12 Incredible Facts About the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial Treasure

The great buckle was excavated from the Sutton Hoo ship burial.
The great buckle was excavated from the Sutton Hoo ship burial. / IH, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

One of the richest troves of buried artifacts ever found, the Sutton Hoo ship burial was discovered in Suffolk, England, just as World War II broke out. Over the next few years, an incredible array of Anglo-Saxon treasures was uncovered, revealing dozens of gold and jeweled items and transforming our knowledge of early medieval England. The story of its discovery was told in the 2021 Netflix film The Dig. Here are some fascinating facts about the Sutton Hoo hoard.

1. The Sutton Hoo investigation began with some mysterious mounds.

Former World War I nurse Edith Pretty moved with her new husband Frank to Sutton Hoo in Suffolk in 1926. She came from an affluent family and traveled the world in her youth, and had a life-long interest in history and archaeology. When Frank passed away in 1934, she began spending more time around the estate, and her attention was often drawn to an unusual array of 18 low mounds just 500 yards from her house. She decided they needed to be fully investigated. She approached a local museum for advice, and the staff suggested Basil Brown for the job.

2. An amateur archaeologist used a coal shovel to excavate the Sutton Hoo mounds.

Basil Brown had left school at the age of 12 and worked a number of jobs, from gardener to insurance agent. As a self-taught archaeologist, he did not have professional tools, so he started the excavation using items from the Pretty household, including a coal shovel and a pastry brush. The first mounds he excavated in 1938 were somewhat disappointing: They had already been looted and produced only a few minor objects. However, when he began work on the largest barrow in 1939, he soon realized he had come across the find of a lifetime: the ghostly imprint of an 88-foot (27-meter) ship, now decayed, and a collapsed burial chamber full of precious treasures.

3. The Sutton Hoo ship burial proved that the ‘Dark Ages’ was a misnomer.

Around 410 CE, as the Roman Empire broke down, the Roman army left England. Then, Germanic tribes like the Angles and Saxons invaded and settled in eastern England. Historians used to believe that without the Romans’ civilizing influence, English society went from being well-ordered and culturally sophisticated to lawless and ignorant. This erroneous theory led to the period between the late 5th century and the 10th century becoming known as the Dark Ages. The discovery of the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, with its beautifully crafted grave goods in the Anglo-Saxon style, was instrumental in overturning this idea and revealing the rich culture of the early medieval period in England.

4. The body was missing from the Sutton Hoo ship burial.

One of the mysterious mounds at Sutton Hoo
One of the mysterious mounds at Sutton Hoo / Mike Prince, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

During the 1939 excavation, no trace of human bones was found. Some archaeologists proposed that the tomb must have been a cenotaph—a memorial containing no body. However, when the site was re-excavated between 1963 and 1971, analysis of the soil below the burial chamber indicated that a body had once lain there, but had decomposed and dissolved in the acidic environment.

5. The person buried at Sutton Hoo was likely a powerful East Anglian king.

Because no physical body was discovered in the ship burial, historians debated who could have been entombed in such a rich and impressive fashion. The leading theory, based on the 8th-century writings of the Venerable Bede, is that it was King Rædwald of East Anglia. He was part of a dynasty that had ruled East Anglia for many years, having come over as invaders from Sweden in about 500 CE. Rædwald was a great ruler and was thought to have died around 624 CE, making him the most likely candidate for such a grand burial. Coins discovered as part of the grave goods pinpointed the probable date of burial as 625 CE, further backing the theory.

6. The Sutton Hoo ship burial took a lot of effort.

Historians have noted the enormous amount of labor it would have required to provide a grand ship burial such as Sutton Hoo’s. Numerous people would have helped drag the ship uphill from the nearby River Deben. Then, they would have dug a huge trench and placed the ship in it, and cut down trees to build the burial chamber. Finally, the ship and burial chamber would have been covered over with an earthen mound. The final result, still visible in the 20th century, was a tall monument in Suffolk’s flat terrain. Ship burials in England are extremely rare, so it was clear that this burial must have represented someone of great importance.

7. The treasures found inside the Sutton Hoo ship burial came from all over the globe.

The burial chamber contained a truly astonishing collection of priceless gold and copper artifacts, including shoulder clasps for a cloak, belt, buckle, purse lid, spoons, bowls, platters, shield ornaments, and an exceedingly rare helmet. Each object showed the skill of a master goldsmith and jeweler and incorporated Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Mediterranean influences.

The garnets that decorate the helmet are thought to have originated in Sri Lanka. A silver platter has a stamp revealing it was made in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), the capital of the Byzantine Empire. The platter was already more than 100 years old when it was buried. A large wooden shield is thought to have been a diplomatic gift from Scandinavia, and the shoulder clasps were in the style of those worn by Roman emperors. Each object demonstrated the region’s long-standing international relations.

8. The Sutton Hoo helmet is one of the most important artworks in British history.

This modern recreation shows what the Sutton Hoo helmet probably looked like in the 5th century CE.
This modern recreation shows what the Sutton Hoo helmet probably looked like in the 5th century CE. / Tim Milkins, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The Sutton Hoo full-face helmet was the most spectacular of the finds. When it was discovered, it had been broken into hundreds of pieces after the burial chamber collapsed. It took many years of work by skilled conservationists at the British Museum to restore it to its former glory. The iron helmet shows extraordinary artistry and is adorned with intricate dancing and fighting warriors. A dragon forms the nose piece; Its outstretched wings create the eyebrows and its tail doubles as a mustache.

9. The Sutton Hoo burial resembles one described in Beowulf.

When the Sutton Hoo ship burial was found, scholars recognized that the site had striking similarities to a burial depicted in the 8th-century epic poem Beowulf. In the poem, Scyld Scefing is buried in a boat surrounded by goods such as drinking horns, textiles, musical instruments, and money. This textual reference revealed that the purpose of the grave goods was to ensure safe passage to the afterlife.

10. The identity of the “Sutton Hoo Prince” remains unknown.

The site has yet to be fully excavated, and archaeologists hope further discoveries will be unearthed. In the 1990s, a team revealed the grave of a young warrior nicknamed the "Sutton Hoo Prince.” Lying next to the body of the young man, estimated to have been in his twenties, was a cauldron, sword, shield, and horse harness. In an adjacent grave the body of his horse had been buried, perhaps to allow them to be reunited in the afterlife.

11. Edith Pretty donated the Sutton Hoo treasure to a museum—even though she could have kept it.

The grave goods at Sutton Hoo were immediately recognized as one of the most important finds in British history. British courts ruled that all the treasure belonged to Edith Pretty. She refused to sell the items, and instead donated the entire collection to the British Museum so it could be enjoyed by everyone. This extraordinary generosity was recognized by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who wanted to honor her as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), which the ever-modest Pretty politely declined. Because she donated the treasure during World War II, instead of going directly on display the items were packed up and hidden in an unused section of London’s underground to protect them from bombing raids.

12. You can visit the Sutton Hoo treasures and the place where they were discovered.

The most important artifacts from Sutton Hoo, including the famous helmet, can be viewed in Room 41 of the British Museum in London. The estate in Suffolk is also open to the public, and owned by the National Trust. Visitors can stroll around the burial mounds on the extensive estate and take a look in the visitor center, which has a recreation of the burial chamber with replicas of the treasures showing exactly where they were found.