A medieval ship burial in England that is so impressive and mysterious that it’s been compared to the world of the Old English epic “Beowulf” But who is actually buried at the 1,400-year-old site known as Sutton Hoo? Here mysterious grassy mounds covered a number of ancient graves. In one particular grave, belonging to an important Anglo-Saxon warrior, some astonishing objects were buried, but there is little in the grave to make it clear who was buried there historical records dating to the period are limited, and the remains of those buried at the site are completely decayed, leaving no physical remains to analyze,
The royal burial site at Sutton Hoo, a few miles from the Suffolk coast, East England, is the most famous of all Anglo-Saxon sites. It is mainly known for its outstanding funerary discoveries and in Mound 1, sheds light on the war gear of early seventh-century Anglo-Saxon rulers.
In the summer of 1939, an amateur archaeologist, Basil Brown (1888 – 1977), made one of the most exciting discoveries in British archaeology; they found the tomb of an Anglo-Saxon who had been buried there in the early 600s. Beneath the mound was the imprint of a 27-metre-long ship. At its centre was a ruined burial chamber packed with treasures: Byzantine silverware, sumptuous gold jewelry, a lavish feasting set, and most famously, an ornate iron helmet. Dating to the early 600s, this outstanding burial clearly commemorated a leading figure of East Anglia, the local Anglo-Saxon kingdom. It may even have belonged to a king. Many thought that King Raedwald, who ruled a kingdom in East Anglia and died around A.D. 627, is the best candidate. But even that’s just a best guess.
Artist interpretation by Alan Sorrell of the moving of the burial ship over to the grave. Image credits: A.C. Evans, 1986 via Archaeology of Britain.
Who was Raedwald?
Archaeologists point to Raedwald because the date of the coins and other artifacts matches well with the time of his reign and because the burial does not seem to be fully Christian — something that jibes with what historical records say about him. Sutton Hoo’s location in East Anglia and the richness of its artifacts link it to the East Anglian royal dynasty.
Raedwald ruled a kingdom in East Anglia and struggled over whether he should be Christian or pagan. At one point, he built a temple that had a Christian altar and a pagan altar side by side, St. Bede (lived A.D. 672-735) wrote in his book the “Ecclesiastical History of the English People.”
Raedwald’s religious dilemma is important, as scholars have noted that there are few artifacts at Sutton Hoo that have Christian motifs. “He seemed at the same time to serve Christ and the gods whom he had served before,” wrote St. Bede (translation by J.A. Giles). “In the same temple, he had an altar to sacrifice to Christ and another small one to offer victims to devils,” Bede wrote, calling Raedwald “noble by birth, though ignoble in his actions.”
Moreover, Raedwald was a prominent king during his time, intervening in a dispute over who should be King of Northumbria by using his army to ensure that Edwin, one of the claimants, was crowned. The Sutton Hoo ship burial — with its ornate accessories made of gold and jewels — seems rich enough for such a ruler.
In this reconstruction drawing, the Sutton Hoo ship burial holds a wealth of Anglo-Saxon artifacts and the body of what is likely a king from East Anglia. (Image credit: English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
However, some archaeologists were more cautious in their assessments.
“I think the balance of evidence suggests the burial site is connected to the East Anglian royal dynasty, and I think this is as far as we can, and should, go with this question,” Howard Williams, an archaeology professor at the University of Chester in England, told OTCB He noted that although Raedwald, or perhaps another East Anglian king, could be buried at Sutton Hoo, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that the burial could be from a king of a neighboring East Saxon kingdom.
Another possibility is a relative of Raedwald. “If you held a gun to my head, I would say Raedwald, but equally I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it turned out to be someone else,” said Alex Woolf, a senior lecturer in medieval history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “Raedwald is probably the best bet, but far from certain. His son Eorpwald had a short reign after him, and there are other members of the family in the seventh century we know little about.”
In 1993, Woolf and two colleagues wrote a paper published in the journal Anglo-Saxon England suggesting that the burial could hold the remains of someone from the East Saxon kingdom. Ultimately, “I don’t think we can know for sure” who was buried in the boat grave, Woolf said.
However, Barbara Yorke, an emeritus professor of early medieval history at the University of Winchester in England, said other East Anglian kings from the time period seem unlikely for a variety of reasons. For example, these kings reigned for short periods, had strong ties to Christianity or died before the minting of the coins. Therefore, Raedwald is the most likely candidate, she said.
“Raedwald was the most powerful of the East Anglian kings, and the ship burial seems the richest and most impressive of the Sutton Hoo burials,” Yorke said.
Some of the researchers cautioned that we cannot be certain the boat burial even belongs to a king. “The Staffordshire hoard and other more recent finds show that finds of very high-quality gold and garnet work were more common than was thought at the time of the main publication of Sutton Hoo in the 1970s, and although there is no doubt that such items denoted very high status, they may not have been held exclusively by kings,” said Gareth Williams, a curator at The British Museum. (Discovered in 2009, the Staffordshire hoard is an Anglo-Saxon treasure holding some 3,500 items made from gold, silver and other metals that dates to the seventh century.)
Williams pointed out that there is also a debate over the age of the coins at Sutton Hoo. “Most recent commentators would prefer a broader date range, which would certainly include A.D. 625 but would extend by some years to either side. Raedwald is therefore a strong possibility, but not the only one,” Williams said.
Ongoing research at Sutton Hoo
Recently, archaeologists at Sutton Hoo have been using lidar, a technology that uses a laser to map out terrain, along with ground- penetrating radar to examine details of how the cemetery was constructed. Many researchers told Live Science that although it is unlikely that we will know for sure who was buried at the site, Sutton Hoo is still worth studying.
“I do not think we will ever be able to name the individual buried at Sutton Hoo with certainty, but this does not keep me awake at night,” said Sue Brunning, curator of early medieval and Sutton Hoo collections at The British Museum. “While a name would be the cherry on the cake, there is so much of value to learn from the archaeology of the burial, and I feel that it is more rewarding to direct our ideas and energy into the wider context.”
European timeline, AD 300–1100
Celtic Britain and Ireland
The people of Ireland and northern and Western Britain spoke Celtic languages and shared ancient traditions and beliefs.
The Roman Empire and beyond
At its height, the Roman Empire extended all around the Mediterranean and into continental Europe and Britain.
The Byzantine Empire
The Byzantine Empire comprised the eastern part of the Roman Empire following its division in east and west in AD 395. Its capital was Constantinople.
As Roman control in Western Europe weakened, Germanic peoples from outside the Empire began to enter and settle on former Roman territories.
After the Roman army withdrew from Britain in AD 410, groups of Germanic peoples from Northwest Europe crossed the North Sea to settle in parts of southern and eastern Britain.
Originating from Scandinavia, the Vikings voyaged overseas to raid, trade and settle in new lands at this time.
Model of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial 1, England. The placement of the burial chamber is marked white.Image credit: Eebahgum – CC BY-SA 3.0
1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo burial ship. Image credit: Harold John Phillips – Public Domain
In “The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial,”The cap of the helmet was formed from a size piece of iron, and it is divided into ornamental zones, each with detailed engraved by the metalsmith who created it, due to the use of different metals.”
People wondered whether this could be a cenotaph, a symbolic burial, where the body had been lost.
The Sutton Hoo helmet is a remarkable example of the Saxon craft.