The grave goods were stowed in a wooden chamber, about 6m long, occupying the centre of the ship. The more utilitarian objects, such as cauldrons and buckets, were consigned to the extremities of this sepulchre, while the most precious items were grouped around the centre. It was here that the ship’s final occupant was presumably laid to rest, and it was here that a trove of treasures of almost indescribable beauty awaited Phillips’ band of archaeologists for over 1,000 years. The Sutton Hoo artefacts can only be fully appreciated in the flesh, requiring a trip to the British Museum, where a portrait of Mrs Edith Pretty watches over the treasures she gifted to the nation. The following gives a taste of some of these magnificent artefacts.
The helmet was crushed when the burial chamber timbers collapsed. But enough survived to reconstruct a sophisticated piece of armour, boasting cheek, neck, and face guards. Eerie sightless eye holes were topped with bushy bronze eyebrows, furrowing into boar’s head terminals. Decorative iron panels were stamped with complex knotwork patterns or horsemen riding down hapless opponents, while a snake glided across the helmet’s crown, its blood red garnet eyes gazing malevolently forwards. Although the helmet seems to have been influenced by Roman cavalry helmets, its closest parallels lie in 6th – 7th century Sweden.
The shoulder clasps are a riot of gold, red and blue. Hidden away on the underside are the functional hinges and staples needed to fix them to a fabric garment, while the upper surface is a canvas for gorgeous geometric patterns and stylised wild boars.
The great gold belt buckle weighs over 400g, and effortlessly combines beauty and functionality. The back opens on hinges, revealing a hollow cavity containing pins to lock the belt strap in place. The front showcases a playful tangle of knotwork, from which sinuous birds and beasts nervously peer.
The sword is one of the finest examples of the Anglo Saxon weapon smiths’ art from Britain. A complex pattern-welded forging technique was used to create both a sharp blade and an aesthetically pleasing herringbone pattern. This would have been an expensive, and effective, piece of kit. Consigned to the chamber in a wool-lined wooden scabbard, the sumptuous gold and garnet decoration testifies to the weapon’s prized status.
The purse lid features two macabre depictions in gold and glass of a bird seizing its prey, and a man being savaged by wolves. This latter bears an uncanny resemblance to a bronze die found in Torslunda, Sweden, showing a man mauled by two bears. Within the purse were 37 gold coins minted in Merovingian Gaul. These are central to attempts to date the burial, and therefore establish who was interred there. The coins date to between AD 575 – 625, dovetailing with the death of the powerful king Raedwald recorded by the Venerable Bede. Raedwald is credited with a dominion that stretched as far as the Humber, and for 70 years has remained the hot favourite for the occupant of Mound 1.
The sceptre is a curious object, comprising a large whetstone (used for sharpening swords – although there is no evidence this object was ever treated so roughly), with a bronze stag on top. 8 unnervingly inscrutable faces gaze out from the whetstone, some sporting wonderful triangular beards. The purpose of this artefact remains controversial, but persistent suggestions that it is a symbol of kingly status refuse to go away.
Of the objects’ owner, there was no trace. Various explanations for this absence have been advanced over the years, including the complete consumption of flesh and bone by the acid soil, or even the absence of a body to bury in the first place. The ‘sand bodies’ detected in more recent excavations at Sutton Hoo have revealed just how effectively the soil can strip away human remains. Given the damage caused by the collapse of the burial chamber, it would probably be too much to expect the 1930s excavators, who had already achieved so much with so little, to spot the ghostly shape of any human form that lay within.