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Anglo-Saxon Portraits: King Raedwald

Sutton Hoo helmet at the British Museum

Anglo-Saxon Portraits: King Raedwald

By Martin Carver

Saxon, No.56 (2013)

Sutton Hoo helmet at the British Museum
Sutton Hoo helmet at the British Museum

Introduction: In the spring of 1939, a few months before the outbreak of World War 2, Mrs Edith Pretty, Suffolk landowner and Justice of the Peace, decided to open the largest of the earth mounds she could see from her bow window. She gave instructions to her archaeologist, Basil Brown, digger extraordinary. “How about this one?” she’d said to him and he’d agreed. John Jacobs, gardener and William Spooner, gamekeeper would make up the team. Basil’s method was essentially of the 19th century. “Stand on the ground at one side of the mound, dig down till you see the sand – that’s the natural subsoil hereabouts, then drive your trench straight through the mound at that level; half way across you should see the dark splodge of the burial pit. Then empty it”. This had always worked before. But this time there was a problem. On day two Jacobs held up a brown lump – “here’s a bit of iron,” he says. Basil looked at the rusty bar with a lump at each end and realised he’d seen this sort of thing before – only last year in fact – it was an iron rivet of the kind that the Saxons used to hold together a clinker-built timber ship.

Burials of ships were known in Scandinavia – where they were often well preserved – but in England they were, and are, incredibly rare. And they tend to disappear in the acid sand. But Basil was undeterred. Just because no timbers had survived, doesn’t mean there wasn’t a ship somewhere: the rivets will show you where. This was a stroke of genius. Every rusty rivet was dusted off and left in place. The trench went down and down as it neared the centre of the ship. Unsurprisingly, the trench fell in, but the valiant threesome shovelled on. After four weeks they could stand and look down at the lines of a ship 27m long. Amidships was a dark rectangle of peaty woody earth – “the chamber”, remarked Basil laconically to his diary, “where I expect the chief lies”.

Word got out, as it always does and soon arrived at that nodal point of archaeological gossip – the Department of Archaeology coffee room at Cambridge. On 8th July, Charles Phillips, a senior prehistorian arrived at Sutton Hoo, had his first sighting of the giant ship and exclaimed, “My godfathers”. It was a formidable challenge to any excavator and for the rest of the day he was heard to murmur, “Oh dear, oh dear”. Other senior figures mustered – Stuart Piggott, Peggy Guido, W. F. Grimes – and began to define the chamber: wood matting, then the glint of metal; green bronze, silver in a purple haze, then gold looking as good as new, and bright red garnets. In less than ten days the team unearthed Britain’s richest ever grave – 263 objects of gold, silver, bronze, iron, gems, leather, wood, textiles, feathers and fur, laid out in a wooden chamber at the centre of a buried ship. It was a sensation that attracted a police guard and an article in the Illustrated London News.

Click here to read this article from the Sutton Hoo Society



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