how the discoveries at Sutton Hoo rewrote our cultural history

The restored iron helmet is perhaps the most recognisable face of the Anglo-Saxon period
The restored iron helmet is perhaps the most recognisable face of the Anglo-Saxon period

“These people were not just marauding barbarians. They had culture! They had art!” So exalts Cambridge archeologist Charles Phillips, as he contemplates the treasure trove his team has just unearthed from an Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk.

This is a scene from The Dig – Australian director Simon Stone’s faithful fictionalisation of one of the most famous excavations in British history, out on Netflix now – and it goes some way to encapsulating the significance of the discoveries for the history of art and culture in this country. In the summer of 1939, a self-taught local archaeologist called Basil Brown (played with exquisitely sensitive surliness by Ralph Fiennes in the film) brushed back the earth to reveal the shape of an early seventh-century ship, and concealed within it, a burial chamber full of the most extraordinary artifacts.

As Britain prepared to enter the Second World War, his discoveries served as a reminder of what it would be fighting for: the preservation of a cultural heritage stretching back centuries, whose richness and sophistication was only just beginning to be understood.

For Martin Carver, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at York University, who, as the head of the Sutton Hoo Research Project, led the third stage of excavations of the site, from 1983-2005, the significance of the artistry displayed by the finds can hardly be overstated. “I think Sutton Hoo was the most exciting entry into European art for the early English. They invented this wonderful, descriptive, vibrant kind of ornament.”

Archaeologists at work at Sutton Hoo in 1939 - Robert Bodman
Archaeologists at work at Sutton Hoo in 1939 – Robert Bodman

The findings “really transformed our understanding of this period” says Dr Sue Brunning, curator of the Sutton Hoo collection at the British Museum. “The received wisdom at the time was that this period was the Dark Ages, and [the excavations] showed that it wasn’t like that at all. It was a time of really sophisticated artistic and technical skill, and the craftsmanship was spectacular.”

“When the British Museum director, Thomas Kendrick, came along [to see the site], and the gold was shown to him at the railway station, he had to hold on to something” recounts Carver. “He was just so excited, not just because it was so beautiful, but really because it was better than he could have hoped for from that period.”

The collection of ornaments buried as offerings alongside the unknown warrior – when the chamber was discovered, the body had long since decomposed entirely, but the leading theory now is that it was King Rædwald of East Anglia – is large and varied. It includes valuable weapons, highly-wrought chainmail armour, a gold belt buckle, silver feasting vessels from Constantinople, hanging copper bowls inlaid with enamel, enormous drinking cups made from the horns of aurochs, an iron lamp, gold coins, and most famously, a fantastically decorated iron helmet. It is conceived as a bird in flight: its wings form the eyebrow plates, its body the nose, and its tail the mouthpiece, while a dragon slides down the central ridge. Its significance was not at first appreciated when it was unearthed in 1939: air pockets in the burial site meant the iron had oxidised, corroded, and disintegrated into hundreds of fragments. But it has since been fully restored, and now looks “uncannily like a 1960s biker helmet with dark glasses” chuckles Carver. It is perhaps, too, the most recognisable face of the Anglo-Saxon period.

The craftsmanship in items like this purse lid astonished archaeologists - British Museum
The craftsmanship in items like this purse lid astonished archaeologists – British Museum

The artistic significance of the findings lies not so much in their originality, both archeologists tell me – some similar objects from the seventh century had been previously discovered, for instance at a nineteenth-century dig at Taplow in Buckinghamshire – but rather in their quality. “I think everybody was surprised at how clever these goldsmiths were,” says Carver. Brunning agrees: “The quality of the material that we got from Sutton Hoo was completely superlative. A cut above everything else we had, in terms of the technical skill involved.”

Indeed, so complex were some of the pieces produced that modern-day metalworkers have not yet worked out how to recreate them. For instance, the curved gold shoulder clasps are inlaid with wafer thin garnets, less than a millimeter thick, and filed down to perfect smoothness. In recreation attempts, the garnets have to be replaced with resin, so difficult is it to achieve their uniform smoothness on a curved surface.

Furthemore, under each garnet is a layer of waffle-patterned gold foil, which accentuates the lustre of the gems. “The best analogy I’ve heard is that it’s like a bike reflector – it catches the light and then sparkles” says Brunning.

Modern artists have struggled to recreate the curved gold shoulder clasps - British Museum
Modern artists have struggled to recreate the curved gold shoulder clasps – British Museum

So imaginative and sophisticated was this period of art, in fact, that contrary perhaps to popular prejudice, which would prefer to separate the Dark from the light, many of the designs found at Sutton Hoo had been pinched and reproduced in the art of the later medieval Christian period that followed it.

The Sutton Hoo artists “laid the foundation for all those stunningly beautiful medieval illuminated manuscripts, like the Lindisfarne Gospels” says Carver. “Art has its own kind of narrative that goes from century to century and feeds ideas into the next generation.”

For instance, the interlocking, snake-like design belt buckle is reproduced in the late seventh-century Book of Durrow. A very rectangular illustration of the body of St Matthew has borrowed so faithfully from it, in fact, that “he’s been described as a walking belt buckle”.

The Sutton Hoo belt buckle that inspired a Book of Durrow illustration - British Museum
The Sutton Hoo belt buckle that inspired a Book of Durrow illustration – British Museum

The animal designs that appear in many of the objects also bound straight into the art of the next century. “After the conversion to Christianity, the beasts are sort of let out of their cages, and they start doing wonderful deer-like leaps in the margins of the manuscripts” says Carver.

What the art of Sutton Hoo was originally intended for, before it was interred with the dead king, is hard to determine. “It was obviously full of meaning but we don’t really know what, because it refers to a kind of supernatural background which we don’t share” Carver explains.

“It’s very difficult for us to decode the art because at the time Sutton Hoo went into the ground, there were no written records. It was still an oral culture,” Brunning adds.

Ralph Fiennes plays pioneering amateur archaeologist Basil Brown in The Dig - Larry Horricks/Netflix
Ralph Fiennes plays pioneering amateur archaeologist Basil Brown in The Dig – Larry Horricks/Netflix

But it is just this lack of written history that inspired Carver’s preferred theory about the function of such artefacts in Anglo-Saxon society. “Imagine the day of the burial,” he instructs. “We demonstrated with our research that the chamber would have been open, and the objects all laid out in this beautifully composed tableau, before the roof was put on. So perhaps people would have filed along on the edge of the ship, and looked down into it.”

But why? “These aren’t only works of art: they’re iconic cultural objects, which had played a role in history. They’re works of art with a biography – sometimes swords even had names. So if you’re walking with your children and they’re saying ‘what’s that?’, ‘what’s that?’, I think the grown ups would have recognised a lot of the things. They would have jogged memories: ‘that one went into that battle’, ‘that was the time he actually lost his shield, do you remember?’”

What he is imagining is an alternative to chronicle history – a form of active remembrance and cultural reflection that approaches something of the social function of contemporary theatre. And just as the burial chamber was a link to the past for the Anglo-Saxons who built it, so its rediscovery in 1939 extended that link to the present. If the central, poignant message of The Dig is that death is not the end and the past never really leaves us, so the discovery of art of the Anglo-Saxons, reimagined and reworked throughout the centuries that followed it, brought the Dark Ages into the light.

The Dig is on Netflix. The Sutton Hoo Story: Encounters with Early England by Martin Carver is available to buy online.

The Dig: what happened next?

Edith Pretty

After donating the Sutton Hoo hoard to the British Museum, Edith was offered a CBE by Winston Churchill. However, she declined, believing she had merely been “doing her duty”. In poor health since her husband Frank passed away in 1934. Edith died on December 17 1942 age 59. She had suffered a fatal blood clot.

Robert Pretty

Sutton inherited his mother’s estate – worth £11 million in today’s money. Just 12 when Edith died, he went to live with his aunt Elizabeth in Hampshire. Robert later attended Eton College before going into farming. He died of cancer aged 57 in June 1988, leaving behind children Penny, David and John.

Basil Brown

Decades would elapse before Brown received proper credit for his role in the Sutton Hoo dig. During the Second World War, he served with the Royal Observer Corps in Suffolk. After the war, he was re-hired by Ipswich Museum and undertook extensive archaeological work. His archaeological career was, however, brought to an end in 1965 when he suffered a heart attack during an excavation. He died of pneumonia in March 1977 at age 89.

Peggy Piggott

The trailblazing female archaeologist remained professionally active into her seventies. She and husband George had divorced in 1956. In retirement she devoted herself to the care of classical scholar AW Lawrence, younger brother of TE Lawrence. They lived together until his death in 1991. She passed away in Bath in September 1994, aged 82.

Stuart Piggott

In 1946, Piggott was appointed head of the Edinburgh University archaeology department. Despite his separation from Peggy, they became friends again in their eighties. He outlived Peggy by two years, dying of a heart attack in September 1996 aged 86.

Charles Phillips

In reality, Phillips worked for the Office of Works rather than the British Museum. When Sutton Hoo was unveiled to the public at the Festival of Britain in 1951 the discovery was credited to Phillips and his team. In 1967, Phillips was awarded the Victoria Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. He passed away in September 1985 aged 84.

By Ed Power

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