Imagine a few mounds dozing peacefully in a field. Drop a few sheep, a little mist and shy rays of sunshine. There you have it, a very picturesque and mysterious postcard. This is one of the most important archaeological sites in England: Sutton Hoo .
The Sutton Hoo necropolis is the emblem of a pivotal period in English history. Reported since the 17th century by written sources, this collection of 19 tumuli has fired the imagination of the local population for generations . Excavations began in 1939 and their discoveries will upset the understanding of the Anglo-Saxon period. The necropolis contains a ship-grave and artefacts of a quality and quantity hitherto unequaled. Who was the individual buried in this ostentatious tomb? How had he been buried?
To find out, let’s look at Anglo-Saxon history and then at the singularity of the main tomb.
The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons
At 4th century, the Roman Empire declined and the weakening of its defensive system would have allowed a Germanic people, the Saxons, to install trading posts along the Brittany coast and thus to create links with the inhabitants. In 449 , the local power, abandoned by Rome, ends up asking for help from the Saxon mercenaries to protect them from the raids caused by other Germanic peoples… except that unable to pay them, the mercenaries would have turned against him (Bède Venerable). Jute , Frisians , Corners and Saxons then invaded the island. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of the “great invasions” , which the archaeological evidence has enabled us to describe as ” incursions show that the migrations of the barbarians were not so massive and destructive as ecclesiastical sources would have us believe. Indeed, the hypothesis of progressive infiltrations of soldiers and elites in the socio-economic structures british-roman is favored today. Why did they migrate? The origin would be multifactorial: the instability of power, the overpopulation which would cause an overexploitation of the soil, the constant threats of the rising waters or the attraction for Western wealth. The local chiefdoms then give way to regional kingdoms, resulting from the rise in power of certain family groups. Thus, around 600, a dozen kingdoms of Germanic origin shared island territory more or less peacefully (fig.1).
Sutton Hoo is in East Anglia , i.e. the kingdom of the East Angles located north of the Thames Estuary and ruled by the Wuffinga dynasty. Interestingly, Sutton Hoo is within a few miles of significant contemporary sites, the royal market town of Rendlesham and Snape’s Necropolis.
It is in this context that an individual who stands out in many respects was buried.
Fig.1: map of the settlements of the Germanic peoples (heptarchy).
Sutton Hoo, an excessively luxurious tomb
The deceased was surrounded by 263 artefacts : numerous silver vessels, some of which came from the eastern Mediterranean, rich clothing accessories or personal objects such as shoulder straps, a huge gold plate-buckle, sophisticated and stylish animal, or even a purse clasp (fig.2).
Fig.2: On the right, two gold cloisonné shoulder straps, on the left a garnet cloisonné purse clasp and, below, a gold belt buckle plate inlaid with niello, consisting of a fastening system and sophisticated closing and a decoration of interlacing and heads of aviform animals (bird). It is type 2 of the animal style (6th-7th century), popular with the Germanic peoples (source: BMImages).
Another element piqued our curiosity: the purse which contained a monetary treasure made up of 40 coins from 37 workshops spread throughout Gaul! It was a veritable collection. These 40 coins, none of which were minted after 625 , could have a ritual meaning: it would correspond to the pay of the 40 rowers of the tomb boat (S. Lebecq). The deceased also had an impressive number of weapons, often of Frankish origin, and, of course, the famous helmet of Sutton Hoo (fig.3). The latter is composed of a decoration of intertwined watermarks with animal and warrior motifs, we can see scenes of a warrior dance and a charging horseman (fig.4). A fantastic shape draws the face mask: oLook carefully at the eyebrows, nose and mustache… One dragon appears ! Mdespite a decor typical of the’germanic animal art, helmet haswould was made in England.
Fig. 3 : Discovered in the form of compacted metal magma, the helmet, made of iron and tinned copper alloy, consists of 500 pieces restored in 1971 by the British Museum (photo on the left). Its reconstruction highlights the complexity of the decor (photo on the right). The helmet is inspired by the spangenhelm style of the Late Roman Empire, but its decorations suggest an influence from the Age of Vendel (Sweden, 6th century) (source: wikipedia + deviantart mrsvein872).
Fig. 4: The panels consist, on the left, of scenes of a warrior dance ( “Dancing Warrior”) and of a charging horseman, on the right (“Fallen Warrior”) (source: kultogathena website) .
This helmet is rare in Germanic tombs but even more so in tombs where Christian influence is present. Indeed, two episcopal spoons, engraved with the two names of Saint-Paul, before and after his conversion, were discovered in the tomb.
Fig.5: Episcopal spoons engraved with the names of “PAVLOS” and “SAVLOS”, the two names of Saint-Paul, before and after his conversion (source: BMImages).
S utton Hoo, a royal tomb?
The artifacts point out that the social status of the deceased was uncommon, but why would that be royal status?
Regalia , that is to say symbolic attributes of royalty, and typical objects of court culture have been identified : drinking horns, a lyre, a parade ensign with a flag bearer and a specter in the crown. of a deer figurine, the royal animal par excellence (fig.6). To these elements is added the large size of the boat-grave and the tumuli , which required a substantial workforce, as well as the proximity to a royal town (Rendlesham). The only comparable burial is that of the Frankish king Childeric, the father of Clovis.
Fig.6: scepter adorned with a stag, the royal symbol par excellence (source: BMImages).
All these clues, as well as the written sources, place a man at the center of the hypotheses: Raedwald, one of the few kings to have exercised a empire (higher authority than other kings) over the provinces of Angles and a to have been initiated into christianity by the first Christian king, Aetherbert (Kent). However, selon Bede the Venerable, Raedwald was “noble by birth but ignoble by deed” because the latter, or those close to him, seemed to pray to both the new—one—God and the old gods . Raedwald died in battle around 624-625, his son Eorpwald succeeded him but was assassinated (by a pagan). Shis successor, his brother Sigebert, began to convert his people to Christianity before retiring to a _ _ _ monastery. Ilf ut slain in battle (by a pagan… the last pagan king).
This necropolis bears witness to a rapidly changing society, torn between the weight of so-called pagan traditions and the attractiveness of the new religion. These finds underline a pagan culture still active despite the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxon territory. This religious and social transition is initiated by the ruling elites for reasons that are not as spiritual as clerics would like to think. Anyway, Sutton Hoo is at the crossroads of two worlds, where past and future still meet.
– Stephane LEBECQ. History of the British Isles. PUF, 2013, p.976.
– Stephane LEBECQ. Sutton Hoo and King Raedwald i n Joël Cornette et al., The death of kings. From Sigismond (523) to Louis XIV (1715). PUF, 2017, p. 13 – 33.
– Stephane LEBECQ. The Death of the Great in the Early Middle Ages. Medieval , 1996, vol. 31, p.7-11. Online at: https://www.persee.fr/doc/medi_0751-2708_1996_num_15_31_1363
[consulté le 10/10/2020]
– Herbert MARYON, The S utton H oo helmet, Antiquity, flight. 21, n°83, September 1947, p. 137 – 144.
– Sandra Glass, The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial. Antiquity , vol.36, 1962
– Colin McGarry, The Sutton Hoo Helmet Scandinavian and Romans origins (University of Cork, academia )
– British Museum: https://www.britishmuseum.org
– Gildas the Wise, De excidio Britanniae (~540)
– Bede the Venerable, Ecclesiastical History of the English People (~731)
– Nennius, Brittonum History (~9th-11th century)
– Anglo-Saxon chronicles (Alfred the Great, late 9th century)
– law codes
– archaeology, toponymy