This week in 1939, excavation began on a large burial mound in Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, England. The mound or barrow was one of several that were on the 255 acre property of Mrs. Edith Pretty, a widow and Spiritualist. She and her friends had reported seeing shadowy shapes drifting among the mounds and one friend had a vision of a ghostly young man on a horse. There were also the stories, told by the local people, of untold riches buried there. Curious, Mrs. Pretty contacted the Ipswich Museum and was put in touch with Mr. Basil Brown, a local, self-taught archaeologist, whom she hired to begin excavation of the mounds.
What Mr. Brown uncovered is one of the greatest archaeological and historical finds to date. A complete, untouched ship burial with treasures that indicated this was the burial site of a powerful man. Though the wooden ship and the body had long ago dissolved in the acidic soil, the shape of the ship, the rivets, and all the grave goods were present. The number and quality of the items found are astonishing. There are jeweled weapons, armor, personal adornments, silverware and kitchen equipment, and ceremonial items. A cloisonné purse containing 37 gold coins that dated to the 620’s led archaeologists and historians to conclude that the man buried here was Redwald, a powerful East Anglian king, the first of which we know more than just a name.
The descriptions of treasures, armor, and weapons in the epic story of Beowulf closely resemble those that were found at Sutton Hoo, leading historians to believe that the poem may be closer to 7th century reality than thought previously. This discovery is important for more than just its treasure; it changed the way the world thinks of the early medieval era. Those centuries were not only the “Dark Ages”, a morass of savagery and superstition; they were also a time of exploration, creativity, trade, and learning.
The helm found in the burial has become the face of the Anglo-Saxons and of Sutton Hoo itself, gracing book covers, documentaries, postage stamps, and the Internet. It is an image that evokes many emotions: curiosity, fear, wonder, awe. Though the treasure was ruled as belonging solely to Mrs. Pretty as the landowner, she generously donated all of it to the British Museum, for the nation to share. The land itself was later donated to the National Trust and is now open for visitors. To delve deeper into the mysteries of the Dark Ages, the epic battles and royal treasures, look up some of the resources below to learn more!
~Stephanie, Lincoln Park