Sutton Hoo remains one of the most important Anglo-Saxon archaeological sites in Britain: the area was used as a burial ground in the 6th and 7th centuries, and remained undisturbed until a major series of excavations took place from 1938 onwards.
So, what was so important about the finds? Why have they captured the imagination of millions? And how exactly were they found in the first place?
Where is Sutton Hoo and what is it?
Sutton Hoo is a site near Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK. It lies about 7 miles inland, and lends its name to the nearby town of Sutton. There is evidence the area has been occupied since the Neolithic period, but Sutton Hoo is mainly known as a cemetery site, or grave field, during the 6th and 7th centuries. This was the period when Anglo Saxons occupied Britain.
It had around twenty barrows (burial mounds), and was reserved for the wealthiest and most important in society. These people – mainly men – were buried individually along with their most valuable possessions and various ceremonial items, as per the customs of the time.
The site remained relatively untouched for over 1,000 years. In 1926, a wealthy middle class woman, Edith Pretty, bought the 526 acre Sutton Hoo estate: following the death of her husband in 1934, Edith began to become more interested by the prospect of excavating the ancient burial mounds which lay about 500 yards from the main house.
After discussions with local archaeologists, Edith invited the self-taught local archaeologist Basil Brown to begin excavating the burial mounds in 1938. After promising initial digs that year, Brown returned in 1939, when he unearthed the remains of a 7th century Saxon ship.
Whilst the ship itself was a major find, further investigations suggested that it was on top of a burial chamber. This news launched it into a new sphere of archaeological finds. Charles Phillips, an archaeologist from Cambridge University, quickly assumed responsibility for the site.
The size and importance of the finds at Sutton Hoo quickly led to tensions between various interested parties, notably between Basil Brown and Charles Phillips: Brown was ordered to stop working, but he did not. Many credit his decision to ignore orders as key to preventing robbers and thieves from looting the site.
Phillips and the British Museum team also clashed with the Ipswich Museum, who wanted Brown’s work properly credited, and who announced finds earlier than planned. As a result, the Ipswich team were somewhat excluded from subsequent discoveries and security guards had to be employed to monitor the site 24 hours a day to protect it from potential treasure hunters.
What treasure did they find?
The first excavation in 1939 unearthed one of the major Sutton Hoo finds – the burial ship and chamber beneath it. Very little of the original timber survived, but its form was preserved almost perfectly in the sand. The ship would have been 27 metres long and up to 4.4 metres wide: it is thought there would have been room for up to 40 oarsmen.
Although no body was ever found, it is thought (from artefacts found), that this would have been the burial place of a king: it is widely accepted it is likely to be that of the Anglo Saxon king Rædwald.
The discoveries within the burial chamber confirmed the high status of the man buried there: they have hugely reinvigorated the study of Anglo Saxon art in Britain, as well as showing links between various European societies at the time.
The treasure found there is still one of the greatest and most important archaeological finds in modern history. The Sutton Hoo helmet is one of the few of its kind and was created by a highly skilled craftsmen. An assortment of ceremonial jewellery was also found nearby: they would have been the work of a master goldsmith, and one who had access to pattern sources only found at the East Anglian armoury.
Why was the treasure so significant?
Other than our enduring fascination with treasure, the finds at Sutton Hoo remain one of the largest and best Anglo Saxon archaeological discoveries in history. They transformed scholarship on the subject and opened up a whole new way of seeing and understanding this time period.
Before the Sutton Hoo treasure, many perceived the 6th and 7th centuries as the ‘Dark Ages’, a time of stagnation and backwardness. The ornate metalwork and sophisticated craftsmanship not only highlighted cultural prowess but complex networks of trade across Europe and beyond.
The items found also illustrate religious changes in England at the time, as the country moved towards Christianity. The incorporation of insular art (which is a mixture of Celtic, Christian and Anglo Saxon designs and motifs) was also noteworthy to art historians and scholars as one of the highest status forms of decoration at the time.
What happened to the treasure?
The outbreak of the Second World War halted further excavations at Sutton Hoo. The treasures had initially been packed off to London, but a treasure trove inquest held in the village of Sutton determined that the treasure rightfully belonged to Edith Pretty: it had been buried with no intention of rediscovery, which made it the property of the finder as opposed to the Crown.
Pretty decided to donate the treasures to the British Museum so that the nation could enjoy the finds: at the time, it was the largest donation ever given by a living person. Edith Pretty died in 1942, never living to see the treasures at Sutton Hoo on display or properly researched.
After the end of the war in 1945, the treasure was finally properly examined and studied by a team from the British Museum led by Rupert Bruce-Mitford. The famous helmet had been found in pieces, and it was this team which reconstructed it.
A British Museum team returned to Sutton Hoo in 1965, after concluding there were still multiple unanswered questions about the site. Scientific methods had also progressed significantly, allowing them to take earth samples for analysis and to take a plaster cast of the ship impression.
A third excavation was proposed in 1978 but took 5 years to materialise. The site was surveyed using new techniques, and several mounds were explored for the first time or re-explored. The team purposely chose to leave large areas unexplored for the benefit of future generations and new scientific techniques.
The majority of the Sutton Hoo treasures can be found on display at the British Museum today, whilst the site itself is in the care of National Trust.
The 1938-9 excavations were the basis of a historical novel, The Dig by John Preston, which was turned into a film of the same name by Netflix in January 2021.