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Sutton Hoo at 80: How can you spot a rich Anglo-Saxon? Look at his waist

PUBLISHED: 19:42 29 July 2019 | UPDATED: 11:41 01 August 2019

The Sutton Hoo belt-buckle. Gold, hollow with cast ornament. Early 7th century. Picture: The Trustees of the British Museum

The Sutton Hoo belt-buckle. Gold, hollow with cast ornament. Early 7th century. Picture: The Trustees of the British Museum

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Unearthed Suffolk treasures swept away misconceptions and myths and changed our view of history

Sutton Hoo shoulder clasps. Gold, millefiori and garnets. Picture: The Trustees of the British MuseumSutton Hoo shoulder clasps. Gold, millefiori and garnets. Picture: The Trustees of the British Museum

Room 41. The British Museum in Great Russell Street, London. This gallery on the upper floor is devoted to Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300 to 1100. The Anglo-Saxon ship burial in Suffolk is the centrepiece - "one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries of all time", according to the museum.

Landowner Edith Pretty's 1939 gift to the nation is "remembered as the most generous donation made to the museum during the lifetime of the donor".

Why is it important?

"The Sutton Hoo ship burial transformed our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon period forever," says a British Museum spokesman.

"This era had always been contrasted with the Roman period that went before in Britain, and painted as somehow inferior and unsophisticated by comparison. But the Sutton Hoo discovery put paid to that misconception once and for all.

READ MORE: When Suffolk amazed the world with its treasures

The Sutton Hoo helmet Picture: BRITISH MUSEUMThe Sutton Hoo helmet Picture: BRITISH MUSEUM

"It confirmed that Anglo-Saxon England was a place of exceptional artistry, far-reaching international connections, complex beliefs and immense wealth and power - for some people in society at least.

"Newer discoveries like the Staffordshire Hoard and Prittlewell burial, as well as the many thousands of other finds found by metal detectorists and archaeologists in the 80 years since, have built upon this knowledge, creating a richer and more fascinating picture of this pivotal period in England's history.

"Sutton Hoo itself continues to expand our knowledge. Recent scientific research by the British Museum and the University of Aberdeen traced the source of bitumen found in the burial to the Middle East, while our own research on the sword from Sutton Hoo has suggested that its owner may have been left-handed, a very intimate detail that helps connect us with the past on a very human level."

All in all, the ship burial "shows that the world of great halls, glittering treasures and formidable warriors described in Anglo-Saxon poetry was not a myth".

Does Sutton Hoo still capture the public's imagination?

"Sutton Hoo is hugely popular with our visitors - gallery talks on the topic always receive the most attendees and the most questions afterwards.

"We always hear a lot of gasping when we describe how the gold and garnet metalwork was made, point out the many creatures on the great gold buckle, or decode the puzzling imagery of the helmet.

A reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo shield, using original gold, garnet, copper alloy and iron fittings and modern replica fittings, on a modern lime wood shield board. Early 7th century. Original was found in the Sutton Hoo ship-burial: Mound: 1. Picture: The Trustees of the British MuseumA reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo shield, using original gold, garnet, copper alloy and iron fittings and modern replica fittings, on a modern lime wood shield board. Early 7th century. Original was found in the Sutton Hoo ship-burial: Mound: 1. Picture: The Trustees of the British Museum

READ MORE: Will there be any more digs?

"Despite being on permanent display, the Sutton Hoo finds are available for researchers too, and some really interesting work has been done on them recently.

"The scientists working on the Staffordshire Hoard, which contains a lot of similar metalwork, analysed some of the Sutton Hoo gold jewellery in their research, which revealed that Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths were able to manipulate the alloy of their gold in order to enrich its lustre.

"Other researchers have recently looked at the leather shoes and embroidered clothing from the burial, items too delicate for permanent display but kept in our stores."

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Can Suffolk bank on more of the real treasures (not just replicas) making the trip up the A12 to go on show here?

"The museum and the National Trust at Sutton Hoo have a formal ongoing partnership which ensures that finds from the ship burial and wider site have been, and continue to be, displayed there regularly.

"The new exhibition hall at the National Trust" - opening next week - will showcase artefacts on loan from the British Museum, including the stunning contents of Mound 17, which contained a man buried as a warrior, along with a horse dressed in elaborate trappings.

"The National Trust and British Museum are committed to working together at Sutton Hoo and are planning further collaborations at the newly-refurbished site.

"We like to describe ourselves as telling two halves of the same story, and we will continue to find exciting ways of doing that in the years to come."

So tell us about some of the treasures…

Think of Sutton Hoo and that blank-eyed helmet with "eyebrows" and "nose" comes to mind. This Anglo-Saxon treasure has become the emblem of a historic Suffolk site that for centuries guarded its secrets.

It's more than just a piece of protective headwear, though.

The British Museum calls it one of the most important Anglo-Saxon finds of all time - the most elaborate of the four complete Anglo-Saxon helmets known so far.

It's made of iron, but covered with tinned copper alloy panels. Each shows a scene. For instance, there's a mounted warrior trampling a fallen foe who (and sorry about this) is in retaliation stabbing the horse.

Another scene shows warriors in horned headgear, dancing with spears and swords.

Those copper-alloy "eyebrows", meanwhile, are inlaid with garnets and silver wire. Each one ends with a gilded boar's head.

The face-mask, the British Museum website suggests, "is also a fierce flying creature: the eyebrows are its outspread wings, the nose its body, and the moustache its tail.

"The creature's head, extending between the eyebrows, meets the snout of a serpent that forms the low iron crest running over the helmet's cap."

And another…

The British Museum website has quite a lot about the gold belt buckle weighing nearly 413g.

"In early Anglo-Saxon England, buckles used to fasten waist-belts were a means of expressing a man's wealth and status," it explains. "The type of metal used and the fineness of decoration were key factors.

"This spectacular gold buckle from the Sutton Hoo ship burial shows that the person commemorated there was of great importance."

There's more to the buckle than you'd think. It's a hollow box that opens at the back, on a hinge. Its locking mechanism features a complex arrangement of sliders and internal rods.

The buckle is decorated with the images of 13 creatures.

"The plate and round-tongue shield feature writhing snakes and intertwining four-legged beasts. Their bodies are highlighted with punched ornament filled with black niello.

"Stylised snakes biting their own bodies slither on the loop, while at the tip of the buckle two animals grip a small dog-like creature in their jaws.

"These, together with the two fierce birds' heads on the buckle's shoulders, make this extraordinary object one of the most powerful images from early Anglo-Saxon England."

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