Who was buried at Sutton Hoo?
Share this page
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 that this had totally decayed in the highly acidic conditions at the bottom of the ship.
The burial also contained a leather purse with a jewelled lid. It held a group of 37 Merovingian gold tremisses from Francia, three coin-sized blanks and two billets (ingots). All the identifiable coins were struck at different mints after around AD 595 and probably before around AD 640. They are important because they give the burial a terminus post quem, i.e. the time at which the latest coins were minted is the earliest possible time at which they could have been included in the burial.
This in turn gives us some clues as to who may have been buried in this sumptuous grave. For example, there are four kings who may have been buried here: Raedwald who was overlord of the English kingdoms between AD 616 and his death (at the latest in 627, probably in 625/6), Eorpwald (died 627/8) and co-regents Sigebert and Ecric, who both died fighting Penda of Mercia in AD 637. Of these, opinion is divided between Raedwald, a convert to Christianity who abandoned his faith, and Sigebert, a devout Christian.
But we do not know what a 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.
All the objects in this burial were carefully chosen so that in the afterlife the dead man would have everything with him that had been familiar to him in life.
Many of these possessions, even to the modern eye, are extraordinary and they allow us a glimpse into a life that relied on simple technology but was still sumptuous and sophisticated - a lifestyle that is described in the poem Beowulf, which, although written down a couple of centuries after the burial, vividly brings to life this earlier heroic period.