Sutton Hoo was the burial ground of the early Saxon kings of East Anglia; and its greatest treasure, unearthed in 1939, was a ship burial of unparalleled magnificence, dating from about 625.

The most striking of the treasures are the gold clasps, buckles, and purse, very ornately worked and covered in garnets and enamel. Other grave goods, like the helmet and shield, were also ornamented with gold and garnet. The clasps are perfectly preserved, looking like they were made in 1900.

Next are the great silver bowls, almost all perfectly preserved too. The biggest two came from Byzantium and Alexandria. Then there are Celtic bowls richly ornamented in enamel. The 40 gold coins in the purse were Frankish, from every mint in France.

There is war equipment: a heavily ornamented helmet, with cheek guards, and a gold nose bridge and moustache and eyebrows; spears, swords, chain mail. There is a huge cauldron, and a long iron chain to suspend it from a high ceiling. There are big wooden buckets ringed with iron, there are ivory gaming pieces, a whetstone topped with a bronze stag on a ring ...

The ship was 30 m long, a real warship, clinker-built, though the acidic sandy soil had eaten all the wood and its position was shown by its rivets. Signs of repair indicate that it had been a real ship in use for some time. For the same reason no body was found, no leather on the purse, and textiles only in scraps where they were wrapped on metal.

The coins date it to between 610 and 630. Almost certainly the burial is of a king, and almost certainly that is Raedwald, bretwalda or High King of England, and the last pagan king of East Anglia. Bede records that the kings were Christian, and Raedwald apparently made some political conversion because of the growing power of Christian Kent to the south, but the Sutton Hoo ship burial is the mother of all pagan burials. Other ship burials are known, but this is the richest burial of any kind in Europe from that period, and probably the greatest archaeological treasure ever found in England.

And it was a miracle it survived. Grave-robbers had been through the mounds of Sutton Hoo in the sixteenth century. There is evidence that some accident scared them away just as they were about to reach the burial chamber in Mound 1. Instead, there was sporadic excavation of the twenty mounds in later years, but it was not until May 1939 that archaeologists entered the largest of them, Mound 1.

A hoo is a small hill or promontory, and Sutton Hoo is farmland on the River Deben in Suffolk, between the towns of Ipswich and Aldeburgh. There is nothing there but the mounds, and now, a National Trust visitor centre with replicas of everything, and a few originals lent by the British Museum, where the bulk of the treasure resides.

aneurin tells me that details of the burial indicate that these people were actually of Swedish origin.

Part of JudyT's Golden Jubilee celebration of Britain.

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