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Sutton Hoo

"They stretched their beloved lord in his boat, laid out by the mast, amidships, the great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures were piled upon him, and precious gear. I never heard before of a ship so well furbished with battle tackle, bladed weapons and coats of mail. The massed treasure was loaded on top of him: it would travel far on out into the ocean's sway."

Beowulf (34-42)

Buried on an escarpment overlooking the estuary of the River Deben in East Anglia, the Sutton Hoo ship was discovered in 1939, just a few months before war broke out in Europe. (The original records of the excavation, in fact, were destroyed during the war and only pictures taken by two amateur photographers survive to provide evidence of the remarkable riveted outline of the ship that had been impressed in the sand.) The excavated materials were sent to London, where they remained in their original packing boxes until the end of the war, when restoration began.

Several of the burial mounds were explored the previous year at the request of the landowner, but they had been plundered long before and only a few artifacts and iron rivets were found. Enough was intriguing, however, for the dig to continue the next summer, when the undisturbed remains of a large burial ship were discovered beneath the largest mound. Almost ninety-feet long and fifteen-feet wide, with room for twenty rowers on a side, the buried ship and its treasure are one of the most important finds in British archaeology.

(A coroner's inquest determined the artifacts to be the property of the landowner, who graciously donated them to the nation. Gold and silver that are buried with the intention of recovery, but which are not retrieved and for which the owner is not known, are declared treasure trove and belong, with recompense, to the Crown. Since there was no intention of reclaiming the burial items found at Sutton Hoo, which had been placed there deliberately, they were considered not to have been lost but abandoned and so were awarded to the owner of the land on which they were found.)

That Sutton Hoo is a royal burial can be seen in the objects discovered in the resplendent chamber constructed amidship. The interior seems to have had been covered with a rug or mat on which were placed the possessions of a pagan warrior king: his helmet and coat of mail, sword and shield, spears and a unique axe-hammer, as well as the magnificent gold-and-garnet purse lid, shoulder-clasps, and a great gold buckle. There also were two unique, but enigmatic, symbols of his power: a whetstone "scepter" surmounted by a small bronze stag on a ring and a mysterious iron stand that may have served as a standard for the king.

More mundane domestic items included buckets, tubs, and cauldrons; a collection of silver bowls from the eastern Mediterranean; wooden cups and bottles and a pair of large drinking horns, all with silver-gilt fittings; bronze hanging-bowls of Celtic design; an intricate hanging chain; as well as the remnants of folded woolen textiles, some of which had been dyed indigo (woad), red, and yellow.

Fashioned from a single piece of iron to which are attached deep ear and neck guards, the helmet was fitted with decorative foil panels of tinned-bronze that depict animal motifs as well as scenes from German and Scandinavian mythology. The crest is iron, inlaid with silver wire, with gilded-bronze terminals of stylized animal heads. The eyebrows, too, are of iron and silver wire with boar's head terminals, beneath which is a row of small square-cut garnets. The nose, beetling mustache, and mouth of the iron face mask also are of gilt bronze.

The sword and shield once were equally impressive. The leather and linden wood shield have rotted away, and there is nothing except its iron boss, gilt fittings, and two magnificent animal figures: a dragon and a bird of prey, both of gilt-bronze decorated with garnets. The hilt of the sword has a beautiful gold and cloisonné garnet pommel and gold guards. The iron blade is heavily corroded but was pattern-welded, made from eight bundles of thin iron rods hammered together to form a pattern of parallel or herringbone lines in the metal. To this core, a cutting edge of carbon steel then was forged. Such patterned swords were highly prized and often passed as heirlooms from generation to generation. Beowulf uses Unferth's sword, "the curious sword with a wavy pattern, hard of its edge" against Gendel's mother, but it fails him, just as his own sword Nęgling of "ancient inheritance, very keen of edge," breaks striking the Dragon.

But it is the smaller objects, the delicate fittings of the sword belt and scabbard, the zoomorphic gold buckle, and jewel-like shoulder-clasps and purse lid that are most exquisite. There was virtually nothing else like these pieces in Europe at the time, and their artistic virtuosity suggests a master goldmith working on a royal commission. The intricate buckle, for example, is hollow and hinged at the back, the belt secured by three pins that project from the underside of the bosses. The other end is placed through the loop and held there by the tongue, which also is hinged. The unique pair of cloisonné clasps, which are made of gold, millefiori glass, and garnet, are curved to fit the shoulder, the two matching halves, decorated with intertwined boars, tightly hinged and joined by a gold pin. The purse lid is equally artistic, if not as elaborate, and decorated with animal and abstract designs. Inside were found thirty-seven small gold coins, each deliberately chosen from a different mint in Gaul.

There was no evidence of a body in the highly acidic soil, which has led to the assumption that the ship may have been a cenotaph, a monument commemorating someone whose body is buried elsewhere. Evidence of residual phosphates, however, suggest that there once was a body and that the grave is more likely an inhumation. If so, it may be that of Rędwald, king of East Anglia, who died in AD 624/625, the same approximate date of the latest Merovingian coins found there. Bede identifies Rędwald as the fourth bretwalda ("ruler of Britain") to have overlordship (imperium) of the other kingdoms south of the river Humber. He succeeded Ęthelbert, the first English king to be converted, in AD 616 and defeated Ęthelfrith, the king of Northumbria, the same year. It was Rędwald, too, who reverted to paganism, says Bede, when he returned from the court of Ęthelbert, dedicating altars in his temple both to heathen gods and the Christian one.

If so, his defiantly pagan burial preserved, hidden and undisturbed, some of the greatest treasures of Anglo-Saxon art.


"I have wrested the hilt from the enemies' hand, avenged the evil done to the Danes."

Beowulf (1669-1670)

On September 24, 2009, it was announced that on July 5 there had been an even more remarkable discovery of Anglo-Saxon treasure in Staffordshire, once the ancient kingdom of Mercia. The largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver artifacts ever discovered, scattered over an area of plowed field. The trove comprises some fifteen hundred pieces, including scores of sword hilt collars, pommel bosses, and fittings, as well as the remains of several helmets. The gold items alone, many filigreed and decorated with garnets, weigh about eleven pounds, more than three times the amount found at Sutton Hoo. The only non-martial items were several crosses, one of which had been folded for burial. There also was an inscribed strip of gold inscribed in misspelled Latin with a verse from Numbers 10:35, "Rise up, O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face." Declared treasure, the hoard becomes Crown property. Once evaluated, the proceeds from the sale will be split between the discoverer and landowner, and the items themselves likely divided between the Birmingham Museum and others.


References: The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial (1986) by Angela Care Evans (British Museum), a popular guide published by the British Museum that conveniently summarizes the three volumes of The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial (1975, 1978, 1983) by Rupert Bruce-Mitford; Beowulf and the Finnesburg Fragment (1950) translated by John R. Clark Hall and C. L. Wrenn; Beowulf: With the Finnesburg Fragment (1996) edited by C. L. Wrenn and W. F. Boulton; The Audience of Beowulf (1951) by Dorothy Whitelock; Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics (1936) by J. R. R. Tolkien; The Anglo-Saxons (1982) edited by James Campbell, Eric John, and Patrick Wormald (Penguin); The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture, AD 600-900 (1991) edited by Leslie Webster and Janet Backhouse; Voyage to the Other World: The Legacy of Sutton Hoo (1992) edited by Calvin B. Kendall and Peter S. Wells; Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (2000) translated by Seamus Heaney.

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