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The Anglo-Saxon Boat of Sutton Hoo

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The ritual burial site of a king 14 centuries ago lay undiscovered in Britain until just before World War II. What archaeologists found when the tomb was excavated caused a rewriting of history books.

The iconic Sutton Hoo helmet was badly corroded when found and has been reconstructed.

The iconic Sutton Hoo helmet was badly corroded when found and has been reconstructed.

A King Is Buried

The people who lived in Eastern England during the Dark Ages (the fifth to the tenth centuries CE) left no written record of their lives. That means historians have to do a lot of educated guessing about them.

When a burial mound was dug open at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk it was obviously the final resting place of someone very important, almost certainly a king.

All the evidence points to a king of the Wuffingas, people who came from what is now Denmark to settle in Eastern England. They claimed descent from the god Woden and established the Kingdom of East Anglia.

The best available information suggests that the man buried at Sutton Hoo was King Redwald (c. 599-c. 624). It was customary for royal Anglo-Saxons to be buried with an enormous array of goods, items they would need in the next world.

In the case of King Redwald, his boat was hauled uphill to a promontory overlooking the River Deben. Getting the 90-foot (27.4m) oak vessel to the top of the hill must have been a monumental task. Scores of men hauling on rough ropes would have been needed. Then they had to get the boat into the deep trench already prepared for it.

With all the grave goods stashed inside along with the body of King Redwald, if indeed it was him, the grave was back-filled and a large mound built on top. And, there everything lay undisturbed until it was found by Basil Brown in 1939.

The Amateur Archaeologist

Basil Brown was a truly extraordinary man. He left school at 12 and started work as a farm labourer. But, he clearly had far greater intelligence than was needed for shovelling manure.

His thirst for knowledge took him to night school and correspondence colleges. He taught himself Latin and could speak French with considerable fluency, while getting some knowledge of Spanish, German, and Greek. Then, he took up astronomy, but from childhood his greatest interest was archaeology.

He read every book on archaeology he could get his hands on. He taught himself how to excavate an archaeological site properly. His knowledge of the profession was so complete that he was hired by the Museum of Ipswich. So, when Edith Pretty asked the museum if it could recommend a local archaeologist she was put in touch with Basil Brown.

Basil Brown (nearest the camera) working on the Sutton Hoo dig.

Basil Brown (nearest the camera) working on the Sutton Hoo dig.

The Sutton Hoo Estate

Edith Dempster was born in 1883 into a well-heeled landowner family. In 1926, she married Frank Pretty who came from a family that was engaged in drapery and corset making. The couple bought the 526-acre Sutton Hoo estate and settled in to the life of the landed gentry. Frank died in 1934 and Edith Pretty continued living on the estate on which were about 20 burial mounds.

The BBC picks up the story: “Pretty, a widow who was interested in spiritualism, had a feeling about the mounds. They were thought to be of Viking origin. A house guest had once seen a ghostly figure among them, and there were long-told local legends of buried treasure.”

So Basil Brown and his trusty shovel were called in to have a look.

Sutton Hoo burial mound.

Sutton Hoo burial mound.

The King’s Barrow

Brown started his dig in 1938 by excavating some of the smaller mounds but realized grave robbers had been there before him. So, the following year, he decided to tackle the biggest mound, the one in which a very important person must have been buried.

As he dug a trench into the mound, by hand, it became clear to Brown that he was dealing with something quite extraordinary. He was finding pieces of iron that he identified as ship’s rivets. But, he knew they weren’t Viking rivets, they were Anglo-Saxon; such is the level of expertise possessed by this self-taught archaeologist.

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As he dug deeper into the barrow, the astonishing nature of the find became obvious. It was a huge boat that was big enough to have 20 rowers on each side. The timber had long since dissolved into the soil, but the imprint was clearly visible.

News of the discovery spread quickly and experts with letters after their names descended on the scene. The professionals elbowed Basil Brown aside because they couldn’t possibly tolerate having a man who spoke with a ploughman’s accent and no degree messing about with such an important dig. He was relegated to the status of a labourer on the site.

A scaled-down replica of the Sutton Hoo ship. The original was probably eight times bigger.

A scaled-down replica of the Sutton Hoo ship. The original was probably eight times bigger.

“Britain’s Tutankhamen”

The archaeologists from the University of Cambridge and the British Museum began scraping away the soil with their trowels and brushes when they hit the mother lode. The treasure they unearthed has been likened to the glittering artefacts found in the grave of the Egyptian pharaoh, King Tutankhamen.

Altogether, 263 items were found in the burial chamber. The Smithsonian lists some of them: “Fine feasting vessels, deluxe hanging bowls, silverware from Byzantium, luxurious textiles and gold dress accessories set with Sri Lankan garnets.” There was a shield from Scandinavia, gold coins from France, and other artefacts modelled after Roman styles.

Technically, the hoard belonged to Edith Pretty, but she gifted it to the nation and it now resides in the British Museum.

This belt buckle is made of gold.

This belt buckle is made of gold.

Lessons from the Sutton Hoo Treasure

The Western Roman Empire collapsed in the fourth century of the Christian Era. It had usually been assumed that this heralded a fall into a primitive and brutish culture that we have disparagingly called the Dark Ages.

But, the Sutton Hoo treasure rather challenges that notion. The exquisite workmanship and high level of artistic expression speak to a society with far more sophistication than previously thought.

The British Museum notes that the Sutton Hoo helmet is “a piece of truly breathtaking artistry, functional and beautiful, with a vaulted cap and deep cheek-pieces.

“The helmet is covered in complicated imagery, including fighting and dancing warriors, and fierce creatures. The face mask together forms a dragon whose wings make the eyebrows and tail the moustache. Garnets line the eyebrows, but only one is backed with gold foil reflectors―perhaps a reference to the one-eyed god, Woden.”

The presence of artefacts from the eastern Mediterranean and places even farther afield suggest this was not a society of ignorant knuckle-draggers.

As noted by the British Museum “The Sutton Hoo grave is remarkable for the majesty of its contents and its monumental scale. But it also rewrote our understanding of a time that we had previously misunderstood. Post-Roman Britain was considered to have entered the ‘Dark Ages,’ where civilisation in all aspects of life declined. Sutton Hoo proved otherwise.”

A small example of the Sutton Hoo treasure.

A small example of the Sutton Hoo treasure.

Bonus Factoids

  • Apparently, grave robbers dug into the king’s barrow but missed finding the treasure by two metres.
  • Basil Brown continued his archaeological activities into the mid-1960s and made numerous important discoveries. He died in 1977 at the age of 89.
  • Until the release of the Netflix movie The Dig in January 2021 Basil Brown’s contribution to the Sutton Hoo discovery went largely unnoticed and unappreciated.

Sources

  • “Kin of the Wolf: The Wuffingas.” Secret Suffolk, undated.
  • “The Buried Ship Found on an English Estate.” Neil Armstrong, BBC, January 27, 2021.
  • “Basil Brown: The Invisible Archaeologist.” Sarah Doig, Great British Life, January 27, 2021.
  • “The Royal Burial Ground at Sutton Hoo.” The National Trust, undated.
  • “The Anglo-Saxon Ship Burial at Sutton Hoo.” The British Museum, undated.
  • “The True History Behind Netflix’s ‘The Dig’ and Sutton Hoo.” Jeanne Dorin McDowell, Smithsonian Magazine, February 5, 2021.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Nell Rose from England on February 09, 2021:

I love the Sutton Hoo archaeology story. I have seen the artefacts a number of times at the British Museum, so I was really looking forward to seeing the film. But talk about disappointment! Boring, boring, boring! You never get to see the finds, I was waiting for the mask, and the characters were so slow! Just because Brown talked in a typical Suffolk accent, did they have to make him so darn slow? A great story spoilt.

Ann Carr from SW England on February 09, 2021:

Don't they just! That image will remain with me for a while!

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on February 09, 2021:

Those rascally Suffolk elves; they sneak into the most unexpected places.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on February 09, 2021:

A very interesting story, Rupert. Hats off to Basil Brown.

Ann Carr from SW England on February 09, 2021:

I'm glad Basil Brown has finally been recognised for his endeavours - how awful that he was elbowed aside by such arrogance!

I knew about Sutton Hoo but nothing about all its treasures - truly remarkable and such an important find. I always worry a little about disturbing graves though!

A little typo which I rather like in the para entitled 'The King's Barrow' - apparently Brown was an 'elf-taught archaeologist'! That creates a wonderful image in my mind!

Thanks for this - thoroughly enjoyed it and I must try to get across to the East again. I love Suffolk and Norfolk but it's such a pain to travel there from the West; skirting round London is always a chore. Never mind, it's worth it when you get there.

Ann

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on February 08, 2021:

Ruperts, thanks for sharing. Although not many can recall the story, the manner the academicians thrown out the founder from the study because he does not own paper qualifications shows only arrogance.

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