Identification, Geochemical Characterisation and Significance of Bitumen among the Grave Goods of the 7th Century Mound 1 Ship-Burial at Sutton Hoo (Suffolk, UK)
By Pauline Burger, Rebecca J. Stacey, Stephen A. Bowden, Marei Hacke and John Parnell
PLoS ONE, Vol.11:12 (2016)
Abstract: The 7th century ship-burial at Sutton Hoo is famous for the spectacular treasure discovered when it was first excavated in 1939. The finds include gold and garnet jewellery, silverware, coins and ceremonial armour of broad geographical provenance which make a vital contribution to understanding the political landscape of early medieval Northern Europe. Fragments of black organic material found scattered within the burial were originally identified as ‘Stockholm Tar’ and linked to waterproofing and maintenance of the ship.
Here we present new scientific analyses undertaken to re-evaluate the nature and origin of these materials, leading to the identification of a previously unrecognised prestige material among the treasure: bitumen from the Middle East. Whether the bitumen was gifted as diplomatic gesture or acquired through trading links, its presence in the burial attests to the far-reaching network within which the elite of the region operated at this time.
If the bitumen was worked into objects, either alone or in composite with other materials, then their significance within the burial would certainly have been strongly linked to their form or purpose. But the novelty of the material itself may have added to the exotic appeal. Archaeological finds of bitumen from this and earlier periods in Britain are extremely rare, despite the abundance of natural sources of bitumen within Great Britain. This find provides the first material evidence indicating that the extensively exploited Middle Eastern bitumen sources were traded northward beyond the Mediterranean to reach northern Europe and the British Isles.