Overlooking the famous excavation of Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo. Recent excavations have uncovered surprising later aspects of the cemetery’s later use. (Photo: Sutton Hoo Archive)

Sutton Hoo is best known for the elite Anglo-Saxon cemetery excavated there in the 1930s, but more recent campaigns tell an even richer tale. The royal burials sprang from an earlier cemetery, and were followed by dozens of graves of execution victims. How does the sequence track the journey of Anglo-Saxons, from pagan immigrants to a Christian kingdom?

Brought together in a new book, Carly Hilts spoke to Martin Carver to find out more.

The sumptuous Anglo-Saxon graves uncovered at Sutton Hoo in 1938 and 1939 are arguably the most celebrated early medieval discoveries excavated in this country. The outline of the great ship buried beneath Mound 1, together with its gold and garnet grave goods, and the moustachioed face of the helmet recovered from its remains, are immediately recognisable relics of a long-vanished heroic age. Yet beyond these trappings of regal glory, the last phase of the site’s life had a darker tale to tell – as Martin Carver (now Emeritus Professor at the University of York) found while leading investigations on the site between 1984 and 1993. It was not further princely burials that this project uncovered, but evidence of judicial executions, carried out not as part of pagan ceremonies, but, more likely, by Christian kings.

Shadows in the sand

Although the acidic soil had long-since consumed most of the human remains, fragile outlines of bodies, picked out in dark sand, could still be seen in the graves. These enigmatic forms were dubbed ‘Sandmen’. (Photo: Nigel Macbeth)

Two intriguing groups of graves were uncovered during Martin’s excavations on the site 25 years ago. They are spread some distance apart – with one cluster lying on the very eastern fringe of the cemetery, and the other apparently focused on one of the royal barrows, Mound 5 – but they are united by their unusual contents. Thanks to the highly acidic local soil, the skeletons that these burials once held have long since vanished, and yet it is still possible to pick out their occupants. Fragile shapes preserving the rounded form of their bodies, cast in crusty brown sand, could still be seen at the bottom of each grave – leading these figures to be dubbed the ‘Sandmen of Sutton Hoo’.

This remarkable preservation was not the only unusual aspect of the graves. While it is not unusual to find Anglo-Saxon burials in crouched positions and other postures besides lying flat on their backs, the agonised poses of these contorted bodies was something else entirely. Apparently interred in some haste, some of the Sandmen had been buried lying on their sides, on their front, and even folded in half. Others showed signs of having their wrists and ankles bound, while still more had been subjected to mutilations including beheading. What did these grisly discoveries signify?

A view over the barrow cemetery. Some of the Sandmen burials investigated by Martin Carver clustered around Mound 5. (Photo: C Hoppitt/Martin Carver)

Taking the two groups individually, the 16 burials lying in the shadow of Mound 5 (a barrow covering the cremated remains of what is thought to be an elite man) are scattered mostly around the south and east sides of the monument, with the majority dug directly at its foot and five more lying in reused quarry pits. All of their occupants seem to have met a brutal end: many were found lying face down, and some had had their heads removed and set in odd places – by their shoulder, knee, or foot. In one case (Burial 54), the head seems to have been taken away altogether, while in another (Burial 52), the head had been replaced at the neck but turned 180 degrees, so that its otherwise supine owner was staring into the soil at the bottom of the grave. Equally dramatic was Burial 55, containing a body folded backwards almost double and possibly cut into quarters – while there were also double and triple burials, notably the remains of a decapitated man lying on his back, with the bodies of two women placed face-down on top of him.

At the time of their discovery (see CA 118), it was suggested that these could be satellite burials directly associated with the mound – human sacrifices, ritually slaughtered as part of a princely funeral. Their mutilated bodies might reflect some aspect of these rites, it was thought – but while the other group of Sandmen showed similarly distorted poses, their burials hinted at a different interpretation.

The Sandmen burials were remarkable not only for their unusual preservation, but for the agonised poises of the figures. (Image: Juliet Reeves)

The ‘Group 1’ graves on the edge of the Sutton Hoo burial ground lay in two arcs around an open space at the end of some kind of avenue, and these 23 graves exhibit a similarly diverse range of poses to those around Mound 5 (‘Group 2’). Although the team also found a small number of more conventional burials among them, where individuals had been laid to rest in wooden boxes or coffins, the majority had undergone similar treatment to the Mound 5 bodies. Three individuals had been placed in the grave in a crouched or kneeling position; others had been decapitated; one – nicknamed ‘the ploughman’ – had been interred in a spread-eagled arrangement, covered by some kind of wooden implement; and another’s neck had apparently been broken, with skull and several vertebrae lying at a right angle to the rest of their body. Many of these individuals also seem to have been tied up; four, found lying face down, had wrists and ankles crossed as if they had been bound at the time of burial, while another individual, seen with an arm pinioned behind their back, and one with arms stretched over their head, may have been similarly restrained. But why?

This is an extract from a feature published in CA 331. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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