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Sutton Hoo

SUTTON HOO

The Sutton Hoo burial ground in East Anglia, England, provides vivid evidence for attitudes to death immediately before the conversion of an English community to Christianity in the seventh century C.E. Founded about 600 C.E., and lasting a hundred years, Sutton Hoo contained only about twenty burials, most of them rich and unusual, spread over four hectares. This contrasts with the "folk cemeteries" of the pagan period (fifthsixth centuries C.E.), which typically feature large numbers of cremations contained in pots and inhumations laid in graves with standard sets of weapons and jewelry. Accordingly, Sutton Hoo is designated as a "princely" burial ground, a special cemetery reserved for the elite. The site was rediscovered in 1938, and has been the subject of major campaigns of excavation and research in 19651971 and 19832001. Because the majority of the burials had been plundered in the sixteenth century, detailed interpretation is difficult.

The Sutton Hoo burial ground consists of thirteen visible mounds on the left bank of the River Deben opposite Woodbridge in Suffolk, England. Four mounds were investigated by the landowner in 19381939; all are from the seventh century C.E., and one mound contains the richest grave ever discovered on British soil. Here, a ship ninety feet long had been buried in a trench with a wooden chamber amid other ships containing over 200 objects of gold, silver, bronze, and iron. The conditions of the soil mean that the body, timbers of ship and chamber, and most organic materials had rotted to invisibility, but the latest studies suggest that a man had been placed on a floor or in a coffin. At his head were a helmet, a shield, spears and items of regalia, a standard, and a scepter; at his feet were a pile of clothing and a great silver dish with three tubs or cauldrons. Gold buckles and shoulder clasps inlaid with garnet had connected a baldrick originally made of leather. Nearly every item was ornamented with lively abstract images similar to dragons or birds of prey. The buried man was thought to be Raedwald, an early king of East Anglia who had briefly converted to Christianity, reverted to paganism, and died around 624 or 625.

Investigations at Sutton Hoo were renewed in 1965 and 1983, and revealed considerably more about the burial ground and its context. In the seventh century, burial was confined to people of high rank, mainly men. In mounds five to seven, probably among the earliest, men were cremated with animals (i.e., cattle, horse, and deer) and the ashes were placed in a bronze bowl. In mound seventeen a young man was buried in a coffin, accompanied by his sword, shield, and, in an adjacent pit, his horse. In mound fourteen, a woman was buried in an underground chamber, perhaps on a bed accompanied by fine silver ornaments. A child was buried in a coffin along with a miniature spear (burial twelve). Mound two, like mound one, proved to have been a ship burial, but here the ship had been placed over an underground chamber in which a man had been buried.

Because the graves were plundered in the sixteenth century, interpretation is difficult. The latest Sutton Hoo researcher, Martin Carver, sees the burial ground as a whole as a pagan monument in which burial rites relatively new to England (under-mound cremation, horse burial, ship burial) are drawn from a common pagan heritage and enacted in defiance of pressure from Christian Europe. The major burials are "political statements" in which the person honored is equipped as an ambassador of the people, both at the public funeral and in the afterlife.

A second phase of burial at Sutton Hoo consisted of two groups of people (mainly men) who had been executed by hanging or decapitation. The remains of seventeen bodies were found around mound five, and twenty-three were found around a group of post-sockets (supposed to be gallows) at the eastern side of the burial mounds. These bodies were dated (by radiocarbon determinations) between the eighth and the tenth centuries, and reflect the authority of the Christian kings who supplanted those buried under the Sutton Hoo mounds in about 700 C.E.

See also: Afterlife in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Burial Grounds; Christian Death Rites, History of; Cremation; Qin Shih Hung's Tomb

Bibliography

Carver, Martin O. H. Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

MARTIN CARVER

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Sutton Hoo

Sutton Hoo. A site containing up to 20 Anglo-Saxon burial barrows (c. ad 400–700) on the east bank of the Deben estuary in south-east Suffolk, opposite Woodbridge. Since 1982 archaeologists have shown that the barrow area, almost 10 acres, was superimposed on an extensive burial field in use since the 2nd millennium bc, and possibly associated with a stock-rearing society. The region as a whole is rich in ‘find spots’ over 2½ millennia: Sutton Hoo is here centrally situated, and the barrows given a context as a ‘compound’. In 1938 three barrows were excavated, one of which had been a boat-burial. In pre-ad 800 Europe the only other group of comparable burials is at Vendel-Valsgärde in central Sweden. In 1939 the largest barrow, some 120 feet in length and over 12 feet high, was opened. The depth of its extraordinarily rich deposit, almost certainly the inhumation of a king, possibly Raedwald who died about ad 625, had protected it from robbery. The deposit lay in the centre of a 90-foot-long rowing boat, the largest known from this era. The objects, of supreme local craftsmanship in gold, of lesser craftsmanship in eastern Mediterranean silver, and including a whetstone sceptre and a mysterious ‘iron standard’, immeasurably widened knowledge of ‘Dark Age’ culture. While a fragmented helmet had been unusually wrought from one piece of iron, the shield boss and sword pommel can only be paralleled by Swedish finds. Though virtually all traces of a corpse had been dissolved by the acidic sand, the evaluation of the furnishings required the expertise of 96 investigators over 30 years. This revelation of the Germanic world of the ‘Age of Migrations’ stands comparison with the tomb of Tutankhamun. The finds have now been returned to Sutton Hoo.

David Denis Aldridge

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Sutton Hoo

Sutton Hoo Archaeological site in Suffolk, se England. In 1939 the excavation of the cenotaph of Raedwald, a Saxon King of East Anglia (d.625), proved Britain's richest archaeological find. The digs revealed a Saxon rowing boat, 27m (90ft) long. In the centre of the boat lay a wooden funeral chamber, containing silver plate, gold jewellery and coins, and bronze armour.

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Sutton Hoo

Sutton Hoo (sŭt´ən hōō), archaeological site near Woodbridge, SE Suffolk, E England, containing 11 barrows. Excavations here in 1938–39 revealed remains of a Saxon ship (c.660), which with its gold and silver treasures is now in the British Museum. The absence of a body and of personal objects in the ship has led archaeologists to conclude that the site was a cenotaph rather than a grave.

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Sutton Hoo

Sutton Hoo the site in Suffolk of a Saxon ship burial of the 7th century ad, containing magnificent grave goods including jewellery, decorated weapons, and gold coins, which are now in the British Museum.

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Sutton Hoo

SUTTON HOO

Sutton Hoo is the name given to a small group of at least eighteen burial mounds located on a terrace 30 meters above the River Deben in Suffolk, southeastern England. It is interpreted as a burial ground for the pagan leaders of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia, established in the early years of the seventh century a.d. as a reaction to the Christian missions to Kent.

Sutton Hoo was first investigated in 1938 at the behest of the landowner, Edith May Pretty, by a local archaeologist, Basil Brown, who trenched mounds 2, 3, and 4 discovering that each had been dug earlier and inferring their Anglo-Saxon date from scraps of metal. In 1939 Brown returned at Mrs. Pretty's invitation and dug a large trench through mound 1, where he defined a ship some 27 meters long with a collapsed burial chamber at its center. A team of experienced archaeologists led by Charles Phillips of Cambridge University was assembled hastily; this group recovered 267 parts of artifacts made of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, textile, and fur—together constituting the richest grave ever excavated in Britain.

The study of the find (between 1945 and 1975) by Rupert Bruce-Mitford of the British Museum included a second field campaign from 1965 to 1971, which completed the excavation of mound 1, confirmed the existence of mound 5, and endorsed the presence of an earlier prehistoric settlement, reported by Brown. In 1983 the Society of Antiquaries of London, in partnership with the British Museum, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and the Suffolk County Council, launched a third campaign. The field team led by Martin Carver of the University of York excavated one fourth of the 4-hectare cemetery, mapped 10 hectares of its surroundings, and surveyed 10 square kilometers of the River Deben. In 1998 the site and its surrounding estates were given into the hands of the National Trust to be cared for in perpetuity, and a visitor center was constructed and opened in 2002.

The third campaign offered a new account of the character, date, and purpose of the Sutton Hoo cemetery. Use of the site had begun in the Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age (c. 2000 b.c.), when the land was divided into agricultural units. The production of grain then alternated with stock-breeding—a pattern typical of agriculture of the Breckland region (an ancient heath), which continues to the present day. The Anglo-Saxons inherited a landscape of earthworks of Iron Age fields bounded by tracks leading inland from the river. The earliest Anglo-Saxon burials in the area are located near Tranmer House, the site of the visitor center; they date to the sixth century and include cremations, one of which is contained in a bronze bowl placed in the center of small ring ditches.

The Sutton Hoo cemetery itself was a new venture, which began around a.d. 600 about 500 meters farther south. The first burials were cremations in bronze bowls, accompanied by gaming pieces and cremated horses, sheep, cattle, and pigs, placed in pits beneath mounds about 10–15 meters in diameter, laid out in a line (mounds 5, 6, and 7). These burials had been much disturbed by later excavators, but they appear to be the memorials of young men, at least one of whom had blade injuries. The next burial is thought to be mound 17, where a young man was laid in a tree-trunk coffin in about a.d. 610, accompanied by a sword with a horn handle, two spears, a shield, a bucket, a cauldron, and a haversack containing lamb chops. At the head of the coffin was deposited a bridle, saddle, and body harness equipped with silver pendants and gilt bronze roundels, pendants, and strap ends. A stallion was buried in an adjacent pit and is assumed to have lain beneath the same mound.

Two ship burials were added to the cemetery in about a.d. 625. In mound 2 a ship about 20 meters long had been placed over the top of a chamber grave (2 × 6 × 2 meters deep). The person memorialized, probably a man, had lain in the chamber accompanied by a sword, shield, five knives, a cauldron, an ironbound tub, a blue glass jar, and drinking horns. Robbers and excavators had visited the grave at least three times, and the assemblage therefore had to be inferred from scraps and a chemical plot of the chamber floor.

In mound 1 the ship first found by Basil Brown had been positioned in a large trench, and a timber chamber 5.5 by 3 meters had been erected amidships. The dead man probably originally lay in a large tree-trunk coffin (although this theory remains the subject of controversy) with a pile of garments, shoes, and toilet items at his feet. Above him (perhaps on the coffin lid) were items of personal regalia with drinking horns, maple-wood and burr-wood bottles, and a large Byzantine silver dish probably carrying food. The regalia included a sword, a decorated purse, and two shoulder clasps, all made of solid gold inlaid with garnets imported from western Asia, and an iron helmet with bronze zoomorphic decoration. Toward the western end were stacked spears and an iron stand interpreted as a standard or a weapon stand, along with a decorated whetstone, interpreted as imitating an imperial scepter. Three large cauldrons, one with an ornamental iron chain 3.45 meters long, dominated the eastern end.

After these ship burials, burial continued intermittently at the site during the later part of the seventh century. The chamber grave of a woman, subsequently pillaged, originally was furnished richly with silver adornments, including a chatelaine, the symbolic key of a woman of high rank (mound 14), and two graves of adolescents were accompanied by a knife and a chatelaine, respectively.

In the late seventh or early eighth century the Sutton Hoo cemetery was adopted as a place of execution. Sixteen graves were found around mound 5 and another twenty-three on the eastern edge of the burial mounds, surrounding the site of a tree that was replaced by a post-construction probably representing a gallows. Some of the bodies of the execution victims had had their hands or feet tied, and others had been deposited face down, kneeling, or crouching. Radiocarbon dating suggests that capital punishment was practiced at Sutton Hoo from about a.d. 700 to a.d. 1000, at which point map evidence indicates that the gallows apparently was removed to the site of the new bridge across the Deben, constructed 2 kilometers north. The site then was abandoned, apart from sporadic attention from farmers and warreners, until the sixteenth century, when it was heavily plowed and the majority of mounds robbed by means of a shaft driven from the top. Most mounds were again trenched in 1860; only mounds 1 and 17 were spared.

After the discoveries of 1939 the site was interpreted as the likely burial ground of the kings of East Anglia, the territory in which it lay. The occupant of mound 1 was held to be Redwald, who, according to the Venerable Bede, an English historian of the early eighth century, was a major figure in England up to his death in about a.d. 625. The most recent excavation campaign has broadened this interpretation, showing that Sutton Hoo was part of a general reaction to Christianization, in which pagan Scandinavian practices, such as cremation in bronze bowls and ship burial, were signaled. The making of the mound 1 ship burial itself has been reinterpreted by Carver as a multilayered "composition" in which allusions to contemporary politics are gathered with the aim of declaring ideological alliance with Scandinavia against the Christian Continent. In this sense, the great ship burial is a dramatic statement comparable to the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, which describes the deeds and deaths of fifth- to seventh-century heroes, including burial in a ship. The pagan alliance failed around the end of the seventh century, at which point the burial ground of pagan kings became a place where the new Christian leaders disposed of dissidents.

See alsoHistory and Archaeology (vol. 2, part 7); Jewelry (vol. 2, part 7); Anglo-Saxon England (vol. 2, part 7).

bibliography

Bruce-Mitford, Rupert. The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial. 3 vols. London: British Museum Press, 1975–1983.

Carver, Martin O. H. "Burial as Poetry: The Context of Treasure in Anglo-Saxon Graves." In Treasure in the Medieval West. Edited by Elizabeth M. Tyler, pp. 25–48. York, U.K.: York Medieval Press, 2000.

——. Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Martin Carver

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