The Joy of Museums

Finding Beauty & Meaning in Museums

The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

Original Sutton Hoo Helmet

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. Below is a map of the site.

The treasures discovered in the burial ship included fine craftsmanship pieces from England, Germany, Scandinavia, Alexandria and Byzantium. The masterpieces include:

  • A gold Buckle Belt decorated with writhing animal patterns:

Sutton Hoo (3)

  • A pair of Shoulder Clasps inlaid with garnets:

Sutton Hoo (5)

  • A Purse Lid made of gold and garnets:

Sutton hoo (1)

  • A fearsome Helmet that had been rusted and was 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:

Sutton Hoo helmet 2016

The Sutton Hoo Helmet is extraordinary. It is composed showing 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. Originally the helmet was crushed into over 5,000 fragments when the burial chamber collapsed many years ago. It took many attempt 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importance to early medieval historians because it represents a period of English history which is not well covered by historical documents.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 very powerful and wealthy person during the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of East Anglia to have been offered such a rich burial. A burial site remain untouched by grave robbers and people forgot the significance of the mounds amongst the farming communities.

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 the ownership 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 thus 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.

Sutton Hoo helmet reconstructed

A replica of the original helmet

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 practicing 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 1940’s.

Essential Facts:

Original Burials: 575 to 625
Culture: Early Anglo-Saxon
Burial Location: Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, Woodbridge, England
Size: 27m long ship
Excavated: 1939
1939 Owner of the Estate: Mrs Edith Pretty
Number of Precious stones: 4,000
 Museum:  The British Museum


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


Photo Credit: 1) See page for author [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 2) By Jononmac46 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 3) By Jononmac46 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 4) By Jononmac46 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 5) By Geni (Photo by user:geni) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons 6) By Harold John Phillips (Screen capture of image from home movie) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 7) By Gernot Keller (Own work)- 2008-05-17-SuttonHoo.jpg – cropped & slightly brightened (2008-05-17-SuttonHoo.jpgGernot Keller (Own work)) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons