Sutton Hoo: Anglo-Saxon Royal Burial Ship in Suffolk

Updated on October 9, 2018
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

I love to travel and explore new places. I hope my articles encourage you to visit them too.

The gold face-mask helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, Suffolk kept in The British Museum.
The gold face-mask helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, Suffolk kept in The British Museum. | Source

Why You Should Visit the Sutton Hoo Archeological Site in Suffolk

  1. It is the most important Anglo-Saxon burial site ever discovered in UK.
  2. It provides proof of Viking settlement in England from at least the 7th century.
  3. This site is providing exciting new information about “the dark ages” for acheologists, historians and sociologists.
  4. The landscape is beautiful and atmospheric.
  5. It is an interesting and fun day out for all the family.

A Brief Overview of the Discoveries at Sutton Hoo

The Last Resting Place of King Raedwald

Sutton Hoo is the site of some remarkable archeological finds. The most impressive of these is a 30-yard-long ship burial (27 meters) similar to those previously found only in Scandinavia. The boat itself has rotted away leaving just a “ghost” imprint in the soil.

A collection of gold and silver objects found within the earthen mound indicate this buried ship was the grave of the East Anglian King Raedwald (died circa 625 AD). There are about eighteen earthen burial mounds on the 255-acre site. Only a few have been excavated to date, but there are plans to investigate more of them as finances permit.

The fine detail on the artefacts led historians to rethink their view of the Dark Ages. The materials used in the gold death mask-helmet (see photo above) include garnets (a red semi-precious stone) which must have been traded from India or East Asia. There is also fine gold filigree work which would require considerable technical skill at metalworking. These treasures are so valuable, they are kept at The British Museum in London. Replicas have been made for the onsite exhibition at Sutton Hoo and these can handled during special “out-of-the-case” sessions.

Anglo-Saxon golden belt buckle from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, Suffolk (England). 7th century AD. Original displayed in the British Museum.
Anglo-Saxon golden belt buckle from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, Suffolk (England). 7th century AD. Original displayed in the British Museum. | Source

A Story of Landed Gentry and Buried Treasure

To get a feel for the excitement generated when the burial ship was first discovered, I recommend you read The Dig by John Preston. The book is fiction but it tells the story of real people. The key protagonists are Edith Pretty, the widowed landowner of Sutton Hoo and Basil Brown, the amateur archeologist whose perseverance made the excavation a success.

Mrs. Pretty was a wealthy widow with an interest in the afterlife. She heard local stories of ghostly knights on horseback haunting the burial mounds on her land. Her curiosity about the eerie sightings led her to employ Mr. Brown to investigate further. With more luck than skill his excavations led him to the sand shadow of the buried ship and thence to the treasure trove. However, war intervened and the dig was halted.

The burial mounds date from the 7th century and grave robbers looted them for treasure many times across the years. In addition, even though the sand imprint of the ship was found in 1939, the mounds were used by the British army during the Second World war for artillery practice. Some damage to the land occurred but fortunately, most of the archeology survived.

The estate was gifted to The National Trust in 1998 by the heirs of Edith Pretty to be cared for in perpetuity. The National Trust is a registered charity that cares for heritage sites for the benefit of everyone, both now and in the future. New discoveries on the Sutton Hoo estate continue to add to our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon period.

1939 photo of Sutton Hoo burial ship being excavated. The boat's timbers had rotted away leaving a ghostly imprint in the sandy soil.
1939 photo of Sutton Hoo burial ship being excavated. The boat's timbers had rotted away leaving a ghostly imprint in the sandy soil. | Source

Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon Ship Burial

Archeological interest in Sutton Hoo, East Anglia is relatively recent. In 1939, a private excavation of some of the many burial mounds on site found a sand imprint of a ship dating from the 7th century. The ship’s timbers had rotted away. All that remained were a few Anglo-Saxon rivets and a “shadow” of the boat left in the sandy soil.

World War 2 interrupted the dig and it was not until the 1960s that further examination of the treasure trove of objects found within the mounds could begin. The objects included finely worked gold buckles and shoulder clasps, gold coins and iron weaponry. The most exciting find was a decorative golden death face-mask helmet. Taken together, these objects indicate this site was the last resting place of at least one East Anglian king, possibly more.

Sutton Hoo Is Less Than 100 Miles From London

A
Sutton Hoo:
Tranmer House, Woodbridge IP12 3DJ, UK

get directions

The Sutton Hoo estate in Suffolk is cared for by The National Trust.

B
British Museum:
Great Russell St, Bloomsbury, London WC1B 3DG, UK

get directions

British Museum, London has the original gold artefacts from Sutton Hoo.

An Aerial View of Sutton Hoo Archaeological Site

The Treasure Is Cared For By The National Trust

The Sutton Hoo treasure hoard remains one of the UK’s most significant archeological finds. You can walk around the 255-acre site unaccompanied or you can take a guided walking tour of the mounds. There are also occasional study days where you can learn more about specific characters from history who are linked to the mounds.

On-site is an exhibition hall with replicas of all the treasures. (The originals are kept for security and insurance reasons at The British Museum in London). During opening hours there are regular “out-of-the-case” sessions where you can touch the objects and get a close-up view of the incredible skill of the Anglo-Saxon workmen.

An Archaeologist Discusses The Buried Treasure

Sutton Hoo Artefacts at The British Museum

If you are visiting London and do not have time to visit the Suffolk coast, you can see many of the treasures of Sutton Hoo at The British Museum. Some would argue you can see more at the museum as only replicas can be seen at the original archeological site. High insurance premiums have meant that The London Museum now houses the originals of the most valuable finds.

Room 41 (also known as The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery) has the Sutton Hoo collection. The gallery illustrates a time of great change and turmoil in Europe for the period AD 300–1100. The Roman Empire was disintegrating and the new religions of Christianity and Islam were gaining converts across the continent. The exhibition shows archeological finds from the period from places as far apart as North Africa to Scandinavia.

Gold shoulder clasp from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial kept at The British Museum.
Gold shoulder clasp from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial kept at The British Museum. | Source

Your Visit to Sutton Hoo Archaeological Site

The site is not open everyday, so check The National Trust website before you travel. You will find information about upcoming events on the website as well as opening hours and current entry prices.

The nearest train stations are Melton 1¼ miles, Woodbridge 3 miles with services from Ipswich and London. There is also a bus service from Ipswich.

Sutton Hoo is close to the coast and the winter months can be cold. Make sure you wrap up warm and wear flat shoes to get the most from your visit.

Midwinter at the burial mound, Sutton Hoo.
Midwinter at the burial mound, Sutton Hoo. | Source

Visiting The British Museum in London

Entry to The British Museum is still free in 2018, although a donation towards the upkeep of collections is requested from visitors.

It is open every day from 10:00 to 17:30 with a late-night opening until 20:30 on Fridays.

For up-to-date information about special events take a look at The British Museum website.

Replica of gold coins and ingots from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial. Were they a funeral offering to pay the ghostly oarsmen of the buried ship?
Replica of gold coins and ingots from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial. Were they a funeral offering to pay the ghostly oarsmen of the buried ship? | Source

History Brought to Life

If you have time, it is well worth visiting both Sutton Hoo in Suffolk and The British Museum in London. The archaeological site has a magical atmosphere with mist commonly shrouding the site in a half-light. The isolated location gives you a sense of what life would have been like in 7th century Britain.

The museum puts the finds into a broader context. The exhibits give more detail about individual artefacts found on-site. Anglo-Saxon metal and woodworking skills are described as well as the sources of gold and precious stones used in the decorative items.

Comments

Submit a Comment

  • Glenis Rix profile image

    GlenR 

    2 months ago from UK

    IA visit to Sutton Hoo has been at the back of my mind for a long time. I have family in Suffolk who have visited and were very impressed. Your article has added to the little bit of knowledge that I had about the site. Thank you.

  • CYong74 profile image

    Kuan Leong Yong 

    9 months ago from Singapore

    This would make for an interesting excursion! Definitely something different from the usual castles, countryside houses, etc.

  • Guckenberger profile image

    Alexander James Guckenberger 

    9 months ago from Maryland, United States of America

    I would love to visit such sites. I am part British by race, and I would like that sense of connection to my roots.

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