Marking the 75th anniversary of a watershed discovery

In May 1939, Suffolk archaeologist Basil Brown made a discovery that would change perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England forever: a spectacular 7th-century ship burial, overlooking the River Deben at Sutton Hoo. Seventy-five years on, its contents form the centrepiece of the British Museum’s recently reopened Early Medieval Europe gallery. CA went along to see what was new.

Dark Age or Golden Age? Many of the Sutton Hoo artefacts, such as this intricately decorated belt buckle, reveal the stunning artistic ability of their creators.

Dark Age or Golden Age? Many of the Sutton Hoo artefacts, such as this intricately decorated belt buckle, reveal the stunning artistic ability of their creators.

It is a story as familiar to archaeologists as any fairy tale: in 1937, recently widowed and newly interested in spiritualism, Suffolk landowner Edith Pretty wrote to Ipswich Museum about excavating the ancient burial mounds on her estate. Curator Guy Maynard was happy to assist, sending her a self-taught amateur archaeologist who had recently helped him to investigate a Roman villa at Stanton Chair. The man was Basil Brown, the estate was Sutton Hoo, and the rest is history.

Brown’s investigation began in June 1938, but it was not until the following May that he finally yielded to Mrs Pretty’s urging to tackle the largest monument, now known as Mound 1. With the help of an estate labourer and Mrs Pretty’s gamekeeper and gardener, he drove a trench into its eastern end. On the third day, the diggers made a momentous discovery: the ghostly outline of a clinker-built ship, some 27m long.
Although most of its timbers had been eaten away by their acidic surroundings, the vessel’s shape could still be clearly seen in the compacted sandy soil, picked out with iron rivets. There was more excitement to come, however. In the centre of the hull lay an undisturbed burial chamber, packed with everything its occupant could have required for the next world, from weapons and armour to silver tableware, a lyre, and a spectacular range of gold ornaments.

These finds caused a sensation, although their significance was not immediately realised, with no less an authority than Christopher Hawkes interpreting Sutton Hoo as the first Viking ship to be found on the British mainland (in fact, such a discovery would not come until 2011, with the excavation of an undisturbed boat burial on Scotland’s Ardnamurchan peninsula – see CA 280).

Grand designs

The displays include famous objects from the old Room 41, such as the Late Roman Lycurgus Cup.

The displays include famous objects from the old Room 41, such as the Late Roman Lycurgus Cup.

Today, the Sutton Hoo finds form the heart of the British Museum’s newly reopened Early Medieval Europe gallery (Room 41: The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300-1100), which has been completely refurbished to mark the 75th anniversary of the excavation. It is a change long overdue, curator Dr Sue Brunning said; previously this was a dimly lit space, its gloomy brown décor doing little to counteract ‘Dark Age’ stereotypes of the period, or to show the artefacts to their best advantage.

Now, thanks to an airy blue-and-white colour scheme, a new roof that floods the gallery with light, and a more judicious use of space, Room 41 feels completely transformed. Its cruciform layout has been employed to great effect, creating discrete zones dedicated to specific cultures, while star objects such as the Franks’ Casket and the Late Roman Lycurgus Cup are housed in freestanding cases that allow visitors a 360º view. There are also a number of items never-before displayed at the museum, from Roman mosaics and Baltic jewellery brought out of storage for the first time, to a Viking brooch recently rediscovered by curators sifting through organic material excavated in the 19th century (CA 288).

The never-before seen Viking brooch, recently rediscovered by conservators in the storerooms of the Museum.

The never-before seen Viking brooch, recently rediscovered by conservators in the storerooms of the Museum.

At the centre, the Sutton Hoo finds draw focus in a case running the whole length of the room, with the burial’s famous helmet standing sentinel opposite the door to confront visitors as they enter. The artefacts’ new home is made entirely from non-reflective glass, allowing you to inspect intricate garnet and blue-glass inlays with unprecedented clarity. There are also a number of neat embellishments to the case, including quotations from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, and a subtle 1:1 outline of the ship’s prow.

Given this emphasis on Sutton Hoo, however, it is surprising not to find more information about the excavation itself in the new displays. Basil Brown’s involvement and Edith Pretty’s generous decision to donate the entire assemblage to the British Museum in 1939 elicit only a fleeting mention, although there are a small number of diagrams showing how objects were arranged in the grave, and an interesting two-minute video that digitally peels back layers of the burial mound.

Authority and identity

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The ship burial forms the centrepiece of the new gallery, with objects arranged to emphasise cultural connections.

Nevertheless, the finds themselves are attractively arranged, forming – as the original burial must have been intended to do – an ostentatious display of the wealth and power of their owner. This theme is explored in depth, with individual objects used to demonstrate martial and religious aspects of Anglo-Saxon authority.

A set of spearheads, once mounted in a single clump – reflecting how they were found in 1939 – has now been carefully separated to emphasise their number and therefore the high status of their owner, Sue Brunning said. Items with possible ritual significance are also highlighted, among them a unique cylindrical whetstone often seen as a staff of office, perhaps symbolising a ruler’s responsibility to maintain his retinue and protect his kingdom, as well as an iron axe-hammer, unusual in that both the shaft and head are made of metal, and as one of the few Sutton Hoo artefacts to have been dramatically reinterpreted in recent years. Previously tentatively ascribed functions as diverse as a horseman’s warhammer, and a tool for ship repair, the axe-hammer was most recently decribed by Andreas Dobat as reflecting another of the king’s sacral duties: slaughtering sacrificial cattle.

Nowhere are the ideas of power and wealth more clearly combined, however, than in the Sutton Hoo sword. Its ornate gold fittings are carefully lit to show off their minutely detailed decorations, and most strikingly, the scabbard bosses are inlaid with patterns of equalarmed crosses and mushroom shapes – a motif also seen on some of the newly conserved items from the Staffordshire Hoard, also dated to the early 7th century. Anglo-Saxon specialist Chris Fern recently suggested that some of the hoard’s components might have been made in East Anglian workshops before ending their days as Mercian plunder (CA 290) – could these include sword fittings seized from the dynasty interred at Sutton Hoo?

This dynasty was most likely the Wuffingas, who ruled East Anglia from the 6th to mid 8th century, possibly based at the recently identified highstatus settlement at Rendlesham, four miles from the burial complex (CA 290). This latest discovery is not included in the new displays, although Sue said she would not rule out creating a temporary ‘spotlight’ on the Rendlesham finds in the future.

As for who might have been laid to rest in such illustrious surroundings, speculation has traditionally favoured Raedwald, a mighty ruler whom the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes as a bretwalda, or high king. While the extent of Raedwald’s influence over neighbouring kingdoms is likely to have been overstated by these later scribes, his reputation, enduring centuries after his death in c.625, suggests an impressive figure who may have merited an equally impressive grave.

Although Raedwald is mentioned on the museum website, his name has not survived the gallery redesign: the new displays attribute the burial to an anonymous ‘King of East Anglia’, with no mention of Raedwald or popular alternatives such as his son and successor, Eorpwald (d. 627/8), and the co-regents Ecric and Sigeberht, who died fighting Penda of Mercia in 637.

This new conservatism, Sue says, is partly in order to open the debate rather than cleaving to one candidate, but also because of Curator of Early Medieval Coinage Gareth Williams’ recent re-examination of the burial’s 37 Merovingian gold coins. This research has refined its likely date from c.600-640 to c.610-635, something that could help to narrow the playing field, with the earlier cut-off possibly casting doubt on Sigeberht and Ecric.

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The famous Sutton Hoo helmet stands facing the gallery door, at the end of a long case housing finds from the site.

European union

If in-depth analysis of the burial itself is a little more limited since the gallery’s relaunch, however, the broader picture it presents is magnificent. In using the Sutton Hoo assemblage as a gateway to explore the rest of Early Medieval Europe, the museum is able both to place the site in its wider geopolitical context, emphasising the far-reaching connections reflected in its contents, and to draw together the myriad peoples represented in its vast collections.

It is a wise move: the gallery’s contents span AD 300 to 1100, matched by an equally ambitious geographical range sweeping from the Arctic Circle to North Africa, and the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea. But by dividing this potentially bewildering array of artefacts into individual areas – dedicated to the Late Roman Empire, Celtic Britain and Ireland, Central and Eastern Europe, the Vikings, and highlights from the museum’s other Anglo- Saxon holdings – and with the central displays acting as a unifying force, the whole becomes immediately more cohesive and comprehensible.

This was a formative time for Continental cultures, witnessing great migrations, the rise of major religions such as Christianity and Islam, and the development of precursors to modern states. Speaking at the gallery’s press launch on 27 March, Sue Brunning said the redesign aimed to ‘bust myths’ about the Early Medieval period being a cultural Dark Age. Surrounded by such dazzling evidence of creativity and artistic ability, those myths are well and truly exploded.


Room 41 is on the British Museum’s upper floor, close to the south stairs. Entry is free, and it is open from 10am to 5.30pm (8.30pm on Fridays). The refurbishment was funded by Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock.

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