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.
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.
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 information about Sutton Hoo from the National Trust:
About the connection between Sutton Hoo and the epic Beowulf:
2019 “British Museum – Who was buried at Sutton Hoo?”. https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo/features/the-royal-burial-mounds-at-sutton-hoo ed. Vol. 2019,
2019 “Revisiting Sutton Hoo, Britain’s Mythical Burial Ground.” https://www.newyorker.com/news/letter-from-the-uk/revisiting-sutton-hoo-britains-mythical-ship-burial ed. Vol. 2019,
Renfrew, Colin and Paul Bahn
2018 Archaeology Essentials. 4th Edition. Thames & Hudson, New York.
2018 “Sutton Hoo Ship Bural and Famous Helmet That Could Belong To Raedwald, King Of All Kings Of Britain”. http://www.ancientpages.com/2018/01/09/sutton-hoo-ship-burial-famous-helmet-belong-raedwald-king-kings-britain/ ed. Vol. 2019,
2017 “The Ghostly Treasure Ship of Sutton Hoo.”
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/magazine/2017/01-02/sutton-hoo-england-anglo-saxon-treasure-ship/ ed. Vol. 2019,