The Sutton Hoo ship-burial
From Mound 1, Sutton Hoo, Suffolk
Height: 31.8 cm
Width: 21.5 cm
Gift of Mrs E.M. Pretty
In 1938, archaeologist Basil Brown was asked to investigate eighteen low mounds by a local land owner, Mrs Edith Pretty. He began by opening Mound 3, quickly followed by Mounds 2 and 4. All had been robbed in antiquity, although a few fragments hinted at high status Anglo-Saxon burials. In the spring and summer of 1939 Basil Brown excavated the largest mound (Mound 1).
Buried deep beneath the mound lay the ghost of a thirty-metre long oak ship. At its centre was a ruined burial chamber the size of a small room. In it lay weapons, armour, gold coins, gold and garnet fittings, silver vessels and silver-mounted drinking horns and cups, and clothes, piled in heaps, ranging from fine linen overshirts to shaggy woollen cloaks and caps trimmed with fur. The burial also contained a leather purse with a jewelled lid in which had been placed thirty-seven gold Merovingian coins (tremisses), three coin-sized blanks and two billets (ingots).
No trace of a body was found, however analyses of samples for residual phosphate (left behind even when a body has completely decayed away), taken in 1967 support the idea that a body was originally placed there, but had totally decayed.
The coins in the purse were struck between AD 575 and 620, suggesting that (if the burial took place not long after 620) the body belonged to one of four East Anglian kings: Raedwald, Eorpwald and co-regents Sigebert and Ecric. Of these, opinion is divided between Raedwald, a convert to Christianity who abandoned his faith, and Sigebert, a devout Christian.
The objects in the burial were carefully chosen to reflect the king's high rank and equip him for the Afterlife. Many of them, even to the modern eye, are extraordinary and they allow us a glimpse into a life that was barbaric yet 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.
Since 1939 the cemetery has been excavated twice: 1965-71 by the British Museum and 1983-92 by the British Museum and the Society of Antiquaries of London.
On display: Room 2: Collecting the world