Ships in the Soil: Sutton Hoo

Because today is one of the unfortunate days during the week where, as a student, I am actually required to work and attend class, I thought I would provide you with an amended version of an article I wrote for a friend’s magazine about Sutton Hoo, spruced up with some absolutely wonderful pictures from the British Museum’s collections. Enjoy!

It is a cold winter’s day in the east of England and, at noon, the sun already seems to set. The grey sky, pearly with layers of cloud, reflects in the lingering shadows of snow dispersed amid the grass. Below, less than a mile away, lies the river. It sheens gently on its wide, quiet way to sea. A bleak landscape, it feels both flatter and emptier than other areas of England I have known. Here, in this rugged, windswept landscape, I sense the sky, the scraggly pines, and dim, misty hills draw their breath and hold it, waiting.

Sutton Hoo in England's winter light, © Trustees of the British Museum

In a way they are. This is Sutton Hoo, a scrubby promontory in the county of Suffolk that for 1,300 years sheltered England’s most sumptuous ship burial intact. Since its discovery in 1939, it has revolutionized our understanding of mediaeval Britain; even today, after several rounds of extensive excavations, it exerts a powerful influence on the imagination. I cannot escape the thought, as I walk out to the cemetery, that perhaps some unfound treasure remains to be found in this burial place of kings.

Archaeologists have uncovered graves across a wide swathe of this land, and beneath them evidence of earlier agriculture, but it is the eroded silhouette of the mounds which arrests my gaze. Spectral, they rise from the grass like the backs of whales, as mute and remote as soil can be. Yet despite their reticence, they have yielded some of the most spectacular artefacts from the Anglo-Saxon age—golden buckles, winking garnets, silver bowls, even a helmet. All have since become emblematic of England’s epic past.

Wonderfully detailed gold clasp, © Trustees of the British Museum

A few of these objects are on display at the interpretive centre here run by the National Trust, although most remain at the British Museum in London, approx. 5o miles to the southwest. Even without them, however, the exhibition hall makes a worthwhile stop. A modern display, it incorporates audio, video, and even live demonstrators to tell its story of feasts and processions, trade, war, and religious conversion. Highlights include a full-scale representation of the famous ship burial, as well as panels on ship-building and Anglo-Saxon swords. It is an impressive exhibit that does full justice to this haunting, wonderful place.

Wonderful purpose-cut garnets, so precisely fitted that glue was unnecessary. The gold beneath the gems is hatched to catch the light. © Trustees of the British Museum

The site also boasts a gift shop, café, and play area, and the National Trust offers a variety of activities throughout the year. These range from scholarly talks to guided rambles through the countryside; they even host tours—with tea—through the house of former owner Edith Pretty. It was she who first encouraged archaeologist Basil Brown to dig here, and to whose zeal credit for the find properly goes.

A detail of the clasp, with boars (their bristled backs mark the rounded edge.) © Trustees of the British Museum

Extraordinary though it is, Sutton Hoo nonetheless forms only a part of England’s historical legacy. Two other discoveries made within the past year promise to broaden our conception of Britain in mediaeval, even ancient times.

The first, unearthed by an amateur treasure-seeker and his metal detector, is the Staffordshire Hoard found near Birmingham. Hidden in the long-faded kingdom of Mercia, the hoard is comprised of approximately 5 kg. in gold objects, mostly martial accoutrements, in addition to silver and other pieces. A greater find than most academics even dream of, the Hoard has also enjoyed a massive amount of public interest and media attention. Its lustre speaks to the great wealth of Dark Age Britain, and will certainly occupy scholars and laymen for decades to come.

A second, perhaps less glamorous find, is a Bronze Age shipwreck lying off the Devon coast in the south west of England. Discovered by the South West Maritime Archaeological group, the wreck has yielded almost 300 artefacts that testify to Britain’s participation in a sophisticated European trade that thrived nearly 3,000 years ago.

These discoveries complement the history revealed at Sutton Hoo, highlighting a rich history that has only begun its exodus from the soil. What might lie ahead is impossible to anticipate—who knows what might come out of the ground, or where—but one thing I know is certain. With every treasure, every object we recover, we come closer to appreciating the mysteries of the past which lie, at all times, just beneath our feet.

2 thoughts on “Ships in the Soil: Sutton Hoo

  1. Pingback: Loving God through Glass: Mediaeval Enamelware | mediaevalmusings

  2. Pingback: Guest Post: From Sutton Hoo to Sweden | mediaevalmusings

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