Sutton Hoo: Treasure Trove of Saxon Culture


At last we come to the famous Sutton Hoo burial site. Discovered in 1939, this burial site contains a wealth of information about Anglo-Saxon culture. Necklaces, helmets, shield mounts, coins, jewelry, eating utensils, and all manner of other symbols of Germanic living have been found at the site, at an estate near Woodbridge, in Suffolk. The site also contains a fully built wooden ship equipped for the afterlife. And, oddly enough, no body has been found in the ship.

The Sutton Hoo burial site fits in here because it is believed to be the grave of Raedwald, the first King of East Anglia and a bretwalda. Raedwald, you’ll remember, was an opportunistic king who played both sides of the Christianity coin, converting in Ethelbert’s footsteps and then “backsliding,” as it were, to please his pagan wife. Raedwald can also be remembered for causing the death of Aethelfrith of Bernicia and playing a large part in the ascension of Edwin to the throne of the newly created kingdom of Northumbria.

But what of Sutton Hoo? The ship itself is worthy of a few books’ worth of examination, which will be simplified here. The timbers have rotted away, but the shape of the ship has remained visible. It is thought that the ship was a long-bowed shape with plenty of rooms for oarsmen. Whether a sail was used is open to debate. Some archaeologists propose the hypothesis that this was one of the first ships to use sail and oars, but evidence to support that theory has not yet been found.

The ship is also illustrative of the burial practices of the Anglo-Saxons. In a certain way, the burial of a warlord in his ship is demonstrative of a belief not unlike the burial practices of the ancient Egyptians. Also similar is the presence of a large number of weapons and other personal things in the burial mound under which the ship was discovered.

Further, the excavations of the ship site have validated certain descriptions in the famous epic poem Beowulf, thus lending credence to historical importance of that work.

The rest of the artifacts give us quite a glimpse into the life of the Germanic tribes at that time. Because we have so few reliable written records covering that period, we are forced to rely on things like artifacts to complete an incomplete picture of life in those days. The uncovering of not only weapons and armor but also eating utensils and jewelry goes a long way toward improving our understanding of how these people lived and what they valued.

In the end, it might not matter whether Raedwald is buried there or even whether it was his ship. It might not matter whether the ship had oars and sail or just oars. What does matter is that this extremely significant and important archaeological find has given us a glimpse into the past that we didn’t have before. And such glimpses are always valuable in out pursuit of not only the past but also the present and future.