Sutton Hoo: How Burials Can Form Images of a Society Without Physical Remains

When Edith Pretty hired archaeologist Basil Brown in 1937 to excavate the large mounds on her property, they discovered Europe’s richest ship burial to date. Sutton Hoo is home to a magnificent burial dating back to seventh-century AD, the grave of an Anglo-Saxon king who was buried with a ship full of grave goods (Knight 2019). This archaeological site in England provides a bountiful supply of information about Anglo-Saxon society.

In 1939, Brown excavated the largest mound at Sutton Hoo. He eventually uncovered the remains of a large ship (Walker 2017). At more than twenty-seven meters, the Anglo-Saxon rowing boat had been hauled up from the river and buried on land (Knight 2019). Unfortunately, not everything buried there 1,400 years ago still remained. The ship functioned as a water-repellent body, causing any water that seeped through the soil to build up. The soil turned acidic, dissolving any organic remains. (Sutherland 2018). Therefore, the wooden ribs of the ship rotted away over the centuries. Although the tangible remains of the ship had deteriorated, the ship left an intricate imprint (Knight 2019); the impression of the ship shaped a picture of what the ship looked like (Figure 1), despite the absence of physical remains.

Figure 1. The remains of the grand burial ship as they are excavated from the largest mound.

So, who was buried at Sutton Hoo? Like the boat, the body that was buried in the mound dissolved due to the soil’s acidity (Walker 2017). However, even when there are no physical remnants, evidence of human remains can still persist (Renfrew 2018). Tests done on the soil revealed traces of residual phosphate, a chemical that a body leaves behind when it decomposes (British Museum 2010). The big mystery surrounds the individual’s identity. The top theory is that the burial belongs to King Rædwald of East Anglia, who died in 624 AD (Walker 2017).

In the largest mound, Brown found an array of impressive relics. These 263 artifacts formed an image of beauty and sophistication. The most famous item found is the iconic metalwork helmet (Figure 2). The goods originated from diverse places; for example, coins from Merovingian France and a silver dish from Constantinople were found among the goods (Knight 2019). The diversity in places of origin of these items display the extensive trade connections that the Anglo-Saxons had with other European communities in the ancient world.

Figure 2. The astonishing metalwork helmet, made of iron and covered with panels depicting various scenes.

Before the burial’s discovery, a common belief about Anglo-Saxons depicted them as “crude folk… who lived crude lives and left little of value behind” (Knight 2019). The sophistication and intricacy of the artifacts found in the burial disprove these misconceptions about the Anglo-Saxons, showing they were more complex and worldly than people gave them credit for. The burial also displays the importance of grave goods and afterlife in this society’s beliefs. The artifacts emphasize the significance of burying respected or loved figures with valuable items that will travel with them as they move to the afterlife.

Additional Reading:

Additional information about Sutton Hoo from the National Trust:

About the connection between Sutton Hoo and the epic Beowulf:


British Museum

2019 “British Museum – Who was buried at Sutton Hoo?”. ed. Vol. 2019,

Knight, Sam

2019 “Revisiting Sutton Hoo, Britain’s Mythical Burial Ground.” ed. Vol. 2019,

Renfrew, Colin and Paul Bahn

2018 Archaeology Essentials. 4th Edition. Thames & Hudson, New York.

Sutherland, A.

2018 “Sutton Hoo Ship Bural and Famous Helmet That Could Belong To Raedwald, King Of All Kings Of Britain”. ed. Vol. 2019,

Walker, Verónica

2017 “The Ghostly Treasure Ship of Sutton Hoo.”
ed. Vol. 2019,


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2 thoughts on “Sutton Hoo: How Burials Can Form Images of a Society Without Physical Remains

  1. I love love this post. It’s super cool and well written. My only question is what are the dangers of using words such as “complex” and “worldly” when it comes to cultural analysis in archaeology? When we start suggesting that some cultures are more ‘sophisticated’ than others, what do we lose?

    • Using words like “sophisticated” to describe past cultures raises the culture in question to a biased standard, implying that other cultures aren’t as “civilized” or “sophisticated” and therefore inferior. In past anthropological and archaeological works, anthropologists used the idea of civilization as a means of classification, with barbarism, savagery, and civilization depicted as stages in cultural evolution. However, these practices equated “primitive” with “inferior” (Francis 1964). This connotation spurred an unconscious and biased comparison between different cultures and societies through the classification of “primitive” or “civilized”. By classifying things as either “sophisticated” or “primitive”, we completely ignore the meanings and importance of the past cultures.

      Looking back at the use of “sophistication” in this post, as well as “worldly” and “complex”, it would have been more accurate to focus on how the details and symbols in the Anglo-Saxon art and the Anglo-Saxons’ connections to various parts of the world disprove the public misconception that the Anglo-Saxons were a “crude” people.

      Francis, L. K. H.
      1964 Rethinking the Concept “Primitive”. Current Anthropology 5(3):169-178.

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