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A mound at Sutton Hoo

Sutton Hoo Facts for Kids

Much of what we now know about the Anglo-Saxons comes from one major discovery at Sutton Hoo...


Not long before the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939, a woman called Edith Pretty became intrigued by several large mounds, or small hills, on her land in Suffolk. She asked a local archaeologist, Basil Brown, to excavate some of them to see if there was anything of interest buried within.

A large mound at the Sutton Hoo site
One of the larger mounds at the Sutton Hoo site

 

He began with one of the smaller mounds, but didn’t find much of interest. At Edith’s request, Basil moved onto one of the larger mounds. There, he found one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century - a huge wooden ship had once been buried under the earth. The wood had long since rotted away, but a clear impression of its shape was still left in the soil. It was 27 metres long!

Sutton Hoo iron rivet holes in the soil
The rows of holes in the soil are made by the iron rivets that would have held the pieces of wood together.

 

Now recognised as a significant find, other archaeologists, including Charles Phillips, joined the excavation. As they dug further, they discovered that a hut had been built in the middle of the ship. Inside, they found a coffin and many other items, including armour, weapons, ornaments, jewellery, silver and gold tableware, musical instruments and gold coins! Altogether, 263 objects were unearthed. However, there was no sign of a body... 

 

At first, it was thought that the ship and coffin were a cenotaph (an empty tomb made in honour of a person whose remains are elsewhere). However, the widely held belief now is that, due to the acidic soil in the area, the bones had dissolved over time. But without a body, how can we tell who was buried there?

 

We can gain many clues from the items that were found within the hut, or burial chamber:

  • The armour and weapons tell us that the person was a man
  • The gold objects and jewellery suggest that this man was very wealthy
  • The standard and sceptre found hint that he was important and powerful
  • The coins found can be dated c.613 CE onwards, suggesting the person died not before this approximate date.

 

Many experts today have come to the conclusion that the person buried within the ship was King Raedwald, the ruler of East Anglia from c.599 until his death c.624 CE. However, it is unlikely that we will ever know for certain.

Sutton Hoo iron helmet replica
A replica of the iron helmet found at the Sutton Hoo site.

 

The items uncovered at Sutton Hoo not only tell us about the person they were buried with, but about the Anglo-Saxons as a people. Prior to the excavation, the Anglo-saxon period was viewed as ‘a dark age’ and the people of the time unsophisticated. However, the quality and craftsmanship of the objects found show that they were a highly-skilled, well-travelled and cultured society.

 

More Interesting Facts:

  • Edith Pretty donated all 263 objects from the excavation to the British Museum, where you can still see them today.
  • At the onset of World War 2 in September 1939, the objects from Sutton Hoo were stored safely in a disused London underground tunnel. 
  • One of the most spectacular finds from the Sutton Hoo excavation was an ornate iron helmet. Unfortunately, it had broken and was in over 100 pieces when found. It took many years of painstaking work to restore the helmet, and it is now one of the most famous pieces from the dig.
  • Some of the objects found in the Sutton Hoo ship burial came from all over the world, indicating that the Anglo-saxons travelled to, received visitors from, and traded with many countries.
  • Basil Brown was not the first person to explore the mounds. There is evidence that, during the Tudor period, many of them were crudely excavated by robbers in the hope of finding valuable objects to profit from.
  • Since 1939, the mounds have been revisited by archaeologists a number of times. In 1991, the graves of a warrior and his horse were uncovered in one of them. Thieves had previously attempted to rob the grave, but they had dug straight down into the middle of the mound, and missed the two graves, which were positioned either side of the centre.

 

If you would like to find out more about the Anglo-Saxon period, have a look at PlanBee’s two History schemes: Anglo-Saxons, Picts and Scots for Year 3/4, and Vikings vs Anglo-Saxons for Y5/6.

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