The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial: A General Background and Source List

Thomas Robjent

copyright 2000

Introduction: Sutton Hoo

Since its discovery in 1939, the Sutton Hoo burial site has been the most important physical link to the Anglo Saxon world. The site consists of 19 or 20 burial mounds that were most likely formed between 625 and 670 AD. These graves show the technol ogy and traditions of a culture where pagan customs were slowly being replaced by Christian ones.

Although there are many different burial sites, many of the barrows were robbed, and are thus empty. Fortunately, a robbery attempt in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century of the major barrow was not successful. When the site was fully exc avated in 1939, the remains of a boat measuring about 27 metres long and 4.25 meters wide was revealed. Along with the boat was a relatively large burial chamber containing various artifacts that give us important implications about the culture of this p eriod. There were no human remains found in the chamber although chemical analysis showed that there could have been a corpse inside at one time.

Along with the ship-burial, many impressive artifacts were found within mound one. The list of artifacts and treasure from this mound is as follows: An iron standard, a sceptre, spears, an iron-bound wooden bucket, a bronze bowl, a hanging bowl contai ning the remains of a musical instrument, drinking horns, a shield, a helmet, a sword, the iron head of an axe, the remains of a coat of mail, ten silver bowls, two silver spoons (engraved respectively with ‘Saul’ and ‘Paul’ in Greek), thirty-seven gold c oins, three unstruck circular blanks, two small gold ingots, and various pieces of jewellery.

While Sutton Hoo itself does not have the hallmarks of a Christian burial, artifacts found at the site such as the engraved spoons suggest a distinctly Christian element intermingled with the pagan ritual. This makes sense when considering the way in which Christianity was spread throughout England. Although the British Christians made no attempt to convert the Anglo-Saxons, Rome sent envoys in the late 6th century to begin to persuade the kings. More powerful kings were often able to persuade neigh bouring kings to convert. Despite the many who relapsed into paganism, England, at least officially, was Christian by the early 8th century. The spoons have been identified as presents likely given during a baptismal ceremony for an adult.

Without a doubt the most important discovery among these treasures are the coins because they are the easiest to date. Extensive study of the coins has revealed that they were probably gathered together between the dates of 625 and 630 AD. This means that the major ship-burial in mound one at Sutton Hoo must have occurred at some point after 625 AD.

After establishing the approximate date of deposition, the issue of discovering the identity of the deceased arises. The leading candidate is an East Anglian king called Raedwald who died around the year 624 or 625 AD. Other candidates include Raedwa ld’s son Eorpwald (d. 627/8 or 632/3) and king Ecgric (d. 635/6). These kings have been suggested largely due to their placement within the transition period between Christianity and paganism and their close proximity to the grave site. Raedwald convert ed to Christianity on a visit to the court of Aethelbert, a powerful Christian king. According to Bede, however, he relapsed shortly after his return. After Raedwald’s death, his son Eorpwald converted only to be killed a short time later. Ecgric was a lmost certainly Christian though not much else is known about his life and he seems to be the most unlikely candidate for this type of burial. Despite these possibilities, there seems to be no way to prove for sure who was actually buried at Sutton Hoo.< /P>

The discoveries at Sutton Hoo are tremendously important for the expansion of our knowledge and awareness of the wonderful art and culture of East Anglia in the 7th century. For the first time, we can see Anglo-Saxon art and material culture on the ro yal level. Sutton Hoo shows a fascinating mix of Christian and pagan traditions that have done much to shed light on passages from Anglo-Saxon poetry dealing with the burial process. Episodes in poems such as Beowulf now have tangible, archaeolog ical evidence to add creditability to the often strange blend of customs presented in the text.

Some Useful Sources

There are many resources available for the study of different aspects of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial. One of the most useful sources for a basic introductory study of Sutton Hoo is The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial: A Handbook by Rupert Bruce-M itford. His Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology goes into greater depth and his three volume edition is absolutely packed with information on the Sutton Hoo site.

Angela Care Evans’ book The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial is very similar to Bruce-Mitford’s Handbook in many ways although it gives much more attention to the individual artifacts from mound one. This is a good source for those who need good photograp hs and descriptions of the individual artifacts and less focus on the actual dig.

The Treasure of Sutton Hoo by Bernice Grohskopf also focuses more on treasure but does not go into great detail and is a rather elementary resource.

Carver’s The Age of Sutton Hoo attempts to give answers to the question posed by its title.

Hill’s "Beowulf and Archaeology" gives an excellent review of some important sources for the study of Sutton Hoo and is a good jumping off point.

Voyage to the Other World: The Legacy of Sutton Hoo is perhaps the best single resource that shows how Sutton Hoo relates to many different topics. There is a section for the study of artifacts, Sutton Hoo is put into historical context, relati ons to Beowulf are discussed, and there is also a section on archaeology. This text is an excellent anthology of Sutton Hoo study and is strongly recommended.


For Further Reading


Bruce-Mitford, Rupert L.S. Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology. New York: Harper, 1974. DA 155 .B78 1974b ROBA.

Bruce-Mitford, Rupert L.S. The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial: A Handbook. 3rd Ed. London: British Museum, 1979. DA 155 .B785 1979 ROBA.

Bruce-Mitford, Rupert L.S. The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial. 3 vols. London: British Museum, 1975- 1983. DA 155 .B783 ROBA.

Carver, M.O.H., ed. The Age of Sutton Hoo. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1994. DA 155 .A5 ROBA.

Carver, M.O.H. Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings? London: British Museum Press, c1998. DA 155 .C37 1998.

Cramp, Rosemary. "Beowulf and Archaeology" Medieval Archaeology 1 (1957): 55-77. DA 155 .A1M43 ROBA (book).

Evans, Angela Care. The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial. Revised ed. London: British Museum Publications for the Trustees of the British Museum, 1994. GT 3380 .E8 1994x ROBA.

Green, Charles. Sutton Hoo: the excavation of a royal ship-burial. Revised ed. 1988. GT 3380 .G73 1988.

Grohskopf, Bernice. The treasure of Sutton Hoo; ship-burial for an Anglo-Saxon king. New York: Atheneum. 1970. DA 155 .G75 1970 ROBA.

Hills, C. "Beowulf and Archaeology." A Beowulf Handbook. Ed. Robert Bjork and John D. Niles. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. 291-310.

Hills, C. "Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings?" History Today 48: (9) 59-60 September 1998. D 1 .H818 ROBA.

Kendall, Calvin B. and Peter S. Wells, eds. Voyage to the Other World: The Legacy of Sutton Hoo. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. DA 155 .V69 1992 ROBA.

Lapidge, Michael., et al. eds. The Blackwell Enclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999. DA 152 .B58

Lutovsky, M. "Between Sutton Hoo and Chernaya Moglia: Barrows in eastern and western early medieval Europe." Antiquity 70 (September 1996): (269) 671-676 . CC 1 .A7.

Mitchell, Bruce. An Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1995.

Szarmach, Paul E., et al. eds. Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1998. DA 129 .M43