The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery
The internment of a ship at Sutton Hoo represents the most impressive medieval grave to be discovered in Europe.
Inside the burial mound was the imprint of a decayed ship and a central chamber filled with treasures. But who was buried there and what did it reveal about this period in history?
Discovery of the burial ground
Amateur archaeologist Basil Brown famously made the discovery of a lifetime back in 1939, when he brushed away the Suffolk soil and revealed the richest intact early medieval grave in Europe. More than a grave, it was a spectacular funerary monument on an epic scale: a 27m (88.6ft) long ship with a burial chamber full of dazzling riches.
As Basil and a team of archaeologists dug deeper, they unearthed fine feasting vessels, deluxe hanging bowls, silverware from distant Byzantium, luxurious textiles, gold dress accessories set with Sri Lankan garnets and the iconic helmet with human mask.
The archaeologists and landowner Edith Pretty were dumbfounded. This was clearly the grave of an important person – someone meant to be remembered. But who was it? And what can the Sutton Hoo excavation tell us about Anglo-Saxon society?
A king's grave?
Sue Brunning, Curator of Early Medieval European Collections, says the burial was the final resting place of someone who had died in the early seventh century, during the Anglo-Saxon period – a time before 'England' existed.
She highlights the effort and manpower that would have been necessary to position and bury the ship – it would have involved dragging the ship uphill from the River Deben, digging a large trench, cutting trees to craft the chamber, dressing it with finery and raising the mound.
Ship burials were rare in Anglo-Saxon England – probably reserved for the most important people in society – so it's likely that there was a huge funeral ceremony. She continues:
'It's this effort, coupled with the quality and the quantity of the grave goods from all over the known world at that time, that has made people think that an Anglo-Saxon king may have been buried here.
'We can't name that king for certain, but a popular candidate is Raedwald, who ruled the kingdom of East Anglia around this time in the early seventh century. He may have held power over neighbouring kingdoms too, which may have earned him a good send off.'
The missing body
Unfortunately, we'll never know the true identity of the grave's inhabitant. When it was unearthed in 1939, any bodily remains were claimed by the acidic local soil to leave only a human-shaped gap among the treasures within.
This led to early speculation over whether the Sutton Hoo ship burial was actually a cenotaph – an empty tomb or a monument erected in honour of a person whose remains are elsewhere. However, more recent analysis detected phosphate in the soil – an indicator that a human body once lay at rest there.
Ultimately, Brunning doesn't think the identity is so important: 'Modern science may have solved the mystery about whether someone was buried here at all. But the 1939 excavation carried out by Basil Brown and the other archaeologists was done so well that its results went on to transform our understanding of this time in history, and the lives and beliefs of the people who lived then. That's a more valuable outcome, in my view.'
Despite the lack of human remains, it's still been possible to glean personal information about the inhabitant.
Piecing together evidence
Brunning's study of the Sutton Hoo sword has led her to believe that the owner was left-handed, with patterns of wear indicating it was worn on the right side and carried in the left hand. She continues:
'Mourners laid the sword on the dead person's right-hand side, suggesting that's where the owner would have worn it in life. They effectively chose to enshrine that left-handedness in a very visual way at the funeral.'
Brunning extrapolates that being left-handed could have provided an advantage in battle as most combatants might be anticipating a right-handed attack.
'I felt a little jolt when I put this theory together. It shows that while these objects might sit quietly in a display case, they're not actually quiet objects. They're loud with information about the people in the past.
'These wear patterns on the sword were made by this person's actual hand. So while their identity is still a mystery to us, we can almost reach though time and touch them.'
Inside the chamber
The other grave goods also tell us a lot about the person buried there.
The mourners at Sutton Hoo chose and arranged the grave goods around the burial chamber in a meaningful way to transmit messages about the dead person's identity and status in society – as a mighty leader, wealthy, generous, connected with the wider world and the glorious Roman past.
British Museum curators have teamed up with illustrator Craig Williams to recreate how the burial chamber may have looked.
You can see here that the chamber was housed within the heart of the ship, at its lowest point.
The burial chamber was laden with military equipment, textiles, and treasure of the very highest quality. Metal items survived the acidic soil better than organic items like fabric and wood, but some more delicate things were preserved (including a tiny ladybird).
The iconic Sutton Hoo helmet was wrapped in cloth and laid near the left side of the dead person's head. It's a piece of truly breathtaking artistry, functional and beautiful, with a vaulted cap and deep cheek-pieces.
The helmet is covered in complicated imagery, including fighting and dancing warriors, and fierce creatures. The face mask together forms a dragon whose wings make the eyebrows and tail the moustache. Garnets line the eyebrows, but only one is backed with gold foil reflectors – perhaps a reference to the one-eyed god, Woden.
Weapons found around the body are equally impressive: a sword with a gold and garnet cloisonné pommel, a sword harness with extremely intricate garnet cellwork and the huge gold belt buckle, also exquisitely engineered.
As an ensemble, they would have made the wearer appear majestic, and are the work of a master goldsmith with skills that modern jewellers struggle to recreate.
Drinking vessels and folded textiles were placed on the lower legs, and near the feet was a pile of clothing and metal objects, including leather shoes, a silver bowl and a unique coat of mail armour.
On top of this lay a huge silver platter with stamps showing that it was made in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire (today's Istanbul). The platter was already a century old when buried at Sutton Hoo, and reflects East Anglia's long-distance connections.
Silver and gold
A nested set of ten silver bowls was placed to the right of the body. Their shape and decoration show that they came from the Byzantine Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean, during the sixth century.
Below these were two silver spoons, also probably Byzantine, their handles inscribed in Greek. One inscription is messier than the other, and may have been added later by someone who wasn't familiar with Greek.
There was also a large decorated purse containing 37 gold coins, three blank coins and two small ingots, which caused a reaction among archaeologists. Each coin came from a different mint in Francia, across the English Channel, and they provide key evidence for the date of the burial, in the early seventh century.
At war and at home
An enormous wooden shield was placed by the chamber's west wall (the head end of the burial). This was very ornate, decorated with a ring of animal heads around the rim and images of a bird-of-prey and dragon. A whetstone (sharpening stone) was also placed along this wall. It was a long, smooth bar carved with human faces at either end and topped with the model of a stag.
Domestic objects lay at the east end of the chamber, including wooden tubs and buckets, two small cauldrons and one very large one with an intricate iron chain that suspended it over a fire.
A light on the 'Dark Ages'
The Sutton Hoo grave is remarkable for the majesty of its contents and its monumental scale. But it also rewrote our understanding of a time that we had previously misunderstood. Post-Roman Britain was considered to have entered the 'Dark Ages', where civilisation in all aspects of life declined. Sutton Hoo proved otherwise.
'This single burial in a pretty corner of Suffolk embodied a society of remarkable artistic achievement, complex belief systems and far-reaching international connections, not to mention immense personal power and wealth,' says Brunning.
'The imagery of soaring timber halls, gleaming treasures, powerful kings and spectacular funerals in the Old English poem Beowulf could no longer be read as legends – they were reality, at least for the privileged few in early Anglo-Saxon society.'