Sutton Hoo: Inside an Early English Ship Burial

In 1939, archaeologists in Suffolk, England discovered the remains of a medieval English ship burial. Its contents revolutionized perceptions of early English history.

Mar 9, 2024By Rachel Sweeney, MA Art History, BA History & Art History

sutton hoo early english ship burial


In 1937, an English landowner named Edith Pretty approached a historian local to her home in Suffolk, England about excavating a series of mounds on her land that were a short distance away from her home. The historian, Vincent B. Redstone, visited the site with a curator from the Ipswich Museum, Guy Maynard, and the two determined that the mounds should be excavated. Archaeologist Basil Brown was assigned to the project, and in 1939, unearthed what has been referred to as the most spectacular surviving display of early English artistry from the period.


Who Were the Early English?

Early English warriors depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, c. 11th century, England. Source: Bayeux Museum


The phrase “Early English” refers to the people commonly known as the Anglo-Saxons, though recent scholarly debate has encouraged a rejection of the latter terminology in favor of the former. The early English were a broad cultural group composed of the people individually known as the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. The exact ancestry of this cultural group is somewhat unclear, but the current consensus is that they migrated to Britain from northern Europe around the 5th century. At this point, they encountered a quickly dissipating Roman Britain and the indigenous British population, often conflated with the Celtic Britons.


What became the early English people came from an amalgamation of these interactions and the steady invasion of the island by the Germanic Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. These peoples settled and established kingdoms that were often at war with one another.


Historically, the “Anglo-Saxon Period” refers to the period from about 450-1066 CE, from the initial Germanic invasions to the Norman conquest in 1066. For most of this period, there were seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms spread across Britain known as the Heptarchy: East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, Kent, Essex, Sussex, and Wessex.

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The 9th-century Viking invasions upset the balance of power among these kingdoms and King Æthelstan’s reconquest led to the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into one “England” in the 10th century. England remained under the control of the Anglo-Saxons until William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, launched an invasion in 1066 to claim the throne. This, in turn, led to the defeat of the Anglo-Saxon King Harold and the transfer of power to the Normans.


What Is a Ship Burial?

Photo of the Sutton Hoo ship excavation, 1939, Source: National Historic Ships


A ship burial is an earthly inhumation in which a ship or boat is used as the tomb for the deceased and their grave goods. The site at Sutton Hoo contained about twenty barrows, or burial mounds under which the deceased were laid to rest with their grave goods, either via inhumation or cremation. Due to the nature of these graves, archaeologists have assumed that the individuals buried under the mounds were members of the elite class. The magnificent Sutton Hoo ship burial was discovered under a mound designated as Mound 1. The form of the ship was perfectly preserved in the earth: though almost none of the original wood survived, nearly all the ship’s iron rivets were in their original place.


The site at Sutton Hoo is located close to the River Deben, which would have been a valuable resource for transportation and trade during the Early English Period. The river would have aided in getting the ship to the site for the construction of the burial, as the ship would have been transported up the river and then dragged onto land from there. The mound also originally had an unobstructed view of the river, meaning that all frequent passersby would be confronted with the burial as a symbol of power and prestige.


The religious atmosphere in early England may have also contributed to the nature of this burial and the contents within, which will be discussed below. Archaeologists have dated the ship burial to the early 7th century when the early English people were on the brink of conversion from Paganism to Christianity. The objects in the ship represent just that: there are Christian objects positioned alongside objects with traditionally pagan motifs. Historians have suggested that the burial represents this transitional time, signifying change but also employing a pagan rhetoric that would be readily understandable in the Christian era that followed.


The Contents of the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

Sutton Hoo purse lid, early 7th century CE, Suffolk, England. Source: The British Museum


Upon excavating the Mound 1 ship burial at Sutton Hoo, archaeologists uncovered a great number of objects. Some objects are believed to have originally been hung up or leaned along the walls in the interior of the ship, while others were found as if they were arranged around the body of the individual that had been buried there.


Most of the objects arranged as if they were around the body are believed to have been his personal accouterments. It is these objects that are often regarded as the most magnificent, and that are attributed almost entirely to local craftsmen in East Anglia. The most famous of these objects include the Sutton Hoo helmet, purse lid, shoulder-clasps, and belt buckle.


A stylistic analysis of these objects suggests that they were locally made — and that they were, in fact, prime examples of what is known as “Animal Style II” interlace, in British insular art — but also that they were influenced by Swedish stylistic trends of the time. Ship burials were not common in England, though they were common in Scandinavia, and the site is comparable to at least two examples in early medieval Sweden.


The helmet, in particular, looks similar to helmets from the Vendel period in Sweden. The most likely explanation for these stylistic similarities is that the Wuffingas, the ruling dynasty of East Anglia, were Swedish in origin. That the most magnificent objects from the burial would have been locally produced makes sense; while the burial would honor the deceased and the prosperity that they brought to the region, locally produced goods suggest both the individual’s pride in their kingdom and evidence of that prosperity.


Sutton Hoo shoulder-clasps, early 7th century CE, Suffolk, England, Source: The British Museum


In addition to the more famous objects listed above, metalwork artifacts like weaponry and drinking vessels were found alongside the body. Certain small personal effects — like a comb and gaming pieces — were also discovered. Several other objects were used to furnish the grave.


These included early English instruments, Celtic hanging bowls, Frankish coins, Byzantine silverware, a bronze bowl that was either Coptic or Eastern Mediterranean in origin, and textiles that resemble contemporary Scandinavian examples, but utilize Syrian weaving techniques. This amalgamation of goods, some of which referenced pagan symbolism and some that were clearly Christian, suggests that the kingdom of East Anglia was remarkably well connected with the continent, and with empires near and far.


Who Was Buried There? 

Modern reconstructive illustration of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, Source: The Times


It is not known with certainty who was buried in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo. The most widely accepted assumption is that the grave belonged to Rædwald, an East Anglian king who lived from c. 546-624 CE.


Historians have based this assumption on the nature of the objects. The fact that they are so spectacular indicates that the burial was for an incredibly important figure. A rough dating of the objects, and the fact that Rædwald was the first Anglo-Saxon king to convert to Christianity, which is represented by the dually Pagan and Christian nature of the burial, also points to the king. That the deceased was an important figure is also supported by the nature of the burial itself: it would have taken many people putting in great effort to drag the ship from the river, through the mud, and up a hill to be buried, and the burial’s sheer size and splendor would have necessitated a community effort to dig and dedicate it.


Unfortunately, no body was found inside the burial that could help to determine the identity of its occupant. During the initial excavations, the lack of a body led to speculation that the burial was a cenotaph, or an empty tomb or monument for a person whose remains are elsewhere. Because the objects of regalia were arranged as they would have been worn on a body, however, historians determined that it was more likely that the acidity of the soil caused the body to dissolve over time.


Occasionally historians suggest options other than Rædwald, such as his son Eorpwald of East Anglia, but Rædwald remains the most popular guess. Ultimately, some have suggested that it does not really matter, and that what we have learned about early England from the burial outweighs the need to determine who it was for.


The 20th Century Dig

Photograph of the excavations at Sutton Hoo, originally captured by Barbara Wagstaff, 1939, Source:


As mentioned previously, English landowner Edith Pretty initiated an excavation of the Sutton Hoo mounds in the late 1930s. The primary archaeologist on the site was Basil Brown, a self-taught archaeologist. Brown began by excavating Mounds 2-4 in 1938, and when it became clear that objects of significance were buried within them, the Ipswich Museum became more involved in the excavations. Any objects unearthed at that point became part of the Ipswich Museum’s collections.


In 1939, Brown uncovered the ship burial at Mound 1. Shortly after the Mound 1 excavations began, archaeologist Charles Phillips caught wind of them. Phillips initiated conversations between the Ipswich Museum and the British Museum and, due to his experience as an archaeologist, he took over as the leading archaeologist on the burial chamber. At that point, the site and its objects became the responsibility of the British Museum. When WWII broke out in 1939 the objects were put in storage for safekeeping. The objects were publicly displayed for the first time in 1946.


The public response was overwhelming. British newspapers had a field day with the discoveries, and the public interest in coverage of the Sutton Hoo finds lasted for over a decade after their initial excavation. The Illustrated London News stated that “no archaeological discovery in Great Britain of recent years has proved more stimulating to the public imagination than the excavation on the estate of Mrs. E.M. Pretty,” and that the belt buckle itself was “one of the finest gold buckles ever found in Britain” (1946, May 4). The finds were called “astounding,” “a truly astonishing collection,” “wonderful,” and “remarkable.”


What Does the Sutton Hoo Burial Signify About Early England?

Sutton Hoo belt buckle, early 7th century CE, Suffolk, England, Source: The British Museum


The artifacts discovered at Sutton Hoo present a spectacular example of early English craftsmanship. Their discovery aided in the development of knowledge about artisans in East Anglia during this period: both through their use of Style II interlace, and through the techniques required to achieve the effects on some of the artifacts. The belt buckle, for example, was made using a niello inlay, or a black inlay in metalwork consisting of silver, copper, and lead. The contrast achieved by this technique allows for the delicate interlace (otherwise most often seen in illuminated manuscripts) to be utilized on the much thicker medium of metalwork.


Detail of the reconstructed Sutton Hoo helmet, early 7th century CE, Suffolk, England, Source: Visit Suffolk


The most important contribution that the Sutton Hoo finds made was to challenge the previously accepted belief that this period in English history was a Dark Age. Between the sophisticated craftsmanship evident in the locally produced objects, the clear Scandinavian influence in the objects and ship burial itself, and the inclusion of objects from faraway lands, the burial shows just how advanced this culture was. The objects revealed the artisan’s skill and reflected advancements made in the development of the insular art style. The combination of pagan and Christian objects signifies the complexity of navigating a period of religious conversion. Lastly, the use of objects from Francia and the Eastern Mediterranean shows not only that the East Anglian king was worldly but evidence of complex trade networks and the interconnected nature of Britain with the continent at the time.




1946, May 4. Illustrated London News. P. 175.

Bruce-Mitford, R. 1968. The Sutton Hoo ship-burial: a handbook. Trustees of the British Museum.

Carver, M. 2000. Burial as Poetry: the context of treasure in Anglo-Saxon Graves. In E. Tyler (Ed.), Treasure in the Medieval West (pp. 25-48), York Medieval Press.

Lethbridge, T.C. 1948. Sutton Hoo. Archaeology, 1(1), 8-12.

Oddy, W. A., Bimson, M., & La Niece, S. (1983). The Composition of Niello Decoration on Gold, Silver and Bronze in the Antique and Mediaeval Periods. Studies in Conservation, 28(1), 29–35.

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By Rachel SweeneyMA Art History, BA History & Art HistoryRachel holds an MA in Art History, a dual-degree BA in History and Art History, and a certificate in Medieval Studies. Her research so far has focused on Celtic art and early medieval art of Ireland and the British Isles.