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A brief history of Sutton Hoo

A replica of the Anglo-Saxon helmet of war at Sutton Hoo
A replica of the Anglo-Saxon helmet found at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

In the summer of 1939, as the Second World War loomed bleakly on the horizon, an incredible discovery was made beneath the earth in a quiet corner of Suffolk. Find out the story behind the Anglo-Saxon treasures at Sutton Hoo and why the finds were so significant.

An archaeological discovery

In June 1939, archaeologists painstakingly brushed away layers of sandy soil to reveal the shape of a ship beneath a mound. In the centre of the ship, they found a burial chamber full of the most extraordinary treasures. It turned out to be an Anglo-Saxon royal burial of incomparable richness, and would revolutionise the understanding of early England.

The Sutton Hoo treasures

The objects in the burial chamber were designed to signal power on earth and in the hereafter. Each object tells a story and reveals something about the person they accompanied into the afterlife.

Weaponry such as a pattern-welded sword suggests a great war leader, a lyre evokes a musician and poet, the exquisite gold and garnet craftsmanship on many items represents a patron of the arts, whereas objects like the drinking horns speak of a generous host.

Items such as the shield are thought to have been diplomatic gifts from Scandinavia, and speak of someone both well respected and highly connected. The shoulder clasps modelled on those worn by Roman emperors tell us of someone who borrowed from different cultures and power bases to assert their own authority. Together, these treasures form a potent piece of power poetry, suggesting the burial of a king.

The Sutton Hoo helmet

Most recognisable among the treasures is undoubtedly the Sutton Hoo helmet. Highly corroded and broken into more than 100 fragments when the burial chamber collapsed, the helmet took the conservation team at the British Museum many years to reconstruct.

Today, it is arguably the face of the Anglo-Saxon period.

Replicas of finds from the Sutton Hoo Saxon burial site, Woodbridge, Suffolk - five spears on a bear skin
Five replica spears at Sutton Hoo | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

North European origins

The helmet seems to have been influenced by earlier Roman cavalry helmets and by Swedish helmets of a similar era to the Sutton Hoo burial. The connection with Sweden and Scandinavia can be seen in several other items, including the Sutton Hoo shield and the drinking horns. At the time of the burial, East Anglia was the western shore of a Germanic culture that spread around the North Sea.

The replica helmet at Sutton Hoo features the kind of exquisite detail that would've been seen in the real thing. The helmet can be interpreted as armour for battle, 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 items from the Byzantine Empire, Egypt and across Europe were also uncovered.

The new faith

The dating of coins found helps to place the burial to around the year 625AD, a time of political and religious change across England when belief in the old gods was changing.

Some of the silver bowls found in the chamber feature cross-shaped decoration, possibly suggesting a Christian origin, while a pair of silver spoons bear the names 'Saulos' and 'Paulos', which would appear to be references to the Christian story of the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus.

The burial of a great man in a ship, surrounded by his regalia, is clearly a pre-Christian ritual, and burial practices would change enormously after the conversion to Christianity.

Replicas at Sutton Hoo. Tunic, chain mail shirt, spear and axe hammer on a bear skin
Replica clothing at Sutton Hoo | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

The man on the inside

Between 1965 and 1971, archaeologists returned to Sutton Hoo to try and answer some key questions posed by the 1939 excavation and subsequent analysis, one of which was the mystery of the missing body in the Great Ship Burial.

It was solved by chemical analysis of the sand below the burial chamber, which showed high phosphate levels. This established that a body had decomposed there, which meant that the mound was not a cenotaph (commemorative empty tomb) as had been previously suggested. The acidic nature of the region’s soil would explain why timbers and human remains alike had dissolved over time.

Although the identity of who'd been laid to rest in the Great Ship Burial will never be known, the leading theory is that it was King Rædwald of East Anglia; he would've been important enough to warrant such a burial, and died around this time. Rædwald was part of the ruling Wuffing dynasty who claimed descent from Woden, the Germanic god who sacrificed his left eye for knowledge.

The significance of Sutton Hoo

Sutton Hoo provides one of the richest sources of archaeological evidence for the Anglo-Saxon period of England's history. The discovery in 1939 changed our understanding of that era, and a time that had been seen as backwards was suddenly illuminated as cultured and sophisticated.

This story of discovery didn’t end in 1939, though, as our knowledge and understanding of the Anglo-Saxons of Sutton Hoo is still changing and expanding.

Some 1,400 years ago, a community came together to haul a ship from the river, within which they buried their king along with treasured possessions for his final journey. It was a public spectacle that was intended to be remembered for all time.

The Warrior Horseman's burial treasure at Sutton Hoo

Sutton Hoo's collections

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Sutton Hoo on the National Trust Collections website.

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