Sutton Hoo


Sutton Hoo is a group of seventeen certainly identified burial mounds of the 6th-7th century, overlooking the River Deben and the town of Woodbridge in Suffolk.

Mound 1 was excavated in the early summer of 1939, initially by Basil Brown from Ipswich Museum, for the landowner Mrs Edith Pretty. He uncovered the remains of a ninety-foot long, clinker-built wooden ship of the 7th century, outlined by its iron rivets in the sand.

It contained a fabulously rich burial, generally taken to be that of Raedwald, leader of the Wuffing dynasty of the East Angles, dated to c.625 A.D. The dig was completed under the direction of Charles Phillips, and the finds were given to the nation by Mrs Pretty, for conservation by the British Museum. The previous year, Brown had excavated Mound 2, where a scatter of rivets indicated a slightly earlier ship burial, already roughly investigated in 1860.

Between 1965 and 1967, the Mound 1 ship trench was re-excavated by Rupert Bruce-Mitford, Keeper of Medieval and Later Antiquities in the British Museum. He finally lifted all the ship's rivets, so the fabric of Mound 1 itself could be excavated by Paul Ashbee between 1967 and 1971. Bruce-Mitford then edited the three huge volumes of The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial (British Museum 1975, -78 and -83).

right: The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial

A specially created Sutton Hoo Research Committee ran a new campaign from 1983-2001, under the direction of Martin Carver, Professor of Archaeology at the University of York (1986-2008). Fieldwork between 1986 and 1992 saw the re-excavation of mound 2, as well as the complete excavation of mounds 5 and 6, 14, 17 and 18.


Above: Arial views of the Sutton Hoo burial site. Left shows the mounds in the foreground. Right shows the site during the 1980s excavations.

Carver discovered thirty-nine burials, some appearing as 'sand bodies', all interpreted as execution burials of probably the 8th-11th centuries. They were grouped around Mound 5 and separately around the post-holes of a probable gallows at the nearby eastern edge of the cemetery.

Over on its western edge he identified Mound 17. This revealed the remains of 'the Sutton Hoo prince', a high-born young man in his twenties with fragments of his coffin, sword and shield, and also the skeleton of his horse, with substantial pieces of a leather bridle, an iron snaffle bit and gilt-bronze ornaments (c.600-620).


left: the remains of 'the Sutton Hoo prince'.




In 2000, a rescue dig examined the footprint of the planned National Trust Visitor Centre, revealing nineteen inhumations and seventeen early Anglo-Saxon cremations. This site (known as the Tranmer House cemetery) lies 500 metres north of the main Sutton Hoo site and is thought to be slightly earlier in date.

The eastern half of the site contained little apart from modern pits for tree-planting and ditches of prehistoric Iron Age field system (previously identified during an earlier archaeological evaluation).

When work began on the western half of the site, the first of eight Anglo-Saxon ring-ditches was identified. The diameter of the ring-ditches varied between 2 and 4 metres - the ditches themselves were rarely wider than 30cms and often displayed near vertical sides, resembling 'slot' ring ditches, rarely found in this country, but more common on the continent. The 'slots' were originally dug to hold some sort of structure, but at Sutton Hoo no sign of posts or beams was found. At least 3 of the ring-ditches contained a significant amount of burnt bone deposit which suggests they may have been backfilled with pyre material at their creation.

Above, General view of the excavation: project assistant Clare Mclannahan sieving spoil

At least seven of the seventeen had been deposited within urns. Of particular interest was a small oval pit containing a high status bronze hanging-bowl, containing human and animal bone. The association of cremations and bronze vessels show parallels with the main Sutton Hoo ship burial and barrow cemetery.

Of the nineteen inhumations, eight showed the vertical edge of coffins within the grave stratification. Some degree of body-staining was seen in most burials and 'sand bodies' survived in several instances. Every burial was furnished with at least one object: thirteen (presumed male) graves contained weapons (typically a spear and shield) and four contained brooches or bead assemblages, suggesting the graves of women. One grave contained a male with sword, spear, shield boss and decorative shield-mounts.

Above: The dark coloured soil of a circular 'ring-slot' surrounding a cremation burial: prior to excavation


Above: The 'ring slot' fully excavated; it has been cut by a later ditch and the central cremation has been badly disturbed by a large animal burrow. (2m. long measuring poles show scale)


Although only a small part of the cemetery was excavated, the high proportion of 'warrior' status burials marks this cemetery out as something special. The relationship between the two cemeteries is open to debate, but it leads one to consider if this above-river escarpment at Sutton Hoo might have developed as an early Anglo-Saxon established ritual landscape, marking out one cemetery for high standing individuals and a separate cemetery reserved for the ruling elite.


Above: The base of a pottery urn (6th century) containing a cremation;
the upper part of the urn has been destroyed by more recent agricultural or gardening activity.


Right: Pottery urn in situ emptied of its cremation; again, the upper part has clearly been destroyed by agricultural or gardening activity.