Sutton Hoo: A King and a 88-Foot-Long Ship

Sutton Hoo is the location of two Anglo-Saxon burial sites from the 6th to 7th centuries near Woodbridge, Suffolk, England.

Archaeologists have been excavating the area since 1938, when an undisturbed ship burial replete with a wealth of Anglo-Saxon artefacts was uncovered. The site is crucial in delineating the history of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia and in shedding light on the Anglo-Saxons during a period scant in historical records.



In the summer of 1937, as the shadow of World War II fell across Europe, Edith Pretty, a wealthy widow residing near Woodbridge, a small town in Suffolk, England, convened with the curator of a local museum to deliberate on excavating three mounds on the distant side of her estate, Sutton Hoo.

sutton hoo
The “fossilized” impression left by a wooden ship, which had decayed and vanished well before the excavation began. Image Credit: Trustees of the British Museum

Subsequently, Pretty employed Basil Brown, a self-taught Suffolk archaeologist who had taken up full-time investigations of Roman sites. In June 1938, Pretty took him to the site, offered him accommodation and a wage of 30 shillings a week, and suggested that he start digging at Mound 1.

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Over the ensuing year or so, Brown, who was later joined by archaeologists from the British Museum, discovered gold, uncovering the most affluent medieval burial ever found in Europe.

Dating back to the sixth or seventh century A.D., the 1,400-year-old grave—thought to be that of an Anglo-Saxon king—contained remnants of an 88-foot-long ship (the original wooden structure had deteriorated) and a burial chamber filled with hundreds of opulent treasures.

Today, the British Museum, which curates the collection, considers the find a “spectacular funerary monument on an epic scale.”

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Mr Basil Brown, was the curator at the Ipswich Museum

The significance of the Sutton Hoo burial is immeasurable. Not only did the site illuminate life during the early medieval Anglo-Saxon period (roughly 410 to 1066), but it also led historians to re-evaluate their perceptions of the Dark Ages, the period following the Roman Empire’s withdrawal from the British Isles in the early fifth century.

Contrary to the long-held view that the era was bereft of arts or cultural richness, the Sutton Hoo artefacts revealed a vibrant, worldly society.

Tudor Excavators

We understand that the archaeological digs which brought to light the Great Ship Burial in 1939 were not the inaugural endeavours on Sutton Hoo’s enigmatic mounds.

Having remained untouched since their creation around 625AD, we fast forward to the Tudor period, an era during which individuals could obtain a licence from the Crown to excavate here.

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Far from the honourable curiosity that later motivated Edith Pretty and Basil Brown, these early excavators were in pursuit of treasure, from which they extracted considerable wealth. Valuable finds would have been melted down and divided between the finder and the Crown.

It was through good fortune, rather than a lack of effort, that these treasure-seekers overlooked the contents of at least two of the mounds, leaving them untouched for posterity.

Victorian Excavators

A significant campaign of excavation occurred at Sutton Hoo in the 19th Century. One can still observe small depressions in some of the mounds from this endeavour.

Whilst the excavator removed a considerable number of rivets, they failed to recognise that these were components of a ship burial. Instead of investigating further, the rivets were reportedly taken to a blacksmith to be fashioned into horseshoes.

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Similar to the Tudor treasure-seekers, these gentleman collectors left almost no record of their discoveries. However, while so much potential knowledge was lost, there remained a great deal yet to be uncovered.

Excavations of Basil Brown

After being commissioned by landowner Edith Pretty, local archaeologist Basil Brown’s initial excavation at Sutton Hoo took place in June and July of 1938, concentrating on three of the burial mounds.

Employing the traditional method of cutting a trench across the mounds, Basil sought the chamber or pit beneath all burial mounds. He was on the lookout for a change in soil colour, signalling the presence of an in-filled chamber or grave.

A famous Anglo-Saxon graveyard where two ships were buried. The large mound in the distance is the reconstructed Mound No. 2 that contained a plundered ship grave. The more famous burial site was closer in Mound No. 1 that is relatively inconspicuous.
A famous Anglo-Saxon graveyard where two ships were buried. The large mound in the distance is the reconstructed Mound No. 2 that contained a plundered ship grave. The more famous burial site was closer in Mound No. 1 that is relatively inconspicuous.

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This task was rendered more challenging than usual due to the disturbance from ‘robbers trenches’ left by treasure seekers centuries earlier. While Basil discovered that each of the mounds had been subject to robbery, they still offered glimpses of the splendid finds to come.

Within Mound 3, he found the remains of a cremated man, along with a corroded iron axe-head, part of a decorated limestone plaque, fragments of pottery, and the lid of a Mediterranean jug.

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Mound 2 yielded pieces of iron, which Basil identified as ships’ rivets – though, having been previously dispersed by grave robbers, they did not immediately indicate a ship burial.

He also uncovered a beautiful piece of blue glass, a gilt bronze disc, iron knives, and the tip of a sword blade.

Mound 4, the last explored in the 1938 season, despite having a very shallow pit and showing signs of having been robbed, careful excavation revealed some enticing fragments of bronze, high-quality textile, and bone. Basil had unearthed just enough for another season of excavation to be planned.

The Return of Basil

In May 1939, Basil returned to the site. With the experience of the previous year behind him, he felt prepared to tackle Mound 1, the largest of the burial mounds.

Upon the discovery of the first piece of iron, Basil immediately halted work and meticulously explored the area with a small trowel. He uncovered five rivets in position on what was eventually identified as the prow of a ship.

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Faced with this unexpected find, Basil had to adapt his trenching technique, widening it to accommodate the emerging shape.

As he progressed, Basil unveiled the ghost of a ship, including the delicate outline of the curving wood in the sand, illustrating where all the planks, ribs, and even some of the thole pins for oars would have been located.

Sutton Hoo Burial Chamber

Basil uncovered the burial chamber, situated at the centre of the ship, on 14 June 1939. Disturbed by indications of robbery, Basil breathed a sigh of relief upon realising that quarrying in the Middle Ages had altered the mound’s shape, so when robbers had excavated what they believed to be the central burial chamber, they had actually missed it.

Mound 2 is the only Sutton Hoo tumulus to have been reconstructed to its estimated original height.
Mound 2 is the only Sutton Hoo tumulus to have been reconstructed to its estimated original height.

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With the revelation that Mound 1 housed a large ship burial, its chamber intact, news swiftly circulated. The magnitude of the discovery became apparent to Edith Pretty, prompting her to recognise the need for expertise.

Consequently, the excavation was quickly transferred to Charles Phillips of Cambridge University and his selected team of distinguished young archaeologists. It was destined to become the most affluent grave ever unearthed in Europe.

War Impending

At any moment, war could be declared, so without the luxury of time to procure specialist equipment, Charles’ team utilised whatever was at hand, including a coal shovel, pastry brushes, penknives, and a pair of bellows.

In the weeks that followed, excitement surged with the unveiling of treasure after treasure. In total, there were 263 discoveries including gold, garnet, silver, bronze, enamel, iron, wood, bone, textile, feathers, and fur.

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The finds comprised a pattern-welded sword with a jewelled hilt, intricate shoulder clasps of gold inlaid with garnet and glass, and the iconic Sutton Hoo helmet – although, at the time of its excavation, archaeologists encountered only a collection of its shattered fragments.

The 263 luxury items found came not just from England, but from lands across Europe and Asia. It was at this juncture that Charles Phillips was able to ascertain that the ship burials were Anglo-Saxon, and not Viking, affirming Basil’s initial deduction.

War Declared

War was declared on 3 September 1939, and the treasures were interred once again, though in a disused London Underground tunnel this time. They withstood the Blitz, but the ship’s plans, not having been stored underground, were consumed by fire.

This loss prompted archaeologists to revisit the burial site decades later to seek answers to several pressing questions.

Later Excavations at Sutton Hoo

Two decades after the war, excavations recommenced. Under the leadership of Rupert Bruce-Mitford and Paul Ashbee, a team returned to delve deeper into the mysteries of the Great Ship Burial in Mound 1.

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Sutton Hoo Belt Buckle
Anglo-Saxon golden belt buckle from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial 1, Suffolk (England). 7th century AD.

The most urgent question was the absence of human remains in such an elaborate burial. This enigma was resolved through chemical analysis of the sand beneath the burial chamber, which revealed elevated phosphate levels.

This confirmed that a body had indeed decomposed there, with the acidic nature of the region’s soil accounting for the dissolution of both timbers and human remains over time.

Committee Established

In 1978, a committee was established with the aim of organising a third and larger excavation at Sutton Hoo. Supported by the Society of Antiquaries of London, the committee suggested a project to be led by Philip Rahtz from the University of York and Rupert Bruce-Mitford.

However, reservations from the British Museum resulted in the committee opting to collaborate with the Ashmolean Museum instead.

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The committee acknowledged significant shifts in the field of archaeology since the early 1970s, including a decline in state support for such projects, influenced by the Conservatives’ privatisation policies, and the rise of post-processualism in archaeological theory, which steered many archaeologists towards focusing on themes such as social change.


Anglo-Saxon Shoulder Clasp from Sutton Hoo Burial, 625-630 CE

The involvement of the Ashmolean encouraged the British Museum and the Society of Antiquaries to contribute funding to the endeavour. In 1982, Martin Carver from the University of York was chosen to oversee the excavation, with a research plan centred on examining “the politics, social organisation and ideology” of Sutton Hoo.

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Despite criticism from some who argued that the available funds could be better allocated to rescue archaeology, the project proceeded in 1983.

Carver was committed to restoring the overgrown site, which was extensively burrowed by rabbits. Following a comprehensive survey employing new techniques, the topsoil was removed across an area encompassing Mounds 2, 5, 6, 7, 17, and 18.

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This process yielded a new map of soil patterns and disturbances, indicating that the mounds were positioned in relation to ancient and Roman enclosure patterns. Anglo-Saxon graves of execution victims, which were later than the primary mounds, were discovered.

Sutton Hoo Purse Lid
The Sutton Hoo purse-lid is one of the major objects excavated from the Anglo-Saxon royal burial-ground at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, England.

Mound 2 was re-investigated and subsequently reconstructed. Mound 17, an undisturbed burial, was found to contain a young man, his weaponry and possessions, and a separate grave for a horse.

A significant portion of the gravefield was left unexcavated, preserving it for future researchers and as-yet-undiscovered scientific techniques.

Sutton Hoo Artefacts

The artefacts were intended to signify power on earth and in the afterlife. Each item narrates a tale and unveils details about the individual they accompanied into the beyond.

Weaponry such as a pattern-welded sword indicates a formidable war leader, a lyre suggests a musician and poet, the exquisite gold and garnet craftsmanship on many items signifies a patron of the arts, while objects like the drinking horns denote a generous host.

Items like the shield are believed to have been diplomatic gifts from Scandinavia, indicating someone both highly esteemed and well-connected.

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The shoulder clasps, modelled on those worn by Roman emperors, reveal a person who drew from diverse cultures and power bases to cement their own authority. Collectively, these treasures compose a compelling piece of power poetry, hinting at the burial of a king.

The Sutton Hoo Helmet

Most recognisable among the treasures is undoubtedly the Sutton Hoo helmet.

Severely corroded and fragmented into over 100 pieces when the burial chamber collapsed, it took the conservation team at the British Museum many years to reassemble the helmet.

The Sutton Hoo Helmet
The Sutton Hoo Helmet

Today, it is arguably the emblem of the Anglo-Saxon era. The public first glimpsed the artefacts in a 1940 exhibition, but this opportunity was fleeting as they were concealed within the tunnels of the London Underground for protection during the war.

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Following the Allies’ victory in 1945, the collection was returned to the British Museum where conservation and reconstruction efforts commenced.

However, the analysis of the artefacts raised further questions, prompting the re-excavation of the Sutton Hoo burial site using scientific advancements to enhance analysis.

In 1983, a third excavation of the site uncovered another mound, within which lay a warrior and his horse.

Today, the Sutton Hoo artefacts remain on display at the British Museum, where visitors annually marvel at the extraordinary treasures of an Anglo-Saxon king interred in splendour 1,400 years ago.

Shoulder clasps from Sutton Hoo
Shoulder clasps from Sutton Hoo

More than 80 years after Brown began his meticulous work through the sandy soil of Sutton Hoo, the treasures he discovered are as remarkable as ever. As he recorded in his diary in 1939, “It’s the find of a lifetime.”

Sutton Hoo Today

In the 1990s, the Sutton Hoo site, including Sutton Hoo House, was given to the National Trust by the Trustees of the Annie Tranmer Trust.

At Sutton Hoo’s visitor centre and Exhibition Hall, visitors can view the newly discovered hanging bowl and the Bromeswell Bucket, artefacts from the equestrian grave, alongside a recreation of the burial chamber and its contents.

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The 2001 Visitor Centre was conceived by van Heyningen and Haward Architects on behalf of the National Trust. Their remit encompassed the comprehensive planning of the estate, the creation of an exhibition hall and visitor amenities, the arrangement of car parking, and the refurbishment of the Edwardian house to facilitate additional amenities.

Recent technological advancements have enabled us to continue uncovering new aspects of the Sutton Hoo narrative.

A team from Bradford University recently investigated the mounds using Ground Penetrating Radar and drone-mounted lasers (LiDAR). These non-destructive methods, employing pulses of radar and laser respectively, aid in disclosing subtle details of the mounds’ construction, as well as traces left on their surfaces by Second World War tanks.

Some 1,400 years ago, a community united to drag a ship from the river, within which they interred their king along with treasured belongings for his ultimate voyage. It was a public spectacle designed to be commemorated for eternity.