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Joy of Museums

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Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

Sutton Hoo Ship Burial - British Museum - Joy of Museums

The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial is one of the greatest treasures ever found in England. Over 1,300 years old it sheds light on the myths and legends during the period that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire.

The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial was discovered in Suffolk, East Anglia and is the site of two 6th and 7th Century cemeteries. One of the burial mounds contained a massive and significant ship burial. The Sutton Hoo Ship burial was found to include a wonderful treasure of gold and silver, including Anglo-Saxon artefacts of outstanding historical beauty and historical, archaeological significance.

Sutton Hoo is the name of an area along the River Deben opposite the harbour of the small Suffolk town of Woodbridge, about 7 miles (11 km) from the North Sea. It was an entry point into East Anglia during the early medieval period following the end of the Roman imperial rule in the 5th century.

The treasures discovered in the burial ship included beautiful craftsmanship pieces from England, Germany, Scandinavia, Alexandria and Byzantium. The masterpieces include a gold Buckle Belt decorated with writhing animal patterns, a pair of Shoulder Clasps inlaid with garnets, a Purse Lid made of gold and garnets and a Helmet.

Sutton Hoo Helmet

One of the discovered artefacts was a rusted helmet had been crushed in the decay of the collapsed wooden burial ship. The Helmet had to be painstakingly reassembled over many years, back into its original form.

The Sutton Hoo Helmet is extraordinary. It is composed of a world of dragons and monsters. Look for the wings of the dragon in the eyebrow shape and the body of the dragon in the nose with the whiskers as a tail. Initially, the helmet was crushed into over 5,000 fragments when the burial chamber collapsed many years ago. It took many attempts over many years to reconstruct the helmet to what we see today. Today it is easy to imagine the face of an Anglo-Saxon leader in this reconstructed helmet, staring out at us from over a thousand years ago.

The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial is of great importance to early medieval historians because it represents a period of English history which is not well covered by historical documents. This site dates to when early rulers of the East Angles held power and played a part in the establishment of Christian rulership in England.  The person buried in the ship was a mighty and wealthy person during the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of East Anglia to have been offered such a lavish burial. A burial site remained untouched by grave robbers, and people forgot the significance of the mounds amongst the farming communities.

Discovering the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

The discovery of the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial was all due to a remarkable woman, Mrs Edith Pretty (1883-1942) who in 1938 decided to investigate the soil barrows covered with grass on her property. Mrs Pretty used some spare labour on her estate and the help of a local archaeologist call Basil Brown (1988 – 1977) to start excavations with oversight by Ipswich Museum.

In May 1939 while excavating the tallest of the barrows, which was nearly three metres high, Basil Brown uncovered the bows of the ship. As the potential importance became evident, scholars from Cambridge joined the dig in July 1939. The British Museum also joined to support the efforts as Europe moved towards World War II.

The discovered treasure was over 1,300 years old, and the ownership of the uncovered treasures was not clear. Under the law of 1939, a Coroner’s Inquest was required to decide on whether the Sutton Hoo discoveries where a ‘treasure trove’ and thus belonged to the government. The jury at the Inquest found that the hoard was not a treasure trove and was, therefore, the property of Mrs Pretty.

Mrs Pretty could have sold it and become very rich, instead, she decided to present all the treasure to the nation, to be housed in the British Museum. Mrs Pretty refused to accept any honour or recompense.

Nine days after the excavators left the site, Britain entered the War. The “ghost” of the ship in the soil was covered over and soon after British tanks were practising war-time military manoeuvres on Mrs Pretty’s property. The treasure was buried again in a disused section of the London Underground. It lay deep below London until after the war when it could safely be exhibited at the British Museum for the first time in the late 1940s.

Reflections

  • How many more ancient cemeteries like Sutton Hoo remain to be discovered?
  • How different was the Sutton Hoo cultural from the Romano-British culture that preceded it?
  • How many more ancient artefacts are stored in museum storage waiting for some talented person to complete the puzzle and reassembled the fragments from antiquity?

Explore

Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

  • Title:                          Sutton Hoo Ship Burial
  • Original Burials:     575 to 625
  • Culture:                    Early Anglo-Saxon burial
  • Location:                  Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, Woodbridge, England
  • Dimensions:           27m longship
  • Excavated:              1939
  • 1939 Owner:         Mrs Edith Pretty
  • Precious stones:  4,000
  • Museum:              The British Museum

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“The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”
– Winston S. Churchill

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Photo Credit: 1) JOM

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