11.5: Sutton Hoo Ship Burial
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Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker provide a description, historical perspective, and analysis of the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial and objects found within.
Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, c. 700 (British Museum, London) Multiple bronze, gold and silver objects of Anglo Saxon origin, found in Suffolk, England, including a helmet, sceptre, sword, hanging bowl, bowls and spoons, shoulder clasps, a belt buckle, and purse lid.
Shortly before World War II, archaeologists uncovered a remarkable find in East Anglia: an apparently early seventh century grave monument made for an Anglo Saxon king. The monument was in the form of a long boat measuring approximately 86 feet. The absence of bones has led archaeologists to identify the monument as a cenotaph, or memorial. Scholars have long pointed to the parallels between this find and the following descriptions of funerary practices in the Old English poem Beowulf.
The following passage describes the funeral of Beowulf himself:
Then, on the headland, the Geats prepared a mighty pyre
for Beowulf, hung round with helmets and shields
and shining mail, in accordance with his wishes;
and then the mourning warriors laid
their dear lord, the famous prince upon it.
And there, on Whaleness, the heroes kindled
the most might of pyres; the dark wood-smoke
soared over the fire, the roaring flames
mingled with weeping—the winds’ tumult subsided—
until the body became ash, consumed even
to its core…
Then the Geats built a barrow on the headland—
it was high and broad, visible from far
to all seafarers; in ten days they built the beacon
for that courageous man; and they constructed
as noble an enclosure as wise men
could devise, to enshrine the ashes.
They buried rings and brooches in the barrow,
all those adornments that brave men
had brought out from the hoard after Beowulf died.
They bequeathed the gleaming gold, treasure of men,
to the earth, and there it was before.
Then twelve brave warriors, sons of heroes,
rode round the barrow, sorrowing;
they mourned their king, chanted
an elegy, spoke about that great man:
They exalted his heroic life, lauded
his daring deeds/
Thus the Geats, his hearth-companions,
grieved over the death of their lord;
they said that of all kings on earth
he was the kindest, the most gentle,
the most just to his people, the most eager for fame.
Included among the objects was a cloisonné purse. This purse contained avariety of coins that have allowed numismatists to date the monument tothe second quarter of the seventh century. The dating of the coins to about 625 have led scholars to propose the identification of the East Anglian king as Raedwald who died about 624 and 625.
Bede in his History of the English Church and People identifies Raedwaldas as the first East Anglian king to have converted to Christianity. This would be consistent with a pair of spoons found in the ship burial. One is inscribed with the name Saul and the other with Paul. These were apparently christening spoons referring to Saul who became Paul after his conversion to Christianity. What we know of Raedwald is that he subsequently relapsed into paganism and apparently kept shrines to both Christian and pagan dieties. Bede (History of the English Church and People, II, 15) presents the following account of Raedwald:
EDWIN was so zealous for the worship of truth, that he likewise persuaded Eorpwald, king of the East Saxons, and son of Redwald, to abandon his idolatrous superstitions, and with his whole province to receive the faith and sacraments of Christ. And indeed his father Redwald had long before been admitted to the sacrament of the Christian faith in Kent, but in vain; for on his return home, he was seduced by his wife and certain perverse teachers, and turned back from the sincerity of the faith; and thus his latter state was worse than the former; so that, like the ancient Samaritans, he seemed at the same time to serve Christ and the gods whom he had served before; and in the same temple he had an altar to sacrifice to Christ, and another small one to offer victims to devils.
Included in the treasure are some of the finest pieces of barbarian metalwork that have come down to us.