16 brilliant discoveries from the Sutton Hoo ship burial

Netflix is about to release a new film about how the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial was unearthed, and we can’t wait to see it. But what did archaeologists actually discover there?

The Sutton Hoo ship burial is one of the most extraordinary archaeological discoveries ever made in Britain: a lavish 7th century grave, with the deceased placed inside a massive ship, and surrounded with 263 luxury items that came not just from England, but from lands across Europe and Asia.

Like every archaeologist with a Netflix subscription, we’ve already reserved front-row seats on our own sofas this Friday, and we can’t wait to start streaming. Why? There are a few reasons.

Firstly, we’re currently creating a mini-series about our ongoing crowdfunded excavations at Lindisfarne ready to be released this summer. It tells the story of the archaeologists and archaeology-enthusiasts who have joined forces to unearth the remains of another of Britain’s most famous ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sites – the monastery raided by Vikings.

Secondly, as archaeologists, we know that behind every great discovery there lies an even greater story filled with passion, dedication, friensdhips, debates, and all the challenges that are experienced when creating new knowledge about the ancient world. And the story behind ‘The Dig’ is no different.

Starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes, the film recounts the tale of Edith Pretty (the Suffolk landowner who just knew the huge mounds surrounding her home were hiding something), Basil Brown (the farmer’s son and self-taught excavator she enlisted to help her prove it), and the tensions that arose when the authorities insisted that the excavation they started so brilliantly should be taken over by an academic, Charles Phillips, in 1939.

Today, only a handful of the 263 treasured artefacts they discovered are on display in Room 41 at the British Museum. So while we wait for The Dig to begin, we decided to delve deep into the archives and pull together a list of our favourites, including some of the lesserknown items. From beetles to musical instruments, there are some fascinating finds hidden among the more familiar treasures, and each and every one of them is amazing!

1. The ship’s rivets

Trustees of the British Museum

The first thing the archaeological team discovered in the ship’s mound (known as Mound 1) was a single rivet. The ship’s timbers had long since perished, but this small piece of metal was a sign of the enormity of what lay beneath. Through the meticulous excavation process that followed, the ghostly imprint of the ship was uncovered. The ship is estimated to have been held together by another 3,500 rivets, and each one is visible in the picture above!

2. The iconic helmet

Trustees of the British Museum

Only four complete Anglo-Saxon helmets are known to date, and this is the most elaborate. It’s decorated with scenes such as warriors in horned headgear dancing with swords and spears. The eyebrows are inlaid with silver wire and garnets, each ending in a gilded boar’s head. Together with the nose and moustache, the facepiece forms the image of a flying, serpent-headed beast.

3. The bronze hanging bowl (with a rotating metal fish)

Trustees of the British Museum

This magnificent bronze hanging bowl is the largest of three found in the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, and may have been used for handwashing. But hanging bowls like this one were not Anglo-Saxon; they were probably made by British peoples from neighbouring regions. As beautiful as it is, it’s what’s inside that caught our attention: a metal fish on a rotating pedestal. Curious!

4. The bitumen from Syria

Trustees of the British Museum

You might not think of bitumen as treasure, but it was certainly an exotic item back in the day. Originally thought to be tar used for shipbuilding, new analysis in 2016 revealed it to be bitumen from Syria – a highly prized product used in a variety of ways, from embalming to waterproofing. We think it should definitely be added to the list of Sutton Hoo treasures… bringing the total to 264! Bitumen is an extremely rare archaeological discovery in Britain, and this is the first example to be linked to Middle Eastern sources.

5. The pair of Byzantine spoons

Trustees of the British Museum

A nested set of ten silver bowls was placed to the right of the body. Their shape and decoration show that they came from the Byzantine Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean, during the sixth century. Below these were two silver spoons, also probably Byzantine, their handles inscribed in Greek with the names Paulos and Saulos. One inscription is messier than the other, and may have been added later by someone who wasn’t familiar with Greek!

6. The yellow ladybird

Trustees of the British Museum.

As well as the famous gold and bronze treasures, the burial chamber was also filled with traces of cushions, pillows, and other textiles, including twill (possibly from cloaks, blankets or hangings), cloaks (characteristic long-pile weaving), and more exotic coloured hangings or spreads, including some (possibly imported) woven in stepped lozenge patterns using a Syrian technique in which the weft is looped around the warp to create a textured surface. Two other colour-patterned textiles, near the head and foot of the body area, resemble Scandinavian work of the same period. This male yellow ladybird was found in the pillow pile!

7. The maple-wood lyre

Trustees of the British Museum

At the time that the Sutton Hoo ship burial was discovered, there were no known lyres in Northern Europe. Southern European lyre designs differed so greatly that these remains weren’t identified as a lyre until the 1940s when scholars finally realised that this all that was left of a long-lost instrument. Since then, more lyres have been found in Northern Europe, including with the Prittlewell Princely Burial.

8. The drinking vessels

Trustees of the British Museum (reconstructed)

Drinking vessels and folded textiles were placed on the lower legs, and near the feet was a pile of clothing and metal objects, including leather shoes, a silver bowl and a unique coat of mail armour. At the tip of the horn is a cast bird’s head terminal, with curved beak.

9. The Anastasius platter

A huge silver platter from Constantinople. Trustees of the British Museum

This huge silver platter with stamps showing that it was made in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire (today’s Istanbul), during the reign of Emperor Anastasius I. It’s decorated with a small bird, a seated female figure holding an orb and a spear, and running female figures carrying different objects before them. The platter was already a century old when it was buried at Sutton Hoo.

10. The beautiful purse filled with 27 gold coins

Decorative purse lid. Trustees of the British Museum

This purse lid was found to contain 37 gold coins, three blank coins, and two small gold ingots. They all come from Francia, across the English Channel, and provided key evidence for dating the burial to the early seventh century. Each coin came from a different mint!

11. The sword still in its sheath (for someone lefthanded?)

Trustees of the British Museum

As well as the sword, mineralised fragments of a wooden sword-sheath or scabbard survived. Made of willow or poplar wood, traves of a fur lining were found inside. It was placed at the person’s right hand side, suggesting that they may have been left-handed.

12. The magnificent gold buckle

Trustees of the British Museum

This magnificent buckle is made of gold and weighs 412.7 grams (almost a pound). It would have been used to fasten the kind of waist belt commonly worn by Anglo-Saxon men at the time, from which might hang a knife and sometimes a leather pouch. The buckle’s surfaces are decorated with 13 animals including birds, interwoven snakes and four-legged beasts. Can you spot them all?

13. The ivory gaming piece

Trustees of the British Museum

Anglo-Saxon leaders didn’t just eat, drink and fight. They played games too! This ivory gaming-piece is roughly cylindrical in shape with a conical top and a smooth, flat base, and is thought to be the ‘king piece’ from a set. Traces of bone above the head position have suggested that a gaming-board was possibly set out. It’s not as pretty as the blue glass king piece we found at Lindisfarne though!

14. The ‘Coptic’ copper bowl

Trustees of the British Museum

In the centre, a procession of four animals walking anti-clockwise, including a camel or bear, a lion, a donkey or hare, and a tiger or other large feline.

15. A whetstone-sceptre

Trustees of the British Museum

This huge, four-sided whetstone is skilfully carved from a hard, fine-grained stone to give a perfectly smooth surface. Whetstones were tools used to sharpen knife and weapon blades. The whetstone’s significance is now a mystery, but several features hint that it was an emblem of power. Its design resembles Roman sceptres, owned by holders of high offices. It shows no signs of wear and is very elaborate in form, and may have been used instead as a ceremonial sceptre.

16. And the one thing that wasn’t found? The body.

Trustees of the British Museum

The one thing that wasn’t found in the burial was the body, because the acidic soil meant that the alkaline bones were corroded away… just like the ship’s wooden timbers. Fragile outlines of many of the bodies buried in other graves at Sutton Hoo could nevertheless be picked out in dark sand.

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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