What do the excavations at Sutton Hoo tell us about the significance of the sea to East Anglian society in the late sixth and early seventh centuries?

In order to assess what the excavations at Sutton Hoo tells us about the significance of the sea to East Anglian society in the late sixth and early seventh centuries one must first analyse and fully understand what Sutton Hoo actually is and what was found there; this piece will first endeavour to achieve this before attempting to solve the issue of Sutton Hoo’s significance in the assessment of the significance of the East Anglian’s relationship with the sea in the late sixth and early seventh centuries.

Sutton Hoo is an East Anglian Cemetery located in the South of England which is believed to have belonged to a King. This burial site was first excavated in the 1930’s but multiple excavations were carried out over many decades such as in the 1980s and 90s (Carver M, 1998, pp.2-25). The ‘main attraction’ of these excavations was the discoverer of a ship burial of an individual who is thought to have been a king. Upon discovery the ship had nearly almost entirely decomposed leaving little to no material evidence of its existence other than a few fragmentary pieces of decaying timber and the metal nails and bolts that would have secured the ships structure long ago. Despite this, the ship had left a large indentation into the ground of where it was buried, which allowed the archaeologists to realise the ship burial in its full capacity. The Sutton Hoo ship was a great open rowing boat of around 89ft in length. This vessel was clinker built and would have been driven by 40 oarsmen. There is was no indication of the use of the use of a sail however the vessel was that vast it is highly possible that this ship did use a sail power to be aided by the wind on longer journeys (Bruce-Mitford R and Leo S, 1979, pp.76-77).

A map of the kingdom of East Anglia during the early Anglo/Angle-Saxon period, with Sutton Hoo in the south-eastern area near to the coast, (Amitchell125, 2011)

Inside the mound the archaeologists found the grave of what is thought to be one of the Kings of East Anglia due to the very valuable goods buried there, these include: a large collection of silver, gold and garnet shoulder clasps and belt fittings, an ornate helmet with a facemask, a parade shield and a beautifully decorated sword. These items are extremely valuable and would have taken great craftsmanship to create. The use of a ship burial for an individual of high status not only exemplifies the importance of the departed but also of the ship and the sea in their society. The inclusion of these treasures within the grave of this individual clearly displays this person’s high status within society and hence it is thought that this is the burial of an East Anglian Kings. However it is hard to know for certain who it is precisely as there is no body beneath the ship, this led some to claim that this was a cenotaph and not the individuals true place of burial. The reasons for the absence of the body are unclear but can be inferred. It was Pagan tradition to be buried along with items that you enjoyed in life and that would serve you well in death. Evans claims that the use of these ideals probably stemmed from the upland region of Stockholm where the chief families buried their loved ones beneath ships surrounded by their possessions and wealth (1986, p49). However there is not a body present beneath the Ship at Sutton Hoo and hence represents a strange case of Pagan burial. It is most commonly assumed that the missing individual is Raewald as he was the first of the East Anglian Kings to be converted to Christianity. Among the assumed Raewald’s goods lay silver bowls with the equal armed crosses of Christendom and christening spoons with Saul and Paul upon them. These goods are typically for a Christian Ruler not a Pagan one; however these items are buried in a pagan burial chamber. It is thought that because Raewald was the first King to be converted he still kept some of his Pagan beliefs and hence this leads to his confusing burial rites. It is assumed that his body was cremated or buried under a church in the Christian fashion while his goods where buried representatively in a Pagan ship burial (Bruce-Mitford R and Leo S, 1979, pp.94-97). Though it is not known for certain if this is, in fact, what happened it would appear that the collision and amalgamation of two religions led to a peculiar burial of a powerful warrior King of East Anglia.

The Sutton Hoo Helmet (Geni, 2016).

The above information gives us a good idea of the individual who was buried there and possibly for what purpose, but what remains more elusive is wat one can draw from assessing the burial on the matter of what significance the sea had to East Anglian society in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. Williamson makes a point of stating that East Anglian burials near rivers and waterways where not unusual and that Sutton Hoo is just another example of this, another major example of a burial site near a river is Spong Hill near the River Wensum. He also claims that the view from the cemetery was an important factor in its location claiming “The view of Sutton Hoo cemetery form the river was thus less important than the view of the river from the cemetery” (2008, p.106). It is also very difficult for us in the 21st century to envision what Sutton Hoo or its river would have looked like at the time of its use. Many burial grounds from this time no longer remain particularly close to waterways as they have disappeared over time which can lead to confusion amongst historians. I can infer that the burial at Sutton Hoo was based around a similar belief system and respect for the sea as the Danes have in the Nordic regions. The Swedish and Danish would live and die at sea and used it for food, trade and even warfare. Due to the geographical location of Sutton Hoo and England as a whole it is not at all surprising that the sea would have held great significance to the East Anglian populous. Some of the silver bowls buried with the King were from Byzantium in the Mediterranean (Evans, 1986, pp.57-62). This tells me not only that the deceased individual is very important but also that that sea must have accrued a lot of value to those living near Sutton Hoo. Trade was clearly occurring around this area either directly with or with a ‘middle man’ of Byzantium and their wares; however the fact that Byzantine silver is buried with this leader also tells me that these wares, though obtainable, were also rare and accrued much value to the residents. It isn’t just the transfer of good that made the sea significant to the East Anglians; it is clear that the transfer of knowledge and beliefs from foreign lands was also a large factor of the sea faring East Anglians.

As previously stated Raewald was the first East Anglian King to be converted to Christianity, this is significant when looked into with further detail as it shows that along with silver goods from the Christian land of Byzantium also came the knowledge of Christianity from the Middle East and no doubt other regions of the world also. This led to a change in the way people lived and died in England and more specifically in Sutton Hoo hence the enigmatic nature of this burial. One must not forget the importance of the Ship itself in assessing the significance of the sea to the East Anglian people. The ship, as mentioned briefly before, was very large and would have been around 89ft in its original length; this is the longest vessel yet found for the migration period of the later Viking Age (Bruce-Mitford R and Leo S, 1979, pp.76-80). Not only is the size a statement of power and sophisticated building techniques, but it also shows how much the dead man’s people must have cared about his funeral. It must have taken a very large work force to carry a ship that size over a mile away from the water and to bury it along with the valuable goods that lie within, this not only shows the importance the individual must have held but the importance of being buried specifically in a sea worthy ship rather than a small wooden coffin or something far more practical. Evidence of the significance of the sea and more specifically ship burials in England stem back to the tales of Beowulf as his father is buried at sea in a flaming ship and Beowulf himself is buried in a ship below ground (Bruce-Mitford R and Leo S, 1979, pp.81-83).

A recreation of the Sutton Hoo Warrior King (ITV, 2014).

In the case of Sutton Hoo, if it truly is a Kingly burial then one must assess the Kingly duties he must follow and how they relate to shipping and the sea. A King has many
roles, but in this period the main focus of Kings seems to be on their warrior nature.
Kings where responsible for the expansion and defence of his Kingdom and people,
both of these tasks required him to be a proficient warrior. Warriors are normally
envisioned as fighting in fields and atop hills in mainland conditions, however as technology in shipping advanced so did the role of a warrior King. One would assume he would have had to have knowledge of sailing and even fighting aboard a ship. The ship the Sutton Hoo burial contains is huge and as such could be used for many different purposes such as trade or warfare, this was a time when it appears rare to have a specific ship design for a specific task, the main thing that appears to vary is the size, and this ship by comparison to the examples we have in the Nordics is mammoth in scale and as such demonstrates the importance of the burial and the significance of the significance of the sea to East Anglian society in the late sixth and early seventh centuries.

Due to the above information it seems very clear that the sea was very significant to East Anglian society in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. The East Anglians relied on the sea as it granted them food, trade and an extension of their warrior lifestyle, the ship was a vehicle in which these opportunities can be exploited and it also represented the power and significance of an individual, their culture and the sea itself. The Anglians were accompanied by their ships and their connections to the both in life and death, and as such it is hard to overstate the significance of the sea to East Anglian society in the late sixth and early seventh centuries.

Bibliography:

Amitchell125, (2011), [Map] The kingdom of East Anglia during the early Anglo/Angle-Saxon period, with Sutton Hoo in the south-eastern area near to the coast, Available Online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Williamson_p16_3.svg, [Accessed: 11/05/2017]

Bruce-Mitford R and Leo S, (1979), The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial: a handbook, London: British Museum Publications©.

Carver M, (1998), Sutton Hoo: burial grounds of kings?, London: British Museum Press©.

Evans A.C, (1986), The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, London: British Museum Publications©.

Geni, (2016), [Photograph] Photo of the Sutton Hoo helmet from the front in 2015, Available Online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sutton_Hoo_helmet_2016.png, [Accessed: 11/05/2017]

ITV, (2014), [Photograph] Recreation of the Sutton Hoo King, Available Online:
http://www.itv.com/news/anglia/2012-03-30/historians-recreate-sutton-hoo-treasures/, [Accessed: 12/05/2017]

Williamson T, (2008), “Chapter 4: The Wuffingas’ River”, Sutton Hoo and its landscape: the contexts of monuments, Bollington: Windgather©, (pp.95-118)

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