This was no ordinary burial. The group that gathered on a grassy promontory overlooking the River Deben around AD 625 was participating in a ceremony that is without equal in Britain. First a huge vessel, 27m long and honourably scarred and patched through long service was hauled a mile uphill to the mounds of a cemetery site. There it was lowered into an equally huge cavity cut into the earth. Within the vessel a chamber was erected, and within the chamber the man who inspired this devotion was presumably laid to rest. Around him the objects that had served him in life were carefully arranged to ensure his status endured in the afterlife. Here was a warrior, with weapons and armour, a reveller with cauldrons and drinking horns, and, almost certainly, a king, with sceptre and standard. Although we are uncertain of his name, it would have weighed heavily on the hearts of many of those working tirelessly to send the deceased on his final voyage. Once his earthly possessions were assembled, a mound 30m in diameter and at least 3m high was piled over his grave.
While modern archaeologists would give much to learn information that was commonplace amongst those seventh-century mourners, what they in turn could not have guessed is that the riches they committed to the earth that day would survive unmolested for over a millennium. The beauty and variety of the objects sealed in the chamber have come to commemorate not just an individual, but an entire period, shattering preconceptions of a culturally moribund ‘Dark Age’. Surely the greatest treasure ever to emerge from the English soil, Sutton Hoo was the archaeological find of the century. Its story is one of kings, commoners and criminals, set against a tableau of war.