through the gaps between civilisation, marked by a lack of sophistication. The Sutton Hoo discovery has proved beyind doubt that the Anglo-Saxons were a highly sophisticated people, capable of phenomenal craftsmanship and inter-continental travel, whose rituals and beliefs were complex and subtle. 

Sutton Hoo was a place of incredible spiritual importance to a people 1400 years ago, where a community came together to commemorate their dead, and a ritual took place where a ship was brought up from the river and buried with a powerful lord and his treasures. 

Come and visit Sutton Hoo to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors, and feel the atmosphere of a site on the border between worlds.