Imagine looking out your kitchen window across the fields of green grass undulating in the breeze like the waves of the ocean and running your eyes over large mounds of dirt covered in grass. These mounds are not simply some hills of the natural landscape, but obviously man-made obstructions.

A panoramic image of a grassy hill at Sutton Hoo burial site with a cloudy sky, creating a dramatic and stormy mood.
Sutton Hoo burial site, Wikimedia Commons

Now anyone who has read about their local history, being in England, would understand the potential that these hillocks could very well be burial sites. Viking burial mounds would be the best bet, and that’s exactly what Edith Pretty thought looking at the hills behind her home on her land. But after excavation, she ended up with more questions than answers. The biggest of them all: Why was there a ship in a sea of grass?

An Unprecedented Excavation

Tensions are high, it’s 1938 and England’s on the brink of war again. After her husband had passed, Edith stared at the mounds littering the fields 500 yards from her home. Having been born to an affluent family, she found a love for history while traveling to world wonders like Pompeii, the pyramids of Egypt, and her father’s archeological digs. She wanted to know what lay underneath.

Understanding that this venture was outside of her capabilities, she approached the Curator at the Ipswich Corporation Museum. He recommended she hire amateur archaeologist Basil Brown. Under her supervision, Basil Brown excavated for two years with others joining in as they found more artifacts. They didn’t expect they’d find much, as these mounds tended to be looted in the past by treasure hunters, leaving no more remains for the professionals to find. That suspicion was confirmed by Basil during his first year of digging.

A colorized black and white photo of a group of people in suits and hats inspecting a large trench with a wooden support structure – excavation site of the ship burial at Sutton Hoo. The background is a barren landscape with a few trees and a hill.
The view of the excavation of the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, 1939, colorized, The British Museum

Basil and Edith focused on three of the burial mounds in the field, and he instantly found evidence that they had been looted. Future research showed that the first looters came during the Tudor period. They were given a “license” to dig and search for treasure and they found it. Luckily, at Sutton Hoo, two of the mounds were dug into, but they completely missed the burials. Next, some 19th-century adventurers dug into the hills and found massive quantities of rivets from the ship. Failing to recognize what they uncovered, they gave up and, legend says, they took the rivets to a local blacksmith to turn into horseshoes!

Basil and Edith were rightfully disappointed, but it didn’t stop them. Basil returned the next year, and they tackled the largest mound, labeled Mound 1. That’s when they hit a literal jackpot! Once Basil found a ship’s rivets in situ (still where they had been deposited at burial) he took the time to trowel carefully and uncovered the complete prow of a ship.

A diagram of burial mounds at the Sutton Hoo site. The nodes are numbered from 1 to 18 and enclosed within a red polygonal boundary.
The Sutton Hoo burial group, Wikimedia Commons

A Ship in a Sea of Grass

This wasn’t a small ship, you’re looking at something the size of a small yacht, so how did it end up in the grassy fields 500 yards from where Edith Pretty’s house stood? Beyond the high-status quality of the grave goods dating to different periods and from remote locations, the work involved in creating the ship tomb also indicates the extraordinary high status the deceased once held.

An illustration of a group of people gathered around a large wooden boat that has been dragged away from a riverbank. Inside the boat, we see a burial site of a king surrounded by favious objects, such as a shield, a sword and vessel.The background shows a river and a forested area.
A drawing of the Sutton Hoo ship that was dragged up a steep slope from the river, by Peter Dunn

The large ship most likely traveled up the nearby river, dragged up a steep slope, and then hauled across the fields to where it was laid to rest. Most likely, large trunks of trees were rolled under the ship to transport it across the terrain. Many people would have been needed for this task, a level of dedication observed in high-status burials. A burial chamber was built of wood at the center of the ship and the deceased placed in a wooden coffin made from a large tree trunk. 

Inside this burial chamber they found gold and silver brooches and dishes, a sword placed on the right side (indicating the wielder was left-handed) drinking horns, a lyre, an adorned shield, and many coins. Some were old Celtic art, while others appeared to be Byzantine in nature, coming from different time periods and different worlds.

Gold belt-buckle, hollow with cast ornament. The upper surface is covered entirely with zoomorphic interlace, the design picked out in tiny punched circles and inlaid (except on the loop) in niello. Three large plain hemispherical bosses connect with sliding catches on the back-plate, which opens on a hinge.
The great gold buckle weighing almost 1 pound found at the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, The British Museum

A High Status Individual

The burial under Sutton Hoo’s Mound 1 was the find of a lifetime. The ship was so complete and undisturbed that you could see the outlines of the curving wood showing all the planks and ribs of the ship. Basil quickly found the burial chamber which had remarkably been missed by the quarrying in the Middle Ages. Realizing what they found, Edith and Basil called for experts to join the dig and what would eventually be called the richest grave ever excavated in Europe.

Aerial View of Sutton Hoo’s Mound 1 excavation site surrounded by un-excavated mounds covered by green grass.
Aerial View of Sutton Hoo’s Mound 1 excavation site, colorized, The British Museum

The number of valuable grave goods implied an incredibly high social status for the buried individual. Their remains were no longer present thanks to the high acidity of the soil. Some speculated that there may never have been a body, the grave being more of a memorial. However, phosphate testing of the soils in the 1970s showed elevated levels in the burial chamber indicating there was a body at one point. Was it male or female? No one knows conclusively.

Most would assume this to be the burial of a male with the grave goods of a warrior: helmet, shield, and sword. However, females were often buried with expensive grave goods, including another burial in the field nearby. Recently there has been more evidence uncovered of female warriors or leaders being buried with goods that used to be attributed only to males. In this case though, the adornments and style of the helmet do indicate the burial was for a male.

Restored iron helmet adorned with tinned copper alloy sheets that form a cap, cheek-pieces, mask, and neck-guard. The copper sheets showcase stamped designs of intertwined animals and warrior motifs. Adjacent is a Sutton Hoo shield replica, incorporating original elements of gold, garnet, copper alloy, and iron, alongside modern fittings on a lime wood base.
The Sutton Hoo Helmet and Shield, The British Museum

A King

Was he a king? Evidence suggests that indeed he was. Perhaps one of the last non-Christian Kings of the Anglo-Saxon period. Some think it may be the final resting place of Raedwald, the last of the pagan Anglo-Saxon Kings. He was the first to convert to Christianity but still kept a pagan temple. It is believed that the woman buried on the couch in Mound 14 may have been his widow.

The dating of the mound fits the period of his reign. The wealth and far-off connections that he is thought to have during his reign, would support the richness of goods that were found at the site. 

The discovery of a young male in a smaller ship burial nearby, furthers the theory that this burial ground belongs to Raedwald and his family. The young occupant of the other ship burial is thought to be his son, Raegenhere, who died in battle in 616 CE.

An illustration of a coat of arms with a gold crown, a white figure of Redwald King with wings, and a gold hand holding a sword on a green, blue, and white shield. The shield is surrounded by a gray border with gold crowns on it. The background is white.
Figure of Redwald King of the East Angles, in painted glass, at Osmundthorp. Published by Robinson, Son & Holdsworth, Leeds, & J. Hurst, Wakefield, April 1st 1816, Wikimedia Commons

The Big Picture

With a war expected to break out at any moment and men needed on the front, the excavations were rushed and no conclusion was made beyond the site being a royal burial older than the Viking era. It wasn’t until years later that the full picture was revealed. This is where archaeology becomes fascinating — what we assume or deduct from a site can often change over time as more information is discovered. The initial assumption that this was the burial of a high-status individual of Anglo-Saxon origins was not incorrect, just incomplete.

This massive and rich burial at Sutton Hoo means so much more when you consider the broader context. Mound 1 was part of a three-cemetery complex scattered over the fields adjacent to Edith Pretty’s home. This complex was in use over the span of several centuries.

When looking at the big picture, you see Anglian people who were happily celebrating their growing kingdom and their own prosperity. The family that began burying their dead at the banks of the river nearby, was wealthy enough over the span of 50 years to create these elaborate burials full of high-status goods. These people succeeded. They thrived.

By placing this ship burial into the greater context, we can see a story of a life and a family that set the stage for generations that followed them. This was a time when written words didn’t exist, but the burial itself tells a story of the people laid to rest there. The objects placed beside them were chosen carefully to make a statement about them and their lives, their accomplishments. While Mound 1 held an individual with riches and perhaps the wisdom of other cultures that came before them, Mound 14 nearby also dated to the same period and held a woman with silver ornaments and was laid to rest on a couch.

Simple rectangular gold clasp featuring a side cavity and a short protruding knob secured by a rectangular washer on the back, intended to latch onto the hinged tongue of a purse-lid.
Gold purse clasp found at the Sutton Hoo, The British Museum

The Waning of the Anglo-Saxon Period

In the late 7th century when this family prospered, East Anglia was ruled by a series of Christian kings that adopted this new faith. Burial customs were changing, made more elaborate, but cremation was practiced, in some cases, in direct violation of this new Christian doctrine.

Over time, the family’s burials shifted from the small plots near the river, to the elite mounds that held two ship burials, to the next somewhat less ceremonious phase: executions. 

In this period, those who didn’t conform to the new Christian faith were often executed. Evidence suggests the construction and use of early gallows at the site, based on the post-holes found there. Later archeological excavations found more evidence of executions in the form of thirty-nine shallow graves, in between the mounds.

These individuals were contorted like they’d been tossed haphazardly into a hole. Some had their legs bound or their ankles, others had broken necks, and even some severed heads. The paganism of the Anglo-Saxon period was waning, and Christianity took over, working hard to establish a new order. How better to get your point across than to turn the burial ground of your pagan predecessors into the new execution block?

An aerial photo of two workers excavating two Anglo-Saxon graves in a red dirt area. The workers are wearing orange vests and hard hats, and there is a shovel and a pickaxe next to one of the graves.
The Anglo-Saxon burial ground is thought to originate from the same time frame as the renowned Sutton Hoo site near Woodbridge, Suffolk County Council

The Legacy Lives On

Once the inquest decided that Edith Pretty owned the rights to all the finds of the burial, she immediately donated them to the British Museum where they can be seen today. After the war, archaeologists returned to investigate more of these fields and uncover more information. In the age of advanced technology, new investigators are using the notes and images from the early excavations to try and reconstruct the mounds and their surroundings and reveal more information on the burials and how they would have been viewed by the people that created them. The more information they collect, the more the theories surrounding this ship in a sea of grass are solidified or changed. Each new insight adds another piece to the ever-evolving puzzle that is Sutton Hoo.

A group of people in old-fashioned clothing gathered around a stack of papers with photographs on a grassy area near Sutton Hoo.
The excavation team at Sutton Hoo looking at some early prints, colorized, National Trust