Who was buried at Sutton Hoo?
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No trace of a body was found during the 1939 excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial.
Analyses of soil samples for residual phosphate (a chemical left behind when a human or animal body has completely decayed away), taken in 1967 during the British Museum’s excavations, support the idea that a body was originally placed in the burial chamber, but had totally decayed in the acidic conditions at the bottom of the ship.
A group of coins found inside the purse in the grave provide some clues about who was buried in the ship. There were 37 Frankish gold tremisses, three coin-sized blanks and two ingots. The most recent work on the coins suggests that they were struck between around AD 610–635. This provides an approximate period during which the burial probably took place.
According to historical records, four kings of East Anglia died during this time and could be candidates for the burial. The most popular choice has always been Raedwald, who died around AD 625 and had been overlord of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms during his life. Other possibilities are his successors Eorpwald (died around AD 627), Sigeberht and Ecgric (both died around AD 634).
But we do not know for certain what an Anglo-Saxon king’s burial would have looked like, so we cannot exclude the possibility that Mound 1 was, for example, for a member of the royal kin or a powerful member of a high-ranking family. The Staffordshire Hoard, which contained dozens of precious sword-fittings, has shown that luxurious objects were not necessarily reserved for those of royal standing.
In truth, we cannot know the real identity of the man buried at Sutton Hoo unless a startling new discovery is made. It is clear that he was of exceptional status, enjoyed immense personal wealth and – more than likely – wielded great power. The objects buried with him allow us a glimpse into a sumptuous and sophisticated heroic lifestyle that is brought vividly to life in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf.
The treasure from Sutton Hoo is on display in Room 41. We also encourage people to visit the National Trust Visitor Centre at Sutton Hoo, which is open all year round. It is home to an award-winning exhibition hall that includes a full-size reconstruction of the burial chamber and superb replicas of the Mound 1 treasures. Original finds from Mound 17, such as a fine sword and glittering harness-fittings, are also on display. Outside, visitors can wander around the ancient burial mounds and see where the Sutton Hoo ship burial took place around 1400 years ago.