When the Dark Ages Were Lit Up: The Sutton Hoo discovery 70 years on
Alex Burghart (King’s College – London)
BBC History Magazine May (2009)
1939 was a good year, for anglo-saxon history at least. In 1938, edith Pretty, owner of sutton Hoo House in suffolk, had commissioned a local archaeologist, Basil Brown, to investigate the huge tumulus on her land. Brown did not do as he was asked. on examining it he saw that a trench had been dug into its centre, assumed it to have been robbed and moved on to the smaller surrounding tumuli. Having found next to nothing, in the following year he returned his attention to his original subject. He quickly unearthed rivets in rows, and as the outline of a boat slowly emerged it became apparent that the earlier grave robbers had ceased their digging just inches short of a burial hoard of unexampled beauty. while the wood of the ship and the flesh of the man had dissolved in the acidic suffolk soil, the gold, silver and iron of his wealth remained for his excavators to gawp at.
For the first time, indeed for the only time, historians had a chance to see the sort of objects that a great man of the seventh century had in his hall. From a range of ornate war gear – a sword, an axe- hammer, a huge circular shield decorated with wild animals, a coat of mail, a collection of spears – to auspicious displays of wealth – a silver dish three-quarters of a metre in diameter, a complex buckle wrought from pure gold, fine shoulder clasps – to feasting equipment – a cauldron, drinking horns, a lyre – the man had all he needed to live in eternity as he had on earth. His boat was pointing west and in his purse were 40 gold pieces, one for each of the ghostly oarsmen who would row him to the other place.