Why this famed Anglo-Saxon ship burial was likely the last of its kind

The archaeological discovery at Sutton Hoo—a sensation depicted in the film 'The Dig'—is perhaps the last gasp of a lavish English medieval funerary tradition.

Published 1 Feb 2021, 10:34 GMT
This extraordinary helmet was buried with its Anglo-Saxon owner, an elite warrior or possibly even a ...

This extraordinary helmet was buried with its Anglo-Saxon owner, an elite warrior or possibly even a king, at Sutton Hoo in the early 600s A.D.

Photograph by British Museum

Archaeologists can be a careful bunch. They hedge their bets, question the data at every turn, and tend to spurn any hint of sensationalism. But bring up the ancient burial mounds of Sutton Hoo in southeast England, and even the most circumspect scholar will spout superlatives. Magnificent! Monumental! Unparalleled!

In 1939, archaeologists discovered a 1,400-year-old Anglo-Saxon burial at the site that included an entire ship, as well as a dizzyingly rich cache of grave goods. The spectacular find changed historians’ understanding of early medieval Britain, says Sue Brunning, the curator who cares for the now legendary artifacts at the British Museum. “It transformed everything in a stroke.” (Read more about who was buried at Sutton Hoo.)

The film The Dig retells the story of the Sutton Hoo excavation from the perspectives of landowner Edith Pretty (played by Carey Mulligan) and archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes).

Photograph by Photograph via Netflix/Entertainment Pictures, Alamy

Eighty-two years later, the Sutton Hoo ship burial is back in the public eye thanks to The Dig, a new Netflix movie starring Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, and Lily James. But in the early seventh century A.D., when the last spade of dirt was tossed over the Anglo-Saxon warrior and his treasures, the practice of burying the dead with piles of bling was falling out of fashion. Within a century of Sutton Hoo, most English burials contained little more than decaying bodies. What caused the shift?

“Humans had been burying people in ships for centuries and millennia,” says Brunning. The same went for grave goods. In early medieval Europe, people were rarely buried without at least some of the things they held dear, from beads to coins, horse harnesses, and more.

A photo from the original Sutton Hoo excavation shows the remains of the wooden ship that was buried in the earth of southeast England some 1,400 years ago.

Photograph by British Museum

The Sutton Hoo cache was unearthed by Basil Brown, an untrained excavator hired by landowner Edith Pretty, who was curious about what lay beneath the barrows on her Suffolk property near the River Deben. Over a series of excavations, Brown slowly unearthed 263 precious objects buried in the 80-foot-long Anglo-Saxon ship. The opulent finds, made of materials ranging from iron to gold, bone, garnet, and feathers, included a human-faced helmet, delicately tooled shoulder clasps, household goods, and weapons—many with links to far-flung places like Syria and Sri Lanka.

When the Sutton Hoo artifacts were discovered, they instantly changed historians’ image of the era once called the Dark Ages. The grave goods were exquisitely crafted out of materials from around the world and suggested that the early medieval society portrayed in epic poems like Beowulf might be more reality than myth. “That sort of thing was previously thought to be largely fantasy,” Brunning says.

But the practice of furnishing graves had already started to die out by the time Sutton Hoo’s unnamed Anglo-Saxon elite breathed his last. Between the sixth and eighth centuries A.D., graves in England became simpler and sparser.

A dying tradition

In an attempt to understand how and why the practice died out, archaeologist Emma Brownlee, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Girton College who specialises in early medieval burial practices, dug into archaeological records that document more than 33,000 early medieval graves. Her analysis, recently published in the journal Antiquity, covered 237 cemeteries in northwestern Europe, the majority of them in England.

Using descriptions and drawings of tens of thousands of graves excavated over the past 60 years, Brownlee painstakingly calculated the average number of objects per grave, down to the last bead. She also gathered other important information, such as how long the cemeteries were in use, and what the most reliable dating techniques suggested about their age.

Then the number crunching began. Her map shows England abandoning grave goods as early as the mid-sixth century. By the time the Anglo-Saxon warrior was interred around 625, furnished burials were well on their way to abandonment.

“After the seventh century, nobody is being buried with things in their graves,” says Brownlee.

Since her data skews toward England, Brownlee cautions that English people didn’t necessarily lead the way. Nonetheless, her data shows that England finished its turn toward simpler burials by the 720s, while the rest of northwestern Europe took another half-century to follow suit.

The birth of England—and the death of furnished burial

The evolving burial practices coincided with a time of profound change in England. Once under Roman rule, England became independent around 410 and faced wave after wave of conquerors, including the Germanic Angles and Saxons.

Between 400 and 600, these pagan powers coalesced into kingdoms that converted to Christianity in the seventh century. The most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdoms survived the Viking invasion that began in the ninth century. They went on to unite as the Kingdom of England in 927 and form the basis of the modern British monarchy.

The warrior interred with the ship is thought to have been an Anglo-Saxon king, perhaps Rædwald of East Anglia, who ruled a kingdom that included Suffolk between about 599 and 624. Dates on coins buried at the site coincide with his reign, and the quality and value of the grave goods suggest a person of extreme influence.

So, too, does the existence of the grave itself. “The very act of dragging a ship up from the river downhill, digging a hole big enough to contain the ship, and building the burial chamber is almost like a piece of theatre,” says Brunning. “We can imagine it involved huge groups of people. The funeral itself would have been an enormous occasion, and the [barrow] was so enormous, it could probably be seen from the river below when people sailed by.”

The individual interred at Sutton Hoo was buried with his sword. Recent research by British Museum curator Sue Brunning suggests that the weapon's Anglo-Saxon owner was left handed.

Photograph by British Museum

Archaeologists think Sutton Hoo was also a burying ground for the royal’s relatives, who were laid to rest in about 17 other mounds near the presumed king. Another, smaller ship was also found at the site.

Political power might be the key to the change in burial practices, says archaeologist Heinrich Härke, an early medieval burial specialist and a professor at HSE University in Moscow who was not involved in the research. As leaders across England began to consolidate power and form kingdoms during the sixth century, Härke says, it may have become less important for people to display their power and bury such ornate goods.

Another early medieval archaeologist, Andrew Reynolds of University College London, has a theory of his own: The rise of kings impoverished everyone who wasn’t among the upper crust.

“English royal families’ increasing grip on resources and land dealt the first death blow to the freedoms previously enjoyed by small scale communities,” he says. “Wealth became polarised.”

Then there’s the rise of Christianity. As the new religion took hold across Europe, burial mounds went out of style and royal resting places migrated to churchyards or tombs inside churches and cathedrals. The number of grave goods declined, too. From the eighth century on, royals and non-elites alike were usually buried with nothing more than shrouds, personal items of jewellery, or Christian ornaments like crosses.

Reynolds sees the Sutton Hoo burial as part of that transition, especially since it seems to have been the burial place of just one Anglo-Saxon family, rather than part of a larger cemetery.

A view across the frost-covered burial mounds at Sutton Hoo on a dawn morning. Part of the burial field discovered near the famed ship has been left untouched for future generations of archaeologists to explore with new questions and new technologies.

Photograph by The National Trust Photolibrary, Alamy

“All of the high-status burials from this period are situated away from the burial grounds used by people of lesser status,” he says. “What we are looking at here is an attempt by people who controlled access to high-status goods, and who almost certainly called the shots locally, to distinguish themselves from others, not just by the acquisition of ostentatious items, but also spatially, to set themselves apart.”

Brownlee, on the other hand, thinks increased trade and connection across western Europe, not monarchical power grabs, explain the trend toward bare burials. “The change in most burial practices happened through communication with people of a similar social status,” she theorises, citing sociological and linguistic models that show cultural change spreads most quickly when it comes from peers.

Perhaps the Sutton Hoo burial was rooted in royal fear, says Brunning. “There are lots of theories about whether this is a reaction to the arrival of Christianity—one last hoorah to the pre-Christian way of doing things,” she says. “It might be a sign of insecurity rather than strength, a symbolic gesture that covers over some rather insecure feelings.”

No 'smoking gun'

Short of any smoking-gun evidence, it remains tough for scholars to tease out exactly how burial practices of the past fit into broader societal change. But an unexcavated portion of the Sutton Hoo site offers a glimmer of hope for answering that question, at least for medieval England.

After Brown’s initial dig, two other excavation projects continued exploring the site until the early 1990s. But part of the burial field near the famed ship was “left for future generations with new questions and new techniques,” a National Trust spokesperson told the East Anglian Daily Times in 2019.

For now, researchers must make do with what’s already been dug up by Brown and his successors—or, like Brownlee, try to tease new insights out of old data. In the meantime, Brunning and her curatorial colleagues will painstakingly preserve the artifacts found in the barrow—objects that speak to an era of kingship and pageantry that historians dismissed as mythical before Brown’s discovery.

Regardless of the reason behind the Sutton Hoo burial and its increasingly sparse counterparts, it’s always worth thinking about how and why people of the past buried their dead, and what they did (or didn’t) include.

“Graves are one of the few parts of the archaeological record that were deliberately put into the ground,” says Brownlee. “Almost everything else is accidental.” Each item, she says, “was put there with a specific purpose. Rediscovering that purpose is part of the challenge.”

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