Mention the site Sutton Hoo and you probably get an instant image of something which originally looked like this:
We saw some folks in York wearing similar at the recent Jorvik Viking Festival:
But there’s a tad more to this burial than a shiny helmet (as nice as it is) and the parallels with the Old English Poem Beowulf (which is probably a whole other topic in itself…). So I’d like to take you on a journey underground a bit and back over ten thousand years (all without leaving the comfort of your own chair…) and show you some of the other things which came from the same burial. Our adventure begins in a lumpy field on the banks of the River Deben in Suffolk. Originally there were four lumps of note to be precise, as counted and numbered by a chap called Basil Brown in 1938. I say originally, because as of today, they’re up to 17 identified grave mounds on the same site. Basil dug Mounds 2, 3 and 4, finding little of the original graves but the detritus left by scavengers and looters. But he giveth up not! and set his spade into discovering the contents of Mound 1. To say he found the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of a jackpot is somewhat of an understatement. So, here’s the full site as we know it today, Mound One is roughly halfway down the left hand edge:
One of the other recently discovered burials was been named the Sutton Hoo Prince – In Mound 17, far out on the western edge of the site. A young man in his twenties was buried in a coffin with his horse, sword and shield. He’s a partial sand body, which means that the bones and tissue have been eaten away by the acid conditions and left a darker discoloration where the bones used to be.
There are other sand bodies from the site too, such as these:
But back to the main event: Some of the contents of Mound One:
The ship from Mound One was a massive 90ft long Clinker built beast filled with more archaeological goodies than a piñata. The wood didn’t survive, but the iron rivets did, giving a complete shape of the ship in almost perfect condition. Here she is in 1939, empty of all goodies, with the straking and planking outlines clearly visible:
The Helmet itself was somewhat broken from its wait in the ground, and 500+ three dimensional jigsaw pieces took conservators nearly a year to put back together (on account of they didn’t have the box lid…).
There’s a scepter (or at least they think it’s one…) which is made of stone, and has a stag on the top. It’s a strange object and if you ask them quietly, they’ll tell you that they’re not really sure what it was for. There’s parallels with a scepter being used as an object representing power, the right to rule and something which legitimises, such as the ones still in use today. But this one is made out of rock for goodness sake, and not precious metals and shiny stones…
The sword and shield are also very shiny. The shield has been reconstructed, with thin metal plate decorations including the bird (a raven or eagle, probably representing the theme of the Beasts of Battle) on the right, the head is closest to the shield boss in the centre, and the feet are curled underneath.
The sword is also very shiny, or what remains of it is:
There is a bit more to it than the hilt, but to be honest, the hilt covered in gold and garnets is the interesting part and once you’ve seen one rusted sword, you’ve seen them all…
But a man cannot live on war alone, and there are plenty of other objects within the grave which point to a thriving social life.
The hanging bowls, for instance, would have originally hung from tripods and been filled with wine (for people to dip their cups into) or water (for people to wash their fingers in). This one has a bronze fish on the base inside:
There was also a drinking horn and a lyre (“Pants On Fire!” Shut up, Tiro! *thwack*)
Both items reconstructed here:
Even the belt buckle decorated with intertwined snakes, screams ‘bling’:
It’s the same for the garnet cloisonné shoulder clasps, and the purse lid:
Incidentally, the purse held 37 coins, so not only the proud owner of shiny bling, but minted as well…
If you take a nice close look, you’ll see the same bird design from the shield appearing again here (in the centre of the lid), together with two images of a man flanked by two wolves. It’s the same Anglo-Saxon Beasts of Battle theme arising again…
But it’s the tableware which most interests me: there are several silver bowls buried, together with two spoons, which have become known as ‘Christening Spoons’ as each spoon has a name written on them. One says CAVLOC and the other PAVLOC, which generally gets translated from the Greek as ‘Saul’ and ‘Paul’.
It could be that the owner (as in the man buried) was Christian, that the giver of the items at the funeral was Christian, or even that they were just shiny plunder which was buried so the deceased could take it with him.
So, to state the obvious: there’s lots of (probably) very expensive stuff here, which generally goes on the pagan theme of burial (being that you take it with you so you can use it in the afterlife) as opposed to the Christian one (you can’t take it with you when you go…). Logic would dictate that the presence of items in the grave setting means that the person is a pagan. But, and it might be tiny, but it’s important, the dead don’t bury themselves. It’s the people remaining who bury the individual and arrange the funeral, so in this time period the deceased probably doesn’t have a say in what happens afterwards. In this case the person could have been a Christian, and just been buried in the traditional style rather than the pagan one. There were royal pagans at this time, but equally so, there were royal Christians too…
There’s one small snag with all of this shiny stuff: there’s no-one home. That is to say that there was no human remains discovered in Mound One. There are a couple of popular reasons for this:
1) That whomsoever’s grave it was died overseas and so a burial was held without a body; the whole Mound is a cenotaph.
2) That the earth acidity has eaten away at the body and left no trace (organics such as human tissue, leather, hair and bone sometimes don’t survive very well, especially in acidic sand). This is the more accepted theory nowadays, as soil analysis revealed the presence of phosphates where the body would have been, which indicate… ah, never mind, just take it as read that we can tell there probably would have been a body there once.
But it does leave us with a bit of a dilemma. Going back to basics, it’s obvious that the goods belong to a man, and a rich one at that. A very rich one, come to think of it, probably at the top of his Anglo-Saxon heap, and by the style of goods and dating the artistic patterns we end up with a period in history. Hurrah, you might think, a period in history narrows down the contenders for the prize beneath Mound Number One. Well, it does, but it gives us four possibles:
1. Raedwald: (599-624/5 AD): A pagan, although he did convert to Christianity for a few months at one point. Overlord of all English kingdoms, so very powerful. Most people will tell you Mound One is Raedwald’s grave, and it may be, but in truth we can’t be absolutely certain.
2. Eorpwold: (625-627/8 AD) Raedwald’s son. Only ruled for a very short time before being murdered.
3. Sigebert: (630/1-636/7 AD) Eorpwold’s half-brother. A devout Christian who found ruling the pagan East Angles so difficult that he shared the kingship with his kinsmen and cousin Ecric.
4. Ecric: (634-636/7 AD). Shortly after he became King, other kingdoms threatened his realm. Ecric and Sigebert went into battle together and were both killed in 637.
You can find out more at the Sutton Hoo Society Website HERE or at the British Museum, which holds some of the goodies. There’s also the Sutton Hoo Research Project Archive HERE and the Royal Wuffing Gallery pages HERE and of course Wikipedia HERE