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The discovery of a burial ship and its treasures just before World War II was the archaeological find of the century, being the most important medieval grave ever unearthed in Europe. As told in the film, The Dig, the landowner handed over all of the contents to the British Museum, making it one of the most generous gifts that the museum has ever received. These objects are on display in the museum in London, which is free for all to visit.

People looking into a display case
Part of the Sutton Hoo display in the British Museum

Sutton Hoo is a coastal site in Suffolk on the east coast of England, where the most incredible discovery was made. Landowner Mrs Edith Pretty asked local archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate some unusual mounds on her land, and he unearthed the imprint of a huge, 27 foot long wooden ship which had been buried under the largest of the mounds.

A black and white photo of the dig at Sutton Hoo
The discovery of the ship in 1939

Although the wood had eroded to nothing, the imprint and iron rivets remained. Within the centre of the ship, they discovered a chamber filled with treasures, showing that this was a very high status burial, probably that of a king.

The burial took place around 600AD, when England was separate Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and King Raedwald was King of the East Anglian tribes.

Chemical analysis showed that there had been a body in the boat, but it had disappeared over the centuries in the acidic soil. The grave goods show that it was clearly a very high status individual, and it is widely assumed to be the burial of Raedwald himself. The famous Sutton Hoo Helmet which was found in the ship is a major clue towards this, as in the 6th century helmets were only worn by royalty.

The helmet is a stunning item and has become widely recognisable as the face of Anglo-Saxon England. It is on display in the museum, the first thing you see as you walk into Room 41 where the collection is kept, and it looks quite menacing with its empty, hooded eyes.

Other objects on display include some incredible silverware from the Byzantine Empire. Anglo Saxons tended to use wood or horn for their dining sets, so these would have been a significant status symbol, showing his great wealth as well as the fact that he had good connections, as these would have been acquired through gifts from other high status individuals.

Three silver bowls in a display case
Some of the silver bowls, in immaculate condition

The collection includes silver bowls which were found stacked together upside-down as a set of ten, near the head of the deceased. The crosses on the bowls are believed to be of significance and representing the new religion which was sweeping the country - Christianity. The two silver spoons which accompanied them were engraved with the names of two saints, Saul and Paul, and these are also on display.

We may accept the spoons without hesitation as a present for a convert—not a Christening gift for an infant, but as a gift intended to mark the baptism of an adult convert relinquishing his pagan state, ... no doubt a royal convert.

Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, Vol. XXV, 1949

A large silver platter
The huge silver platter, a major status symbol

There was also a large silver platter, known as the Anastasius Platter. This is one of the largest to ever survive from this time period. It measures 72cm across and weighs 5.6kg.

Large silver platters like this were the centrepiece of dinner parties in the Byzantium Empire. The back of this is stamped with the mark of Emperor Anastasius I who reigned from 491 to 518 in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

This platter would have already been 100 years old when it was buried with the King, and its ownership would have been a strong indicator of his wealth, power and status. The burial also contained three hanging bowls, again a highly prized item amongst the Saxons. The hanging bowls are Celtic in origin, and were probably used for hand washing. The bowls in the grave had clearly been repaired several times, meaning that they were highly cherished possessions to their owner.

Other spectacular finds include a purse lid which would have had a leather back, long since rotted away. It was made of gold, garnets and glass with designs of birds and geometric patterns. Gold shoulder clasps are also inlaid with garnets and match a gold buckle and strap fittings which would have been attached to a leather strap to carry his swords and the purse. There is a stunning gold brooch which looks unbelievably new, and 37 Frankish gold coins which were inside the purse, each made at a different mint.

There are the remains of cauldrons and the chains they hung on, ivory drinking horns, maple wood bottles and flasks which contained mead and ale, an iron lamp which still contains beeswax and a wick, a set of eight walnut drinking cups with silver rims, a shield and swords.

At the bottom of the written descriptions of each item, in small lettering, are the words

Donated by Mrs. Edith M. Pretty 1939

that huge act of generosity reduced to a small footnote. Fortunately, thanks to The Dig, she has become more of a household name, her kindness now widely recognised. If you want to learn more about her and the story behind the discovery, a visit to Sutton Hoo is a must. Open to the public, you can walk around her house, amongst the mounds, and see the museum filled with replicas of the grave goods, as well as some originals, putting them all into a context that the British Museum just doesn't have the space for.


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