10 Discoveries from Sutton Hoo’s Anglo-Saxon Ship Burial

At the end of the 1930s, an Anglo-Saxon ship burial emerged from a mound in Suffolk. The rich assortment of medieval grave goods offered valuable insights into the Anglo-Saxon world.

Mar 19, 2024By Rachel Morgan, MA Medieval Archaeology, BA History & Anthropology
sutton hoo discoveries


Edith Pretty, one of England’s first female magistrates, owned a huge estate in south-east Suffolk known as Sutton Hoo. Pretty had been aware for some time that there was something intriguing about her Suffolk estate. Round mounds of earth loomed across it and in 1937, she decided the time had come to learn something about them. She contacted the Ipswich Museum, hoping to find a professional to excavate the mounds. The museum sent amateur archaeologist Basil Brown to Mrs. Pretty’s estate. Shortly thereafter, Brown began excavating, eventually uncovering the Anglo-Saxon world of Sutton Hoo.


1. The Sutton Hoo Mounds

aerial view sutton hoo mounds
Aerial overview of the Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Sutton Hoo. Source: British Museum


It took nearly two years from the time of Mrs. Pretty’s initial invitation to Brown to find the riches of Sutton Hoo. The Anglo-Saxons had created an eye-catching burial ground along the River Deben. It would have caught the attention of medieval travelers and it continued to intrigue twentieth-century passersby.


Seventeen or eighteen burial mounds stood within the burial ground of Sutton Hoo. Mounds and other earthen monuments have a long tradition in cultures around the globe; thus, Brown had no way of knowing who built them as he began his exploration. Erosion had reduced some of the mounds over time and as he began excavating the mounds, Brown found that looters had robbed and damaged many of the monuments as well. Thus, his initial investigations revealed little about the Anglo-Saxons of Sutton Hoo, and the first season of excavations ended without any sparkling discoveries.


In 1939, at Mrs. Pretty’s direction, Brown began excavating the largest of the monuments, known as Mound 1. On day three of the excavations of Mound 1, one of Brown’s assistants discovered an iron rivet. All work stopped as Brown explored the area cautiously. They began digging more carefully and made the biggest discovery of the excavation yet. The rivet came from a ship.


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Brown and his assistants found the outline of a ship by tediously tracing iron rivets under the mound. The ship measured approximately 27 meters (88 feet) long. It was a magnificent discovery, proof of the mound’s significance, and only a taste of what was to come.


2. The Ship

sutton hoo ship
Excavation of the Sutton Hoo Ship. Source: Suffolk News


The Sutton Hoo ship was a rowing ship. Since the burial of the ship, acidic soils had eroded away all the wood, but Brown’s careful excavations preserved the outline of the ship. Examination of the ship revealed that it had been built in the clinker tradition. The clinker construction technique was used by ship builders across Europe for centuries before the Sutton Hoo mounds were erected. With this technique, builders worked from the outside in. They fused the stem and stern posts first. Then the ship sides were installed plank by plank. Nails were driven into the planks to hold them in place. The final step was to install the ship’s internal framing. As yet, the Sutton Hoo ship from Mound 1 is the largest clinker ship ever found.


3. Shoulder Clasps

Shoulder clasps excavated from Mound 1 of Sutton Hoo, 7th century. Source: British Museum


The first confirmation of the potential burial of a person within the ship came in the form of two pieces of jewelry. Beneath the mound, archaeologists discovered what they thought were “armlets.” Today, archaeologists consider these artifacts to be shoulder clasps. The clasps were crafted from gold, millefiori glass, and garnet in the cloisonné style. The intricately decorated pieces of jewelry depicted two boars. After removing them from the earth, Brown entrusted the shoulder clasps to Mrs. Perry for safe keeping. She stored them under her bed for want of a museum.


4. Gold

sutton hoo purse lid
Purse lid excavated from Mound 1 of Sutton Hoo, 7th century. Source: British Museum


More gilded finds soon followed. Within the ship, archaeologists quickly found a wealth of exciting artifacts. One object was a purse lid. It would have been fitted to a leather pouch and hung from the waist. This purse lid was richly designed in white, gold, and garnets. Animals were depicted on the lid of the purse.


On its own the purse lid was impressive, but archaeologists were even more surprised by what lay inside the purse. Inside the purse, archaeologists made a discovery that would help them begin to piece together the chronology of Sutton Hoo. Thirty-seven gold coins, three blank coins, and two ingots emerged from the purse. The coins came from Francia.


By analyzing the style and mint dates of the coins, archaeologists soon determined that the Sutton Hoo burial had to date to the early seventh century, approximately 610-635 CE. Now scholars could begin to consider who might have been buried in Mound 1. One early candidate was Raedwald, king of East Anglia from approximately 599-625 CE. The name of his queen has not survived.


A member of the Wuffingas family, Raedwald faced a conundrum familiar to many medieval rulers: whether to convert to Christianity or maintain his pagan faith. If Raedwald or his queen were buried at Sutton Hoo, it would seem they chose not to enter the afterlife in the Christian faith.


5. Whetstone 

whetstone and sceptre
The whetstone and scepter recovered from the Sutton Hoo burial, Mound 1, 7th century. Source: British Museum


Whetstones were common during the Medieval Period. They were used for sharpening tools such as swords or axes. It is unclear if the Sutton Hoo whetstone was a functional tool or a decorative item. The middle portion of the whetstone was a smooth bar that could have been useful for sharpening, but both ends of the whetstone were decorated with human faces. Archaeologists also found a ring with a stag attached. At first, they thought it was most logical that the stag was attached to a helmet, but there was really no physical evidence to support this theory. Next, archaeologists theorized that the stag belonged on top of the standard, but the placement of the stag there proved awkward.


It took some time, but eventually, archaeologists assessed the possibility of the whetstone and the stag. Chemical and physical analysis showed that the two artifacts were a perfect pair. Archaeologists now believe that together the whetstone and stag formed a scepter fit for a mighty Anglo-Saxon ruler to hold high above the people of Sutton Hoo.


6. Drinking Horns from Sutton Hoo

drinking horns
Reconstructed drinking horns from Mound 1 of Sutton Hoo. Source: British Museum


Among the overwhelming glitter and gold, archaeologists found more common artifacts such as drinking vessels. During the Anglo-Saxon period, drinking vessels were commonly made of wood.


Wooden drinking vessels were recovered from the Sutton Hoo burials, but there were also silver drinking vessels and drinking horns. Archaeologists determined that the drinking horns had been crafted from the horns of aurochs. This species of wild cattle is now extinct. Thus, the drinking horns offer a glimpse of an Anglo-Saxon world very different from the twenty-first century.


7. The Sword

Pieces of the sword harness excavated from Sutton Hoo, 7th century. Source: British Museum


As excavations continued, archaeologists also discovered weaponry. Along with other finds, the weapons in the Sutton Hoo burial would lend credence to the idea that this was the burial of a great warrior. One of the most iconic weapons discovered in the Sutton Hoo burial was a sword with a gold and garnet cloisonne pommel.


Archaeologists have discovered other swords throughout the medieval world, but the intricacy of the sword’s décor was unique. Equally eye-catching was the sword harness which was decorated with garnets as well. Had the Sutton Hoo warrior never set foot on the battlefield, the individual’s armor alone would have marked them as a high-status, wealthy, and important member of Anglo-Saxon society.


The sword was discovered on what would have been the right-hand side of the buried person. Additional analysis by archaeologists has revealed wear patterns suggesting the owner of the sword wore the weapon on the right side but used the sword with his left hand. Archaeologists speculate that being a left-handed medieval warrior may have carried advantages, as opponents would have been more used to deflecting attacks from the right hand. Does this begin to explain the riches of the Sutton Hoo burial? Could the warrior’s left hand have given a battlefield advantage that created a reputation for military prowess and the consolidation of immense power and status? This explanation is possible, but the person buried at Sutton Hoo likely had more than a left hand to thank for the extraordinary burial in medieval Suffolk.


8. A Shield

sutton hoo shield reconstruction
Shield reconstructed from the remains of Mound 1 of Sutton Hoo. Source: British Museum


The Sutton Hoo warrior was buried with a defensive weapon as well. Archaeologists found remnants of a shield in the burial that was just as intricately crafted as the sword. The British Museum retains the shield replicated from the finds. The board of the shield consists of modern lime wood and is decorated with gold, garnet, copper alloy, and iron fittings. Animal heads trace the rim of the shield, while birds and a dragon also decorate the shield. It is unclear if the shield was used in battle, but it was certainly designed to project powerful imagery.


9. A Lyre

broken lyre sutton hoo
Sutton Hoo Lyre, 7th century. Source: British Museum


Much of the assemblage excavated from Mound 1 of Sutton Hoo was fragmented. Archaeologists worked through trial and error to interpret the artifacts. Twisted maple wood fragments, found in Mound 1, had holes bored into them. Archaeologists suspected that the wooden fragments formed a musical instrument. At first, scholars settled on a harp, but reconstruction of the harp from the maple wood left much to be desired. Taking a closer look, archaeologists determined that the wood fragments were in fact remnants of a lyre. As technological innovations allowed archaeologists to interrogate the past in more creative ways, scholars gained new insight into the lyre. Hairs attached to the lyre were linked to beavers’ fur, suggesting a beaver case had once kept the lyre safe.


10. The Sutton Hoo Helmet 

sutton hoo helmet
Sutton Hoo helmet, photo by Geni. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Inside the ship’s burial chamber, archaeologists found an object wrapped in cloth. When they unwrapped the object, they found hundreds of fragments of corroded iron that made up the Sutton Hoo helmet. The helmet could have been worn, but like the sword, it was also an exquisite piece of metalworking. A dragon is central to the design with the eyebrows of the facemask serving as wings and the mustache working as the beast’s tail.


While archaeologists uncovered a rich array of grave goods in the Sutton Hoo ship burial, they did not recover everything the Anglo-Saxons buried in the mound. The body of the person buried in the grave had rotted away due to the highly acidic nature of the soil. A great deal of mystery surrounds who was buried at Sutton Hoo, though the grave goods attest to a person of great wealth and status. In the absence of a body, the Sutton Hoo helmet has gained a persona of its own, becoming the iconic face of the richest burial in early medieval Europe.

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By Rachel MorganMA Medieval Archaeology, BA History & AnthropologyRachel Morgan is an archaeologist interested in material culture studies, small finds, regulatory compliance, and conflict archaeology. She holds a MA in Medieval Archaeology from the University of York and a BA in History and Anthropology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.