Anglo-Saxon Treasures from the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

Sutton Hoo and Europe 300–1100 C.E., The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery © The Trustees of the British Museum

By the British Museum / 03.03.2017

The Ship Burial

The most famous Anglo-Saxon treasures in the Museum come from the Sutton Hoo burial site in Suffolk. 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.

Sutton Hoo

The Sutton Hoo ship excavation in 1939, early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century, Suffolk, England © Trustees of the British Museum

On a small hill above the river Deben in Suffolk is a strange-looking field, covered with grassy mounds of different sizes. For several hundred years what lay under them was a mystery.

In 1939 Mrs Edith Pretty, a landowner at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, asked archaeologist Basil Brown to investigate the largest of several Anglo-Saxon burial mounds on her property. Inside, he made one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries of all time. Brown started digging under mounds 2, 3 and 4, where he found a few, mostly broken, Anglo-Saxon objects which had been buried alongside their owner’s bodies. Sadly, grave robbers had taken most of what was there. With a little more hope he started on the biggest mound, Mound 1. He did not know that the treasures under Mound 1 would turn out to be the most amazing set of Anglo-Saxon objects ever found.

Belt Buckle, Sutton Hoo, early 7th century, gold, 13.2 x 5.6 cm © Trustees of the British Museum

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.

Gold coins and ingots from the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, early 7th century, Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, England © Trustees of the British Museum.

The burial can only be dated on the basis of the coins that were found there. There was a purse among the burial goods, which contained 37 gold coins, 3 coin-shaped blanks, and 2 small gold ingots. The presence of the coin-shaped blanks suggests that the number of coins was deliberately rounded up to 40. The coins cannot be dated closely, but seem to have been deposited at some point between around 610-635. They all come from the kingdom of the Merovingian Franks on the Continent, rather than any English kingdom, although coin production had started in Kent by this time. Sutton Hoo was in the kingdom of East Anglia and the coin dates suggest that it may be the burial of King Raedwald, who died around 625.

The Sutton Hoo ship burial provides remarkable insights into early Anglo-Saxon England. It reveals a place of exquisite craftsmanship and extensive international connections, spanning Europe and beyond. It also shows that the world of great halls, glittering treasures and formidable warriors described in Anglo-Saxon poetry was not a myth.

Mrs Edith Pretty donated the finds to the British Museum in 1939.

The Sutton Hoo Purse Lid

Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, c. 700 (British Museum, London). The objects are comprised of multiple bronze, gold and silver objects of Anglo Saxon origin, found in Suffolk, England, including: a helmet, sceptre, sword, hanging bowl, bowls and spoons, shoulder clasps, a belt buckle, and purse lid.

Purse lid from the Sutton Hoo ship burial

Purse lid from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, early 7th century, gold, garnet and millefiori, 19 x 8.3 cm (excluding hinges) © Trustees of the British Museum

Wealth, and its public display, was probably used to establish status in early Anglo-Saxon society much as it is today. The purse lid from Sutton Hoo is the richest of its kind yet found.

The lid was made to cover a leather pouch containing gold coins. It hung by three hinged straps from the waist belt, and was fastened by a gold buckle. The lid had totally decayed but was probably made of whalebone—a precious material in early Anglo-Saxon England. Seven gold, garnet cloisonné and millefiori glass plaques were set into it. These are made with a combination of very large garnets and small ones, deliberately used to pick out details of the imagery. This combination could link the purse-lid and the fine shoulder clasps, which were also found in the ship burial, to the workshop of a single master-craftsman. It is possible that he made the entire suite of gold and garnet fittings discovered in Mound 1 as a single commission.

Interlaced animals (detail), Purse lid from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, early 7th century, gold, garnet and millefiori, 19 x 8.3 cm (excluding hinges) © Trustees of the British Museum

The plaques include twinned images of a bird-of-prey swooping on a duck-like bird (above), and a man standing heroically between two beasts. These images must have had deep significance for the Anglo-Saxons, but it is impossible for us to interpret them. The fierce creatures are perhaps a powerful evocation of strength and courage, qualities that a successful leader of men must possess. Strikingly similar images of a man between beasts are known from Scandinavia.

The Sutton Hoo Helmet

The Sutton Hoo helmet, early 7th century, iron and tinned copper alloy helmet, consisting of many pieces of iron, now built into a reconstruction, 31.8 x 21.5 cm (as restored) © Trustees of the British Museum

This extraordinary helmet is very rare. Only four complete helmets are known from Anglo-Saxon England: at Sutton Hoo, Benty Grange, Wollaston and York.

Archaeologists discovered this helmet lying in the tomb. It was an amazing, rare find. It was also very unusual because it had a face-mask. Look at the nose, eyebrows and holes for the warrior’s eyes. Can you see a dragon with outstretched wings, made up by the two bushy eyebrows, nose and mustache?

A reconstruction

When found, the magnificent helmet from the Anglo-Saxon grave at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, was in hundreds of pieces. The burial chamber had collapsed and reduced the helmet to a pile of fragments. Pieces of rusted iron were mixed up with pieces of tinned bronze, all so corroded as to be barely recognizable. By precisely locating the remaining fragments and assembling them as if in a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, conservators have reconstructed the helmet. A complete replica made by the Royal Armories shows how the original would have looked (below).

Replica of the helmet made by the Royal Armories © Trustees of the British Museum

The helmet comprised an iron cap, neck guard, cheek pieces and face mask. Its form derives from Late Roman cavalry helmets. The helmet’s surfaces were covered with tinned copper alloy panels that gave it a bright, silvery appearance. Many of these panels were decorated with interlacing animal ornament (“Style II”) and heroic scenes of warriors. One scene shows two men wearing horned head-gear, holding swords and spears. The other shows a mounted warrior trampling a fallen enemy, who in turn stabs the horse. The rider carries a spear which is supported by a curious small figure, standing on the rump of his horse – perhaps a supernatural helper. Similar scenes were popular in the Germanic world at this time.

The face-mask is the helmet’s most remarkable feature. It works as a visual puzzle, with two possible “solutions.” The first is of a human face, comprising eye-sockets, eyebrows, mustache, mouth and a nose with two small holes so that the wearer could breathe. The copper alloy eyebrows are inlaid with silver wire and tiny garnets. Each ends in a gilded boar’s head – a symbol of strength and courage appropriate for a warrior. The second “solution” is of a bird or dragon flying upwards. Its tail is formed by the mustache, its body by the nose, and its wings by the eyebrows. Its head extends from between the wings, and lays nose-to-nose with another animal head at the end of a low iron crest that runs over the helmet’s cap.

An earlier restoration

First restoration, Restoring the Sutton Hoo helmet © Trustees of the British Museum

The first restoration of the helmet (above) was completed by 1947, but continuing research showed it to be inaccurate and it was dismantled in 1968. The new restoration relied entirely on the evidence of the fragments themselves and not on preconceived ideas – the aim of all modern archaeological conservation. It took the conservator a year of painstaking study and experimentation with more than 500 fragments.

The pieces had to be identified and matched by their thickness, texture and traces of the design in the corrosion. As months passed, vital discoveries were made about the helmet’s structure. The cap size and shape were established by joining fragments from the top and one of the sides; a small riveted plate on one piece provided evidence for the attachment of the ear-flaps. The discovery of the position of a third dragon’s head completed the dramatic face mask.

A temporary support was made (a plaster dome covered with modeling clay) on which the fragments were held with long pins while they were joined. The missing areas were filled with jute textile, stiffened with adhesive and skimmed with plaster. These infills were colored brown to match the iron.

Though rusted now, the helmet would originally have been a bright silvery color. The tinned bronze panels, the gilding and the garnets would have given it original, the striking appearance we see in the reconstruction.

A precious survival, the Sutton Hoo helmet has become an icon of the early medieval period.

Suggested Reading

G. Williams, Treasures from Sutton Hoo, (London, British Museum Press, 2011).

A.C. Evans, The Sutton Hoo ship burial, revised edition (London, The British Museum Press, 1994).

R.L.S. Bruce-Mitford, The Sutton Hoo ship burial, vol. 2: arms, armor and regalia (London, The British Museum Press, 1978).

Sutton Hoo: Anglo-Saxon ship-burial on the Google Cultural Institute

Sutton Hoo at the British Museum

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