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Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge in Suffolk, is a 7th century gravesite including a large ship filled with Anglo-Saxon artefacts. The ship burial was discovered in 1939, and is still one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in England. The ship contained beautiful items from all over Europe, and has helped us to understand a period of history that we don’t have much evidence about.
The cemetery was in use between 575 and 625 AD, and had twenty large burial mounds for the most important people. These mounds had been partially dug into and looted throughout history, but were never properly excavated. In 1910 a mansion was built nearby and the Pretty family moved in. After her husband died in 1934 Edith Pretty became interested in spiritualism, the belief that spirits could be contacted after death. Soon this interest in the afterlife encouraged Mrs Pretty to have the burial mounds excavated, and so she hired a local archaeologist called Basil Brown.
In 1939 Brown, with the help of Mrs Pretty’s gardeners and estate workers, began excavating the largest mound. After three days of digging they began to find rivets, a type of nail used to build ships, all laid out in their original positions. The wood of the ship hadn’t survived in the soil, but the rivets showed that the ship had been 27 metres long. That’s three times longer than a London bus. After digging for several weeks Brown reached the burial chamber, at the same time as rumours began to spread of the amazing discovery. Soon after, an archaeologist from Cambridge University called Charles Phillips took over to excavate the chamber.
No human remains were discovered in the ship, as the acidity of the soil broke them down over the centuries. However, many items were buried in the ship too, and these have helped archaeologists to figure out who the person was. Some of the artefacts are regalia, which are very special objects worn or owned by rulers, and are of an exceptionally high quality. For this reason, Sutton Hoo is generally believed to be the grave of Rædwald, a highly powerful Anglo-Saxon king.
The most recognisable of the Sutton Hoo finds is the amazing bronze helmet, which was found shattered into hundreds of tiny pieces and then painstakingly restored. The helmet has a full face mask, and is decorated like others found in cemeteries in eastern Sweden but is much better made. A beautiful gold buckle was also discovered, carved with detailed interwoven patterns and with a hinge to a secret chamber for keeping sacred objects. There are also the only Anglo-Saxon shoulder clasps ever found, decorated with garnets and made to hold armour in place. Other objects include: silver spoons; spears and swords; a huge decorated shield; drinking horns and serving bowls; shoes and clothes; chess pieces and coins. Mrs Pretty was technically the owner of all this treasure, but gifted it to the British Museum so that the whole nation could share in the discovery.