As war loomed in the summer of 1939 archaeologists uncovered Britain’s richest Anglo-Saxon ship burial in the Suffolk countryside.
Sutton Hoo lies on an escarpment overlooking the river Deben in south-east Suffolk, in what was once the Kingdom of East Anglia. The site is dotted with burial mounds, at least 15 of them, which had long stirred the curiosity of landowner Mrs Edith Pretty. In 1938 she hired local archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate the site, little knowing the wonders that would soon be uncovered.
Excavating Sutton Hoo
Self-taught, Brown had a seemingly instinctive feel for archaeology. With the help of two of Mrs Pretty’s labourers, he worked on three mounds during the summer of 1938, Mounds 2, 3 and 4. They all showed signs of having been plundered at some point in the past, but Brown made enough finds – ship rivets, an axe head, iron knives, the tip of a sword blade – to confirm that the burial mounds of Sutton Hoo were of Anglo-Saxon date (sixth and seventh centuries).
Work began on Mound 1 in May 1939. When Brown uncovered ship rivet after ship rivet it was clear that Mound 1 was on an altogether different scale from the mounds excavated the previous year. More experienced archaeologists were called in from the British Museum, under the direction of Charles Phillips from Cambridge University, who began work in July.
Undisturbed Burial Chamber at Sutton Hoo
Every day brought a new discovery. There was an iron standard, reminiscent of a Roman standard, and a large, finely carved whetstone, both symbols of status; a large shield and a pattern-welded sword; gold and garnet shoulder-clasps; a gold belt buckle; ten silver bowls, many of them in pristine condition; and a scattering of iron sherds, remnants of the helmet which would become a symbol of the Sutton Hoo ship burial.
The site was beginning to attract attention, but unwanted intruders were kept at bay by two policemen, paid for by Mrs Pretty, who stood guard 24 hours a day.
Treasure Trove or Not Treasure Trove
An inquest was held in August 1939 to determine whether the find was Treasure Trove, and therefore belonged to the Crown. This ancient law held that, if someone had buried a treasure with the intention of coming back to retrieve it at some point, the treasure belonged to the Crown. The coroner decided that this case did not fit the definition as it was a burial, and there was thus no intent to retrieve the buried items, and awarded the treasure to Mrs Pretty.
Shortly afterwards Mrs Pretty, in an act of extraordinary generosity, gave the find to the British Museum, with the proviso that some of the finds be displayed at Sutton Hoo if possible.
The Sutton Hoo treasures spent the war safely hidden away in a disused London Underground train station. They then re-emerged to be conserved and studied, affording a rare glimpse into the world of the Anglo-Saxons of the seventh century. Today the main finds are on display in the Early Medieval Room of the British Museum.