Sutton Hoo Treasure

by Michael Bernzweig

Introduction To Sutton Hoo

The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial is Britain's most important archaeological find ever. In the summer of 1939, as Europe stood on the cusp of the Second World War, a dramatic archaeological find was being unearthed in the countryside at Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge in Suffolk. For months archaeologist Basil Brown a self-taught Suffolk archaeologist at the behest of the landowner of Sutton Hoo estate, Edith Pretty, had been digging here. He had gradually uncovered iron rivets from a ship first and then slowly but surely the first signs of buried artifacts, including glass and metal objects. Finally, the remains of a ship began to emerge, and then a burial chamber within that same ship. The central chamber had timber walls and a pitched roof. It is filled with treasures. By now, it was apparent that Brown had discovered something extremely substantial. Word reached Cambridge University, where Charles Phillips heard about it. He rushed to Sutton Hoo, where he tried to have Brown stopped in his work so that a professional team of archaeologists could be brought in. Brown refused, and it was lucky that he did. As a result, the excavation of the buried ship at Sutton Hoo was completed before the war broke out, and the Sutton Hoo estate was converted for the purposes of training for military maneuvers. When the excavation was completed, what has often been called Britain's most important archaeological find had been fully uncovered.

Who Was Mrs. Pretty?

Mrs. Edith Pretty was the landowner at Stutton Hoo. She was responsible for the mounds' excavation and the discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasure. Pretty was a former World War I nurse. In 1926, along with her husband Frank, Pretty moved to Sutton Hoo. Little did the couple know, but their East Anglian home would be the site of the biggest Anglo Saxon England find.

Mrs. Pretty came from an affluent family. Before moving to the East Anglian area, she had traveled the globe as a young woman. Amazingly, Pretty had an interest in archaeology and history. In her youth, Pretty visited the Egyptian pyramids and Pompeii. She likely got her interest in history and archaeology from her father. Pretty's father had excavated a Cistercian abbey that adjoined their home at Vale Royal. This made the Anglo Saxon Ship Burial artifacts in the United Kingdom found in the Sutton Hoo treasure even more exciting.

Frank Pretty passed away in 1934 due to stomach cancer, just four years after Mrs. Pretty gave birth to the couple's only son, Robert. She was 46 when Robert was born. Upon Frank's death, Pretty began to spend more time at the Tranmer House estate. The 18 low grassy mounds on the Tranmere House property continually drew her attention. The mounds were a mere 500 yards away from Tranmer House, allowing Mrs. Pretty to view them from her window. The view on daily basis of the mounds influenced Pretty to find someone to investigate the area.

What Happened to Mrs. Pretty?

The Anglo Saxon Burial Mound was excavated in 1939 by Basil Brown, the curator of the Ipswich Museum. The excitement must have been through the roof for Mrs. Pretty when the Sutton Hoo treasure was unearthed. She likely never dreamed a treasure of its kind was buried underneath the East Anglian property. The vast quantity of anglo Saxon objects that would be unearthed in the years to come would be astonishing. A truly priceless treasure of Anglo Saxon artifacts. This level of Anglo Saxon craftsmanship would go on to be displayed in museums and art gallery exhibitions for years to come. The site is the grave of a prominent Anglo Saxon individual who died in the early 7th century. Pretty oversaw the excavation on the Tranmer House property for two years. The Sutton Hoo treasure remains one of the biggest Anglo Saxon England artifact finds. Following the excavation at Tranmer House estate, an inquest was held in 1939. Artifacts found at Sutton Hoo changed scholars' perceptions of the Dark Age period forever.

The inquest was used to determine the owner of the Sutton Hoo treasure. It was decided that Mrs. Pretty was the official owner of the treasure after deliberation. Rather than keep it for herself, the history and archaeology enthusiast donated it to the British Museum. The British Museum's archaeologist Laura Howarth is working on the exhibit at Sutton Hoo. The donation inspired British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to nominate Mrs. Pretty for a CBE. Ever humble, she declined the nomination. In 1942, at the age of just 59, Pretty died of a blood clot after suffering a stroke. She had dealt with health issues during her 40s, before the death of her husband, Frank. This could have contributed to her failing health in 1942. Most of Mrs. Pretty's estate, valued at over $400,000, was put into a trust for her son, Robert, who was just 12 years old at the time. Unfortunately, like his mother, Robert died in his 50s as well. In 1988, at the age of 57, Robert passed away after a battle with cancer, just like his father.

The Ship Burial

When Brown was finished, it was clear to see what had been buried at Sutton Hoo. Although the wood had long since rotted away, the wood had died the soil around it, leaving a striking impression of the ship, which was revealed during the dig to leave a clear outline of a mast-less clinker-built rowboat that was more than 80 feet or 27 meters long which had once been buried at Sutton Hoo. It was also clear from the ornaments and artifacts at the burial site (on which more below) that the ship had been a ship-burial for a very powerful individual, most likely a king. There is a belief that this Anglo Saxon ship was sailed up the River Deben, then dragged to its burial place by being dragged up the bank and hill. Coins that were located in the burial suggested that the ship burial had been undertaken at some time in the late sixth century or the first half of the seventh century.

Moreover, the presence of both Christian and Pagan items and symbols suggested that this had been a ship-burial for King Raedwald, a King of the East Angles. He had been baptized in the 590s but continued to adhere to Paganism thereafter down to his death in the 610s or 620s. Thus, within relatively short order, the Sutton Hoo ship-burial had been dated with relative accuracy, and a plausible theory developed as to who the burial had been in honor of. But before looking further at the identity of King Raedwald, let us examine what exactly was found within in the dig, the items which were buried with the king.

Extent of the Treasure

What treasure was at Sutton Hoo? Hundreds of items were uncovered during the dig, but the vast majority of the individual pieces were of little value, being metal rivets that had held the many planks of the boat together. There were 41 gold and silver items recovered, including plates, silver platters, bowls, and spoons, effectively objects for the deceased to use in the afterlife. But undoubtedly, the most striking pieces were the personal funerary objects of the king. These included an ornate gold and ornamented purse-lid, a gold belt buckle and two identical shoulder clasps, also of gold, as well as a notable Sutton Hoo sword and shield and even a lyre. The purse containing 37 gold coins dated to around AD 625 was found. The most striking object, though, is what has become known as the Sutton Hoo Helmet, a sort of death mask of the buried individual primarily made out of tinned bronze. What is perhaps most curious about the treasure found at Sutton Hoo is the geographical area from which the objects originated. Before the discovery of the ship-burial in 1939, scholars had assumed that Anglo-Saxon Britain was quite isolated from much of the rest of the world. But the treasure at Sutton Hoo included several pieces of imported silver and, most significantly, a great silver dish that bears the stamp of the early sixth century Byzantine emperor, Anastasius. At the same time, a bronze bowl came from the Middle East. A range of other imported objects included a Merovingian gold coin, precious stones from Sri Lanka, and silver pieces from the Byzantine Empire. These items highlight the extent of Anglo-Saxon England's trade connections with the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East in the late sixth and seventh centuries. Let's learn more about that society.

Britain at the time of the Sutton Hoo burial

Britain in the sixth and seventh centuries was experiencing profound change. For several centuries from the first century AD, the Romans had ruled most of the island, though Scotland always remained unconquered. However, as the Roman Empire collapsed, the Romans pulled out of Britain in 410 AD. A century of chaos followed as marauding Germanic tribes such as the Angles, and the Saxons invaded the island. Yet, like all invaders, they eventually settled down. By the sixth century, these tribes had carved out several major kingdoms across England and Wales, often consisting of a few of today's counties. So, for instance, the Saxons ruled much of the south of the country around what today is London. In the north, the kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia had emerged, while further south, the powerful kingdom of Mercia was expanding aggressively. The Anglo Saxon King in this region where the Sutton Hoo finds was made ruled the area with a strong Angles hand. These were Germanic kingdoms. Many had not adopted Christianity and continued living according to a largely Pagan, warrior society tradition. However, that reality was changing in the late sixth and early seventh centuries, and no figure was more symptomatic of this perhaps than was King Raedwald, the man who is most commonly believed to have been the individual for whom the ship-burial was made at Sutton Hoo.

Who was King Raedwald?

Raedwald was a King of the East Angles who ruled from the late 590s through to his death, the date of which is unclear but which is typically understood to have occurred sometime between 616 AD and 627 AD. Details of his reign are relatively scarce owing to the almost total lack of written sources for the history of England at this time. Still, he was evidently responsible for one major shift in the territory of the Angles. In the 590s, the Pope in Rome had sent a mission to southern England to convert the heathens there. Raedwald was in Kent in the south of the country around this time and agreed to become a Christian and to be baptized. His commitment to the new faith and his motives, though, are not one hundred percent clear. He may have agreed to be baptized simply as a means of courting some powerful potential Christian allies on the continent. Whatever the motive, his personal commitment to his new religion was limited. When he ascended to the kingship of East Anglia, he continued to sanction the worship of the traditional Anglo-Saxon gods. It is then entirely plausible, despite his earlier baptism, that Raedwald was the king. He was buried at Sutton Hoo according to traditional Anglo-Saxon religious practices, with some Christian elements also incorporated.

Excavations and Subsequent History

The subsequent history of the site at Sutton Hoo and the original treasure find is complex. As we have already seen, with the outbreak of World War II in the autumn of 1939, the site was shut down shortly after the first excavation had been completed. So who did Sutton Hoo belong to? An inquest quickly concluded around this time that the entire treasure trove from the ship-burial was the possession of Edith Pretty, by right of having been discovered on her lands at Sutton Hoo. Using imprints from old archaeological digs, emeritus professor Martin Carver is reconstructing this famous ship. Professor Carver is one of the leading authorities on the treasure. Where is the Sutton Hoo treasure now?

Edith generously and in a spirit of enlightenment bequeathed them to the British Museum in London, where the items are still on display. Between 1965 and 1971, a second excavation was undertaken, led by Rupert Bryce-Mitford of the British Museum. The Museum's curator of early medieval European collections, Sue Brunning, oversees the Sutton Hoo artifacts.

Who is buried in the ships?

When the impression of the ship was re-excavated, a plaster cast of it was made, and a fiberglass shape was made therefrom. The decision was then taken to dig through, thus destroying the impression but allowing the team to obtain further information on how the ship-burial had been undertaken. Further digs from the royal burial ground were undertaken in the 1980s and 1990s, largely on the wider site. This work revealed that the ship-burial was just part of a much more extensive Anglo-Saxon burial complex, one which was spread across the surrounding region of Sutton Hoo estate. These came in various shapes and sizes. For instance, one, located on Burial Mound 17, was of a young man who was buried with his horse. One burial included a man who was buried beside his spear and covered with a shield of normal size. Besides the boss-stud and fine metal mounts, it bore a predatory bird and a dragon-like creature in the ornament. Others involved the burial of the cremated remains of individuals in bowls. And the work has continued. In the 1990s, Sutton Hoo estate was bequeathed to the National Trust, and in 2002 a new visitors' center was opened. As such, it is most definitely not a location where individuals can go metal detecting themselves! Today, with new technology, efforts are underway to develop new digital models of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial so that people today can see a reconstruction of the entire ship just as it was buried in the late sixth or early seventh centuries.

Movie Based on the Recovery

Filmed in Cornwall, England, The Dig takes place during the Bronze Age. In the film, two archaeologists discover a long-lost city beneath their feet. Ralph Fiennes stars as Professor Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor specializing in religious iconography. Carey Mulligan plays Dr. Sienna Brooks, an old friend he meets in Italy. She conducts research at the Vatican on ancient texts. As a team, they travel to Rome to investigate Leonardo da Vinci's cryptic message. The movie was based on a historical novel set in the context of the 1939 Anglo-Saxon ship burial excavation at Sutton Hoo, published in May 2007 by John Preston. There is no doubt that the Staffordshire Hoard is the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever discovered. Anglo-Saxon gold and silver objects recovered from the Staffordshire hoard far exceed those from the Sutton Hoo ship burial.

Conclusion - Why is the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial so Significant?

The Sutton Hoo ship-burial is unquestionably one of the most significant archaeological finds and treasure discoveries ever made in Britain. What is the Sutton Hoo treasure worth? The ornaments and treasure involved would have been worth millions of dollars in today's money. But the face value of the items is not where its real value lies. For instance, the Cheapside Hoard of sixteenth and seventeenth century jewels which were uncovered in London in 1912, would have a far higher face value than the objects recovered at Sutton Hoo. Still, clearly, the Sutton Hoo horde is far more valuable for the light it sheds on the history of Early Medieval England and Anglo-Saxon culture. By providing extensive information on burial practices in seventh-century Britain, the extent of the country's trade network at this time, and how Christianity and Paganism were beginning to be practiced in duality, the Sutton Hoo hoard throws light on the kind of society that is depicted in works such as Beowulf and about a society for which we have little by way of traditional written sources. Researchers recognized the similarities between the Sutton Hoo ship burial and burial from Beowulf's epic poem when it was found. According to the poem, Scyld Scefing is buried in a boat surrounded by goods such as musical instruments, drinking horns, buckets, and textiles. Consequently, the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial profoundly transformed and expanded our understanding of Anglo-Saxon and Early Medieval England.

© 2021 Detector Electronics Corp. - Revised September 2022