Sutton Hoo, in Woodbridge, Suffolk, was
an archeological site consisting of eighteen considerable mounds. Although a
few of these mounds bear some influence, this paper will concern only mound
one, as this mound has never been plundered, and still stands as “one of the
most spectacular archeological discoveries ever made” (Holmes et al 1). Found
in August, 1939, mound one housed an eighty-eight foot long by fifteen foot
wide impression of a decayed ship, “studded with iron rivets” (Holmes et al 1).
In the middle of the ship there was a chamber, where the remarkable grave goods
were laid out. Merovingian coins, a helmet, a sword, and three bronze
hanging-bowls were just a few of the spectacular treasures that the
archeologist, Basil Brown, had found.
The center of the ship held the burial
chamber, lined with red and yellow cloths, and filled with “goods befitting a
king” (Higham and Ryan 133). These stunning items included a helmet, a coat of
mail, a shield, a sword, a whetstone, drinking horns, silver and bronze bowls,
silver spoons, a lyre, jewelry, and a purse with forty coins. Swords were quite
rare and expensive during this time period, so only those with lots of power
and money could afford to get one. The helmet was extremely ornate, with scenes
of fighting, and Celtic patterns. In the center, a dragon was fashioned out of
the nose, mustache, eyebrows, and forehead. The mustache was the tail, nose the
body, eyebrows the wings, and forehead the head. Only a brilliant smith could
have created such a masterpiece. All of
the grave goods pointed to someone with power and money, most likely a king.
The Sutton Hoo burial probably took place in
the 620s CE, as the dates on the coins were consistent with that time. The
wooden ship had disintegrated in the acidic soil, and the body, if there was
one, had done the same. At first the belief that the ship was “a cenotaph, a
monument commemorating someone whose body is buried elsewhere” was supported by
archeologists (Stilo 1). However, there is “Evidence of residual phosphates”,
which indicate that there was, at one time, a body (Stilo 1). Archeologists all have differing opinions on
who was buried in the ship. Many agree that the “Sutton Hoo Man” was a king or
overlord, while others argue that he was merely a man of high social standing
or the “father of a king” (Wood 66). He
may have been Rædwald, a king of East Anglia, who is the most supported choice,
Eni, the father of four kings, Kings Eorpwalp, Sigebert, Ecgric, or even
Ricberht, the man who murdered King Eorwalp (Wood 66). However, unless new
information suddenly comes to light, archeologists “will never know his
identity” (Holmes et al 1).
The 620s CE were
a time of turmoil, when Christianity and paganism struggled. Christianity had
become more widespread when Rome fell, because everyone wanted security. The
church was the most stable thing they could partake in. Overtime, Christianity
spread, overwhelming paganism. The “princely burials” such as Sutton Hoo, were
overcome by simpler Christian ones after this time (Higham and Ryan 135). Mound
one was a “clearly pagan burial” and may or may not have been “a statement of
defiance to Christianity” (Karkov 22).
The ship was crucial to the Anglo-Saxons, as it was the fastest and
safest method of transportation. Roads were slow, unaccommodating, and often thick
with obscured thieves and concealed murderers. The landlocked towns were hard
to get at, and were smaller than the sizable, costal metropolises. The ship at
Sutton Hoo had been used before, and repaired. The ship had oars, and may have
had a mast, though as the “… centre section was stripped out so that a burial
chamber could be constructed…” it is impossible to be certain one way or
another (Holmes et al 1). The Sutton Hoo ship was found a couple of months
before Britain entered into World War II, during which the professional
photographs were destroyed, leaving only amateur photographs to show the
amazing cavity where the ship had decomposed (Stilo 1).
The spectacular grave goods Basil Brown and his
team found at Sutton Hoo influenced how we think of the middle ages today.
Though there have been many finds to this day, only one in Britain has managed
to overshadow Sutton Hoo. This find was discovered by the Museum of London
Archaeological Service (MOLAS) in 2003, and had more gold than mound one. However, the magnificent and detailed helmet
won’t be outshone as it gives one of the finest examples of the outstanding workmanship
of the so called “Dark Ages” after Rome fell (Holmes et al 1). All of the items
at Sutton Hoo were donated to the British Museum by the land owner, Mrs. Edith
Pretty (Holmes et al 1).
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Leslie, “Anglo-Saxon Art”, Cornell University Press, 2012, Print.
Michael, “In Search of the Dark Ages”, Checkmark Books, 2001, Print.