Sutton Hoo part 8
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Part 8


The War and Sutton Hoo .
think it can be safely said that the Second World War slowed down the research at the Sutton Hoo site. Many of the records and photographs were destroyed in the London Science Museum during this time. As mentioned above this area of East Anglia is the flattest part of England and as such was thought to be vulnerable to German glider attacks. To avoid this, areas such as this had what is known as glider ditches constructed. These ditches were thought to be a deterrent. Two glider ditches were excavated right through the Sutton Hoo site in a SE - NW direction. What made things worse was that the excavated mounds were used for mortar practice. Nowadays it seems beyond belief that this could happen. I suppose the old phrase that there was a war on held the upper hand. Even today, East Anglia is home to a number of military bases such as Lakenheath and Mildenhall which strangely enough - are now used by the United States Air force.

Nineteen Forty Seven .
f nothing else, the eight years between the uncovering of the Treasure and the Archaeologists return gave time for recollection. Amazingly the site had survived in some form or another to justify continued research. Now it was the turn of Bruce Mitford from the British Museum to take the leading role in the further research of the site. Mitford was probably the most methodical of all the researchers who were involved. He wrote many books on the subject and his work cast doubt on earlier assumptions - that even today we still argue about. 

Well who was buried At Sutton Hoo? .
f you have read this far. The questions I have not attempted to answer is. Where is the body ? Secondly - if this was a ship burial, who could possibly have been the leading candidate? Various remains of humans and Animals were found in other mounds on the site but not in mound one. This question of human remains had to wait until 1965. The problem with sandy soils is the acidic nature inherent in them. It goes without saying that any human remains subject to acidic conditions would dissolve in quite a short time. The remains found in other mounds had been cremated and therefore be more resistant to acid attack. The problems facing the scientists were basically how to develop a test to prove the existence of a human body within the ship when there were no remains to work on. There was one test however. This comprised of measuring the level of phosphates within the burial chamber and comparing those with the soil outside. This should give an indication of any biological remains that may have existed within the ship. Obviously much more sensitive tests became available over the years. Using chemicals similar to those that you would use today to test the condition of your garden soil, samples were taken from the burial chamber and compared to those outside. Surprisingly there was a difference. The levels were slightly higher inside than out. The evidence unfortunately was and still is not conclusive to prove the existence of a body. The tests were carried out over a period of two years. The fact that no remains were found came as little surprise to those who understood the chemistry of the area. This phenomenon is not unique. Other Anglo Saxon sites have mystified us also.

No body at all .
nother scenario is that there never was a body buried with the ship and it was purely a Cenotaph to a king who may have died before it was ready. This seems very unlikely. We know that the most likely candidate that this burial site contained was converted to Christianity at one stage. Could his newly found faith deter him from being buried in pagan fashion? Was he removed from the grave? This is very unlikely because the only signs of disturbance were those mentioned in earlier paragraphs. Taking into account all the evidence, it seems as though a body or at least biodegradable material did exist within the burial chamber. Assuming a body was buried with the ship, we must now address the problem of who it may have been and what evidence we have to support it. More about this below.

Well who then? .
he land of the East Angles, around the time of the Sutton Hoo burial was thought to have taken place was indeed a mysterious place. Of the three races generically known as Saxons, we know less about these people than we do about the others. The identity of the possible incumbent can only be ascertained if we have an accurate dating of the burial site. A number of tests were carried out to date the ship and its contents. The Anastasius dish for example could not be used because this was at least a couple of hundred years older than the ship was thought to be. The silly thing was the fact that many of the older pieces of Mediterranean silverware could be accurately dated.

East Anglian Kings

Here is the genealogical chart of the East Anglian kings and rulers. No dates have have been included in this chart but are discussed in the text. Our knowledge of East Anglia during this period is not great. Attempting to date rulers accurately is very difficult. The major kings are the large graphics.

Dating The burial

ound in the burial chamber were a collection of coins. These were recognized as coming from Gaul. The only problem was to date them. The complication arose by not knowing how new or old the coins were before being buried with the incumbent. The coins known as Merovingian tremises were a complication in themselves. This French currency - as time went on - were minted with reduced amounts of gold in them. To accurately date them became a task that required physics rather than archaeological skills. The dates of the debasing of the coins had been known for some time. It was decided to work out an average of a few hundred tremises and compare them with those found at Sutton Hoo. Like the Anastasius dish, It could indicate everything or nothing. Assuming that the coins were a gift to the man buried here and were reasonably new, it would confirm the possible candidates. The coins were weighed and an average taken. As the coins gold content was gradually reduced during the sixth and seventh centuries, a figure of around 625 A.D was calculated. This was a significant date as will be explained next.

East Anglia

he genealogical table above shows the line from the earliest tribal rulers of East Anglia and how that line rose to become the prominent force in East Anglia. The major Kings are the large ones and were considered to be rulers of all East Anglia. To think of this as a family tree may be incorrect. It was usual in the early Saxon periods for the strongest, richest or best man to maintain their own interests to be declared king. This has been explained in other sections. You only have to read the " Kings of England and Wessex" to understand this point as being valid. The Witan had a high degree of control when it came to kingmaking. Of all the areas populated by the Saxons, the East Angles are the most difficult to date. I cannot find any reliable dates for the first eight minor kings or Wehha but would probably stretch from a period 450 AD to around 570 AD. Wuffa died in 578 AD and Tyttla in 599 AD. If the dating of the coins is to be believed, they were dead before the Sutton Hoo burial and must be discounted. We are now left with seven candidates. Eni we know little or nothing about and can be discounted or history would say more about him. Raegenhere died around 617 AD which again is slightly too early. Ecric and Sigeberht were both killed whilst fighting The Mercian king Penda in 637 AD. Anna reigned from 637 AD until his death in 654 AD and can also be discounted as after the burial. Two candidates now remain. Eorpwald and Raedwald. Eorpwald was Raedwald's son and was converted to Christianity. He came to power following his fathers death in 625 AD. A Saxon ship burial could never be accepted as Christian but as Pagan and hence this Saxon ceremony would never be sanctioned by the church. If Eorpwald was as devout as we think he was, he must be discounted also.

Raedwald the greatest of East Anglian Kings

have kept the most probable person to last. Whilst not discounting Sigeberht, Ecric, or Eorpwald. There are many clues and thoughts that indicate that it must be Raedwald that the evidence makes it difficult to accept that it could be anybody else. The main arguments are these. The quality of the finds at Sutton Hoo indicate that this was a person of high standing in East Anglia. The finery of the gold buckle and sword indicates that the king had material wealth and the diversity of the objects buried with him infer that he was well known in other countries. This would require a reign of a number of years. Only Raedwald has all the qualifications. The ship itself was very large and must surely have been commensurate with the status of the incumbent. The dating of the coins also tie up pretty closely with the assumed death of Raedwald. Even to this day , we must keep an open mind as to who was buried at Sutton Hoo. It is unlikely that we will ever really know - but only draw up a shortlist of possible candidates.


his has been a long section. I would now like to speculate and leave you with some food for thought. When I started this section, I introduced it as Sutton Hoo a Saxon Burial. I would like to write a few words that I would like you to think about.

Q1 : Was there ever a body buried At Sutton Hoo?

o signs of a body were ever found in the burial chamber. Does this mean that there was no body? The peculiar acidic nature of sandy soil has the ability to eat or corrode bone in a short time. The absence of a body therefore may not be considered unusual. The chemical tests for residual phosphates did indicate a raised level. This could be for a number of reasons. Bio-degradable material such as cloth were found in the chamber and may have been responsible. Saxon burials usually contained the personal belongings of the interned. This could include his horse or any pets he may have had. The raised phosphate level does not mean that a human being was ever buried here.

Q2: Did religion have a bearing?

s it possible that there was never a body buried at Sutton Hoo? Surely the East Angle Saxons would not go through the prodigious task of burying a ship the size of this for no reason? If we assume that the intended was Raedwald, what possible reason could there have been for him not to be interned within the burial chamber when he died. The most obvious to my mind is that of religion. We know that at one stage he visited Kent and was thought to have been converted to Christianity by Aethelbert and his Frankish wife named Bertha. Aethelbert died in 616 AD which would have left a decade for him to renounce his newly acquired faith and return to paganism. It would be unacceptable for somebody as eminent as Raedwald to be buried in such a style if he had remained Christian. Is there another answer to this riddle? Is it possible that Raedwald never renounced Christianity but allowed the Sutton Hoo ship to be buried to ensure the continuity of his peoples customs and religion, even though he had been converted? Was Raedwald buried in a more austere unknown Christian grave ? These are questions that will never be answered.

Complications and conclusions

hen we find historically important artefacts like those recovered at Sutton Hoo - we try to compare and contrast the items with those already discovered and dated in the past. The treasure of this burial and the burial itself could be considered unique in many respects. The size of the ship came as a surprise. It was much larger than the one uncovered at Snape but had similar design. When we try to compare this burial with other ship burials around Europe, we always seem to end up in a small area of Sweden. North of Stockholm there were ship burials which bear similarities with that of Sutton Hoo. The Valsgarde and Vendel ship burials bear all the hall marks and similarities to Sutton Hoo. The implications of this are great. If you have read about the origin of the three Saxon races, you will appreciate that a problem exists in actually calling these people Saxons at all. Are we really discussing a small influx of settlers that populated parts of East Anglia but were never Saxon? Could these people have been the precursor of the arrival of the Vikings? Is it also probable that we are dealing with a person unknown and that this burial was never meant for Raedwald at all ? The similarities between Swedish and the Sutton Hoo ship is not enough to confirm this speculation. What other proof is there. Take the helmet remnants. A similar style was discovered in Valsgarde. The complications continue because many of the items seem to have no parallels anywhere else. The whetstone or sceptre as it has been called is unique and has no equal. The Iron axe with its iron handle is again without equal. The Sutton Hoo haul was very cosmopolitan in content and indicates a well travelled man or one who was respected and afforded gifts from many far away places. The complications are endless.


s related at the beginning. It is impossible for me to write indefinitely on this subject. It has occupied the minds of archaeologists and scientists for the last 60 years. If you are interested - there are countless books written on the subject. For an in depth study of this burial I would recommend those volumes by Bruce - Mitford and for a good overview. The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial by Angela Care Evans. I feel I have left so much out that should be included. I apologize for this.


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copyright Glen Ray Crack - Battle - East Sussex - United Kingdom
Submitted 10th January 1998
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