Face to Face with the Sutton Hoo Helmet

Face to Face with the Sutton Hoo Helmet

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You didn't think Sue only did swords did you?

The excavations at Sutton Hoo during 1939 were unique for a number reasons. We're not sure the exact number of reasons (like Irving, maths really isn't our thing), but there were definitely enough for Netflix to make an original, dramatized version of it in the form of 'The Dig'. A ship burial of this level of wealth has not been found before or since in England, and excavations were conducted under the shadow of the United Kingdoms impending involvement in World War Two.

Though a great number of exceptional objects were found in the mound at Sutton Hoo, none have captured the public imagination like the Sutton Hoo helmet. And tonight, for the first time in 10 years, we got to get the incredibly delicate helmet out of its display case, and hopefully do it justice (it was incredibly intimidating to film with).

#CuratorsCorner #SuttonSue #KnowingMeKnowingHoo

The discovery at Sutton Hoo: when the Dark Ages were lit up

The year 1939 saw a rare ray of light shine into the Dark Ages, and made people realise that the Anglo-Saxon period did not deserve that gloomy moniker. In 1938, Edith Pretty, owner of Sutton Hoo House in Suffolk, had commissioned a local archaeologist, Basil Brown, to investigate the huge tumulus on her land. Brown did not do as he was asked. On examining it he saw that a trench had been dug into its centre, assumed it to have been robbed and moved on to the smaller surrounding tumuli. Having found next to nothing, in the following year he returned his attention to his original subject. He quickly unearthed rivets in rows, and as the outline of a boat slowly emerged it became apparent that the earlier grave robbers had ceased their digging just inches short of a burial hoard of unexampled beauty.

While the wood of the ship and the flesh of the man had dissolved in the acidic Suffolk soil, the gold, silver and iron of his wealth remained. For the first time, indeed for the only time, historians had a chance to see the sort of objects that a great man of the seventh century had in his hall. From a range of ornate war gear – a sword, an axe-hammer, a huge circular shield decorated with wild animals, a coat of mail, a collection of spears – to auspicious displays of wealth – a silver dish three-quarters of a metre in diameter, a complex buckle wrought from pure gold, fine shoulder clasps – to feasting equipment – a cauldron, drinking horns, a lyre – the man had all he needed to live in eternity as he had on earth. His boat was pointing west and in his purse were 40 gold pieces, one for each of the ghostly oarsmen who would row him to the other place.

The real story of The Dig

Sutton Hoo’s seventh-century treasures have fired up the imaginations of history lovers for decades, most recently inspiring new Netflix film The Dig. Professor Martin Carver talks to David Musgrove about the real history of the remarkable 1939 excavation…

What can we learn from the discovery at Sutton Hoo?

The burial shows us that this corner of Suffolk was extraordinarily well connected to the world around it. Much of the craftsmanship, particularly the helmet and buckle, was clearly influenced or accomplished by Scandinavian work. The silver dish was made in Byzantium c500. The gold coins, which allow us to date the burial to the 620s or soon after, are Frankish. One of the bowls appears to be from Egypt. After looking at Sutton Hoo it is impossible to think of early Anglo-Saxon society as being cut off from the rest of the world, impossible to think of their leaders as little Englanders, but rather we are forced to consider them as self-consciously part of a wider European society stretching from the Mediterranean to the North Sea.

Seeing the funerary magnificence of Sutton Hoo not only revealed to historians the exotic tastes of early medieval bigwigs, it also served as a reminder of how they should observe the period. To assume that seventh-century Anglo-Saxons were ‘primitive’ is to assume that an absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

Thinking in these terms raises great questions about the grave. The assumption has long been that the inhabitant of the mound was a king of East Anglia, probably Redwald, who converted to Christianity before lapsing into paganism. Who else but a king would be buried with such finery?

But as Professor James Campbell of Oxford has argued, to assume we have a royal burial is to ignore the fact that the tomb is almost entirely without context. It is something of a minor miracle that the spoils of Sutton Hoo remained undisturbed until the 1930s. The largest burial mounds must always have been the most alluring for entrepreneurial grave robbers and, consequently, we should expect that these obvious, unguarded burials were interfered with at some point in the intervening centuries. The Anglo-Saxons themselves were not innocent of the crime – in Beowulf, the dragon who kills the eponymous hero is disturbed from his tumulus by a thief. This is to say that we cannot know exactly how prevalent burials like Sutton Hoo once were. It may be that there was a time when they were not that unusual.

We do not know, and have no way of knowing, how much treasure there was in seventh-century England. There may have been a great many men who had become rich from conquest and protection racketeering. There may even have been many who had access to examples of such craftsmanship (whoever made the exquisite shoulder-clasps and belt was evidently not doing it for the first time). And so Sutton Hoo also acts as a reminder of how much we do not know about Anglo-Saxon history, about how we must think before we make even the shallowest assumptive leap.

If the grave’s precise status is in doubt, its uniqueness is not, and the treasure is a much needed feast for the eyes in a period starved of visual aids. While the Anglo-Saxons have left us some manuscripts, some coins, the occasional church that survived the great Norman renovations, a post-Conquest tapestry, and the clutter of archaeology, compared to all subsequent eras, there is not much to see. Consequently, the splendour of Sutton Hoo was immediately destined for iconic status and publishers have been consistently keen (as we have here) to use the helmet as a cover illustration.

This one relic from Anglo-Saxon England has, in some ways, come to define the whole period. As a reminder of the centrality of militarism to the age this is fitting but it has, perhaps, also done something to harden in the public imagination the idea that the Anglo-Saxons were nothing more than noble warriors. This is unfortunate because we now understand a great deal about the complexities and sophistication of late Anglo-Saxon government and know that, by the eighth century at the very latest, they were much more than barbarian champions of military households. We know this largely because of the work of archaeologists. Over the past 50 years our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon economy has accelerated beyond all expectation and, as it has, we have become vastly more aware of the government machinery which exploited and regulated it. Huge numbers of coins have been exhumed by metal detectorists showing how standardised royal coinage was circulating in Britain by the late eighth century, and how, by the mid-tenth century, there was a currency of perhaps several million coins, regularly recalled and recoined – presumably to tax, and assure quality.

This was very much a national system. During the reign of King Edgar (ruled 959 to 975) it seems few parts of England were further than 15 miles from a royal mint. Such clues show us how capable these kings were of centralised government, how good they were at imposing uniform standards over wide areas, and why we might describe their kingdom as a ‘state’. Thus archaeologists have unearthed a society’s progression from a world of plunder and tribute, to one of toll and tax.

But despite such rich academic discoveries, popular appreciation of the Anglo-Saxons since the Second World War has, if anything, been on the wane. The Victorians were fascinated by the origins of England and its government and so had a fondness and fascination for the state-building of Alfred the Great and his heirs. But there has been little room for the Anglo-Saxons in the modern British mindset. Whereas 19th century scholars revelled in their Teutonic past, by the mid-20th century, England’s German heritage evinced little pride, and the very concept of volk had been sullied by history’s most monstrous crimes. This intellectual backdrop meant that as Britain became a modern nation of many peoples, so Anglo-Saxon history came to be seen as insular, primitive, misogynistic and irrelevant to the point where the word ‘medieval’ has become a term of abuse deployed by those who know nothing of the medieval world.

Indeed, in recent times, our pre-Conquest predecessors have been co-opted by the far right (along with the cross of St George), and turned into symbols of a ‘pure England’. This manipulation is wrong, for the Anglo-Saxons were no more ‘ethnically pure’ than the English of today. Recognising this reveals just how dangerous and unhelpful the rejection of parts of our history can be: dangerous because, discarded, they can be poached by the ignorant and unhelpful because the internationalism of their time actually mirrors ours.

Because Anglo-Saxon culture lurks behind our laws and rights, behind our system of government, behind our towns and behind the words that one in five people on Earth can understand, it is neither nationalistic nor insular to say that we should take an interest in it.

There ought to be no room for nationalistic pride in the study and appreciation of history. We did not do these things we were not yet born. For many of us, these were not even the deeds of our ancestors. But they are, nonetheless, a large part of our cultural inheritance and, to a certain extent, that of the world. To ignore Anglo-Saxon culture is to needlessly rebury our treasure in the mound and leave it to the mercy of robbers.

Alex Burghart is one of the authors of the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (, a database of known people from the period – and formerly a tutor and researcher at King’s College London. He was writing to commemorate 70 years since the discovery at Sutton Hoo.

The Anglo-Saxons: a condensed history

The first centuries of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain are so obscure that very little can be said about them with any certainty (not that this has prevented some tireless academics from saying much). After the withdrawal of the Roman army from Britain in AD 410, peoples from Germany and Scandinavia are known to have settled here. Marked by an almost complete lack of evidence, by 597 an area which under the Romans had been urbanised, monetarised, and Christianised, had become rustic, had no real currency and was largely pagan.

In 596, inspired by some Anglian slaves he had seen in the marketplace in Rome, Pope Gregory despatched a group of missionaries to Britain to convert the Anglo-Saxons. Over the following 90 years gradually the different kingdoms accepted the new faith but not without occasional resistance – the huge pagan-style burial at Sutton Hoo appears to hail from a time when Christianity was in the land but not quite in everybody’s hearts.

Politically, the general (though by no means consistent) pattern of the period 600–900 was that a large number of small polities gradually conquered or merged with each other. Some, like Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex, also continued to expand their interests at their ‘Celtic’ neighbours’ expense. This was not an easy task: the Northumbrians were pushed back by the Picts at Nechtansmere in 685, and the Mercians would resort to buildings Offa’s Dyke against the Welsh.

By the death of Offa of Mercia (796), only five kingdoms remained: Wessex, Essex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria. Offa had conquered Kent, Sussex and East Anglia, and his successors inherited these gains. But in the 820s Wessex invaded the southern domains and an insurrection in East

Anglia drove the Mercians out. There the status quo remained until 865 when it was violently disturbed by Danish armies, commonly known as Vikings. Their forces swiftly conquered East Anglia, Northumbria, part of Mercia and very nearly Wessex until the organisational prowess (and good fortune) of Alfred the Great of Wessex (who ruled from 871 to 899) halted their advance.

A much ignored moment in English history occurred in c879 when, after centuries of rivalry, Mercia accepted Alfred’s lordship and a ‘kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons’ was born. This union, forged in the face of threats from Danish armies, was then inherited, albeit shakily, by Alfred’s son, Edward (ruled 899 to 924). Edward set about the conquest of the Danelaw, extending his power into the Midlands and East Anglia.

In turn Edward’s son, Athelstan (ruled 924 to 939) ‘completed’ the task begun in earnest by his father and, in 927, conquered Northumbria. With fewer proximal rivals, the unified kingdom of England flourished. During the mid- and late tenth century it developed a highly organised and centralised coinage, established royal patronage over episcopal and abbatial appointments and extended the West Saxon system of shires to the newly acquired parts of the kingdom.

Such administrative and economic success once again attracted the envious eyes of neighbouring peoples. During the reign of Æthelred II, the Unready (ruled 978 to 1016), seaborne Danes frequently exacted heavy tribute as the price of their keeping the peace. In 1016 the nature of this hostility shifted. King Cnut of Denmark (ruled 1016–1035) defeated Æthelred’s son Edmund at the Battle of Assandun, receiving half of England for his victory and succeeding to the rest on Edmund’s death a few weeks later. Cnut’s North Sea Empire was inherited by his son, Harthacnut, who ruled until 1042, at which time the kingdom reverted to Æthelred’s son, Edward the Confessor (ruled 1042 to 1066).

Along with 1966, 1066 is perhaps one of the most recognisable dates in English history. It is also one of the cleanest period breaks in the whole of world history. The future of the English language, the make-up of the English aristocracy, and the direction of English political culture were altered in a few hours at Hastings on 14 October 1066 when William of Normandy defeated and killed King Harold. William sealed his victory with a coronation in London on Christmas Day that same year (aping Charlemagne’s imperial crowning in Rome, 266 years before), thus beginning the age of the Anglo-Normans.

Location: Suffolk, England
Culture: Saxons and Vikings
Period: 7th century AD
Material: Gold and Metal

The Sutton Hoo Helmet is one of the most important Anglo Saxon finds of all time. It was buried in the grave of a warrior chieftain. Alongside it were a vast array of weaponry and a 27-metre-long ship. Although the helmet belonged to a powerful war-leader we cannot be certain who was buried at Sutton Hoo. When it was found it conjured up images of the warrior culture of the great Anglo Saxon epic poem, Beowulf that was written at a similar period.

What does Sutton Hoo tell us about the Anglo Saxon world?

The discovery of the Sutton Hoo burial in 1939 profoundly changed opinions of an era long dismissed as the dark ages. This was a period when some of the North Sea states - England, France, Norway, Denmark and Sweden were first coming into existence. The tomb contained hanging bowls from the Celtic West, gold coins from mainland Europe and silver tableware from the eastern Mediterranean. The Anglo Saxon world was connected through a complex trade network and gifts were often exchanged among the highest tiers of society.

The Dig (2021)

Yes. Growing up, Edith had traveled a great deal with her family, visiting Austria-Hungry, Greece, and in her late twenties, Egypt. During her travels, she witnessed several excavations. The Dig true story reveals that her father had also been involved in the excavation of a Cistercian Abbey next to their home at Vale Royal. After she had married Frank Pretty and settled at their Sutton Hoo estate in Suffolk, Edith had always been interested in excavating the 18 mounds on their property. Their home on the estate, Tranmer House, is pictured below.

Why was the location called "Sutton Hoo"?

Was Edith Pretty a widow?

Yes. At the time Edith Pretty (portrayed by Carey Mulligan) hired local archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate the mounds on her Sutton Hoo estate in southeast Suffolk, she had been a widow for several years. Her husband, Frank Pretty, had died of stomach cancer on his 56th birthday in 1934. They had one son, Robert Dempster Pretty, who she had given birth to in 1930 at the age of 47. Robert is portrayed by Archie Barnes in The Dig movie.

How did Edith Pretty end up hiring archaeologist Basil Brown to explore the mounds on her property?

At the Woodbridge Flower Fete (festival) in 1937, Edith Pretty talked to Vincent B. Redstone, a member of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, about potentially excavating the mounds on her Sutton Hoo estate. In July of that year, a formal meeting was held during which Pretty, Redstone, and the curator of the Ipswich Corporation Museum, Guy Maynard, discussed the possibility of excavation. Maynard recommended local archaeologist Basil Brown (played by Ralph Fiennes in The Dig movie) to find out what, if anything, lay beneath the strange mounds on Pretty's land.

Edith Pretty hired Basil Brown, agreeing to pay him 30 shillings a week for two weeks to explore the mounds. He arrived on June 20, 1938 and stayed with Pretty's chauffeur. With the help of two workers on Pretty's estate, Brown first excavated what became known as Mound 3. He made several promising finds, including the remains of a cremated man, fragments of early Saxon pottery, rotten wooden fibers that together resembled a tray, the lid of a Mediterranean jug, a portion of a decorated limestone plaque, and a corroded iron axe head. It was enough to convince Pretty to have him excavate two more mounds in hopes of discovering more Sutton Hoo treasure.

He next excavated Mound 2 and Mound 4. He found little in the latter, as it appeared to have been robbed. In Mound 2, he found a bead, Bronze Age pottery shards, a gilt bronze disc, a piece of blue glass, the tip of a sword blade, iron knives, a ship's rivets, and a smaller boat that appeared to have been cut in half, with one half placed on top of the other as a cover. However, the top half was missing, suggesting the site had been looted. The excavation of Mound 2 and the discovery of this smaller boat is not included in the movie or book. Brown stayed until August 9, 1938, completing his first of two seasons of excavating the burial site. Edith Pretty gave the items to the Ipswich Museum, where they were put on display. The British Museum was also informed of the discoveries.

Brown came back on May 8, 1939 to continue the excavation, this time focusing on the largest hill, Mound 1, which concealed what became known as the Sutton Hoo burial ship. In The Dig movie and book, the entire excavation is condensed into one season in 1939, ending at the outbreak of WWII.

Was Basil Brown a professional archaeologist?

Like in The Dig movie, the true story confirms that Basil Brown was not considered to be a professional archaeologist. He was a local, self-taught, amateur archaeologist. However, it could be argued that in terms of experience, he was just as qualified as the professionals who would later end up taking over the Sutton Hoo dig. He had spent years exploring the countryside in north Suffolk in search of Roman artifacts. He had discovered eight medieval buildings, ancient roads, and the locations of Roman settlements. In 1934, Brown discovered and excavated a Roman kiln at Wattisfield, which was taken to the Ipswich Museum in 1935. In the process, he got to know the museum's curator, Guy Maynard, who hired Brown to work for the museum on a contractual basis.

His first job for the museum was to spend 13 weeks exploring the Suffolk villages of Stutson and Stanton Chare. He discovered a Roman villa at Stanton Chare, resulting in an extension of his contract to three seasons (30 weeks) from 1936 to 1938. Despite being paid to do what he loved, the semi-regular income wasn't enough and he had to continue working as an insurance agent and a special police constable to make ends meet.

Does actress Carey Mulligan resemble Edith Pretty?

In researching The Dig true story, we immediately discovered that one of the biggest liberties the movie takes is that despite aging her a little with makeup, actress Carey Mulligan is approximately 20 years younger than the real Edith Pretty was at the time of the excavation of the Sutton Hoo burial mounds. Mulligan was approximately 34 at the time of filming and Pretty was around 55 when the excavation on her Sutton Hoo property took place. However, we did discover that Mulligan better resembles Pretty when she was younger (pictured below).

Is the movie's romance between Peggy Piggott and Rory Lomax real?

No. In conducting The Dig fact check, we discovered that Johnny Flynn's character, photographer Rory Lomax, who is the cousin of Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), is entirely fictional. The romance with Peggy Piggott (Lily James) is fictional as well. It was likely inspired by the fact that Peggy Piggott's 1936 marriage to Stuart Piggott (portrayed by Ben Chaplin in the film) eventually ended in divorce in 1954. The novel falsely implies that they had just gotten married and interrupted their honeymoon to join the excavation. In the movie, Peggy complains that Stuart is more interested in working in the lab with John Brailsford than spending time with her. She finds herself taking an interest in the fictional Rory Lomax, who is called up by the RAF and heads off to war. Did Peggy and Stuart's marriage really end because Stuart was a closeted gay man? Find out in our episode The Dig: History vs. Hollywood.

Was Edith Pretty involved in spiritualism?

Yes. The movie only alludes to Edith's interest in spiritualism when she asks Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) if he saw anything while he was momentarily buried alive following a cave-in at the site. The informal religious movement known as spiritualism was still popular in the 1930s, and Edith had befriended a faith healer named William Parish. Spiritualists like Parish believed that the living can communicate with the spirits of the dead, usually by way of mediums. Edith funded the construction of a chapel for Parish and she backed the Woodbridge Spiritualist Church. There was a rumor that either Edith or a friend of hers had dreams/visions of soldiers walking around with swords and spears atop the mounds on her property. She sent archaeologist Basil Brown to the church, where he was told by a medium, "You are digging in the sand. The message is, 'Keep digging, you will find what you are searching for.'" The medium's advice came true in 1939 when the 88-foot burial ship was discovered in Mound 1.

Is the fleeting romance between Edith Pretty and Basil Brown real?

Did Basil Brown really discover a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon burial ship?

Yes. Among the 18 ancient burial mounds on Edith Pretty's 526-acre Sutton Hoo estate was a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon ship, which is thought to have been the final resting place of King Rædwald of East Anglia (c. 560 - c. 624). Unlike in the movie, the discovery of the Anglo-Saxon burial ship in Mound 1 didn't come as a complete surprise. In real life, Basil Brown had discovered similar iron ship rivets and a smaller boat in Mound 2 the previous year (not shown in the movie).

As he excavated Mound 1, Brown was assisted by Edith Pretty's gardener, John Jacobs, and her gamekeeper, William Spooner. Inside the 88-foot ship Brown discovered in Mound 1, was a burial chamber full of treasure, which, like in the movie, was excavated with the help of Charles Phillips and his team after they took over the dig. The ship burial helped shed light on a historical period that lacks documentation, and it changed how historians viewed the flow of ideas and objects across Europe in the 7th century. "The Dark Ages are no longer dark," declares archaeologist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) in the movie. It's true that as a result of the Sutton Hoo discovery, Anglo-Saxon England was no longer thought of as part of the Dark Ages, at least not to the same degree it had been.

Did journalists really descend on the Sutton Hoo dig site?

Did a burial mound cave in on Basil Brown?

No. While it makes for a suspenseful moment in The Dig movie and novel, the true story seems to lack any record of Basil Brown being nearly buried alive. As John Preston stated in his novel's author's note, "Certain changes have been made for dramatic effect." While there was no mention of a cave-in happening in real life, there was worry that a hill of sandy soil that had acted as a viewing platform could give way.

Had anyone else attempted to dig up the mounds prior to Basil Brown?

Yes. In Tudor times, gravediggers had attempted to dig up Mound 1 (the mound in which the Sutton Hoo burial ship was found). We know this because fragments of a pot from that period were found in a pit. It appears as if the diggers gave up, had lunch, and then threw the remains of their food into the mound. What they didn't realize is that they weren't digging in the center of the mound and were instead off to some degree.

Did professional archaeologists take over the excavation of Sutton Hoo from Basil Brown?

Yes. After professional archaeologist Charles Phillips visited the excavation on June 6, 1939, he reasoned from the size of the ship that it could be a royal burial. Realizing the potential significance of the burial site at Sutton Hoo, Phillips and Ipswich Museum curator Guy Maynard decided to involve the British Museum's Department of Antiquities. Edith Pretty was hesitant to do so, fearing that the dig would be delayed indefinitely.

Like in The Dig movie, a fact check confirms that professional British archaeologist Charles Phillips was assigned to take over the Sutton Hoo excavation and was to begin his work there in July 1939, focusing on the ship's burial chamber. Despite being told to stop until Phillip's team arrived, Basil Brown continued to work on excavating the ship. Phillips recruited Welsh archaeologist William Grimes, British archaeologist O.G.S. Crawford, and husband and wife archaeologists Stuart and Peggy Piggott. They discovered more than 260 additional items of the Sutton Hoo treasure. Some of the things found inside the burial chamber included weapons, gold and garnet jewelry, silver, containers, shoes, buckles, gold coins and ignots, baptismal spoons, drinking horns and vessels, etc. The Sutton Hoo helmet, exquisite gold shoulder clasps, gold belt buckle, and the Sutton Hoo sword are four of the most significant items.

Another reason more archaeologists were brought in was because they knew war could break out at any moment and they were in a hurry to finish the excavation and get the items to a safe place.

Was Basil Brown allowed to continue working at the site?

Yes, but The Dig true story reveals that Charles Phillips was now in charge of the excavation of the ship's burial chamber that Basil Brown had discovered in Mound 1. In real life, Charles Phillips and Basil Brown were respectful to one another during the excavation. Phillips even complimented Brown on the meticulous manner with which he had excavated the ship. He somewhat reluctantly gives a similar compliment in the film. Brown assisted Phillips after he arrived.

What happened to the artifacts found at Sutton Hoo?

At a treasure trove inquest on August 14, 1939, Basil Brown testified and helped convince officials that the enormous find at Sutton Hoo was the property of Edith Pretty. After the inquest, Pretty ended up donating the Sutton Hoo treasure to the British Museum. To commend her generosity and contribution to the country, Winston Churchill offered her a designation of CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) but she declined.

Edith Pretty never got to see the full impact of her generosity. Although the first Sutton Hoo exhibition opened at the British Museum in 1940, it was soon packed up and kept in underground tunnels between Aldwych and Holborn tube stations to shield it from air raids during WWII. Pretty's land was used for military training during the war. Tanks drove over the burial mounds. She never got to see the full impact of her generosity. Edith Pretty died in 1942 at age 59 following a stroke. Her son Robert, then just 12 years old, went to live with his Aunt Elizabeth (his mother's sister).

Have any other burial grounds been found near Sutton Hoo?

Yes. A second burial ground was found in the year 2000 on another hill-spur roughly 1,600 ft upstream from the original burial mounds at Sutton Hoo. Both cemeteries are in close proximity to the River Deben.

Was The Dig filmed at Sutton Hoo?

There was no filming done at the actual Sutton Hoo site, which is a historic monument. It would have been impossible to physically recreate the excavation of the royal burial ship at the location. Some scenes were filmed in nearby villages, including Snape, Thorpeness and Butley.

The Discovery of the Sutton Hoo Helmet

“I think it’s fair to say that the Sutton Hoo helmet is the face of the Anglo-Saxons, perhaps even all of the early middle ages in Europe. It is shown on numerous book covers, got its own commemorative stamp for the 250th anniversary of the British Museum and features in countless documentaries on the period.” Sonja Marzinzik, curator, British Museum and author of the Sutton Hoo Helmetsets out the importance of this find. It has also been labelled as the most important archaeological find in England’s history. It is an image known by millions of school children too, who study the Anglo-Saxon period.

However, when the burial mounds in East Anglia were excavated in 1939, before the onset of the war, the first finds of the helmet were not considered too important. Soon enough the Daily Mail, who else, was talking about a ‘significant’ find. Charles Phillips, the lead archaeologist said this about Friday, 28 th July, "The crushed remains of an iron helmet were found four feet [1.2 m] east of the shield boss on the north side of the central deposit. The remains consisted of many fragments of iron covered with embossed ornament of an interlace with which were also associated gold leaf, textiles, an anthropomorphic face-piece consisting of a nose, mouth, and moustache cast as a whole (bronze), and bronze zoomorphic mountings and enrichments."

Saturday, 29 July: "A few more fragments of the iron helmet came to light and were boxed with the rest found the day before."

Tuesday, 1 August: "The day was spent in clearing out the excavated stern part of the ship and preparing it for study. Before this a final glean and sift in the burial area had produced a few fragments which are probably to be associated with the helmet and the chain mail respectively."

Hardly great excitement. Indeed, there were no photographs of the fragments in situnor were their positions recorded. The excavation ended on 24 th August and the following day all the finds were boxed and shipped out. 9 days later Great Britain declared war on Germany and any hope of intense examination of the objects were severely delayed. Like many objects the artifacts were stored in the Aldwych underground station for most of the duration of the war.

By the end of 1944 the pieces were removed – nearly 500 of them. It was thought the helmet belonged to the King of the East Angles, Raedwald, who was buried around 625AD. The elaborate decoration on the helmet led many to assume that the helmet was more of a crown rather than a practical war helmet.

The mound, one of 18 at the site, but, seemingly, the only one not to have been ransacked, at Woodbridge, Suffolk, was believed to be a burial similar to those of the sea-faring rulers of Scandinavia and originally contained a 90-foot-long boat. The wood had rotted away leaving just the outline and the iron rivets that had joined the planks together. The boat would have been pulled in-land from the River Deben and the used as the centre piece for a royal burial, similar to the one in the tale of Beowulf, who originates from Southern Sweden. In the Anglo-Saxon world rulers had to demonstrate they could lead in war – success in this led to stability and control as well as possible expansion. Thus the status of the burial objects was very important and it would have been seen as an key political statement. Although the idea of a ship burial is a pagan ritual, this time overlapped with the arrival of Christianity and there are definite Christian symbols to be seen on some of the objects – which included armour, weapons, silver dishes, feasting equipment such as drinking horns, bottles and plates, coins and fasteners for purses, belts and clothes.

The first reconstruction of the pieces was done by 70-year-old Herbert Maryon, who admitted that he had to carry out the work with mainly one eye. It took him six months’ continuous work to complete the helmet which was like doing a jigsaw puzzle without a picture, with missing pieces and broken edges. This was done between 1945 and 1946. Unfortunately, his work came in for some criticism about the moving pieces and the design – particularly from historians in Sweden who had similar finds.

Between 1965 and 1970 further excavations were done on the mound and four more pieces were found. This led to further work on the helmet in 1970 by Nigel Williams, who was in his mid-twenties and had worked for the British Museum his whole career to date. He completely disassembled the helmet, taking him four months, then spent the next five months looking at the parts before a further nine months re-assembling them. He initially used long pins to hold the pieces together then, using jute and adhesive, moulded to shape the missing pieces. He resin coated the edges to stick it all together. The final height of the helmet was 31.8cm with a circumference of 74.6cm and weighed in at 2.5kg.

A description of the helmet is best given by the British Museum itself. Iron and tinned copper alloy helmet, consisting of many pieces of iron, now built into a reconstruction, forming cap, cheek-pieces, mask and neck-guard. Covered with panels of tinned copper alloy sheeting. The copper alloy sheets are stamped with various patterns including animal interlace, and warrior motifs depicted in two panels. Three different dies were used for the figural scenes and two for the interlace. The warrior motifs are known as the "Dancing Warrior" and "Fallen Warrior". A crest runs over the cap of the helmet and leads down the face in a straight line, forming the nose, which is gilt copper alloy. The crest itself is of iron and has gilt animal terminals at the forehead and back of the head, the animals having cloisonné garnet eyes. The iron crest and copper alloy eyebrows are inlaid with silver wire the eyebrows have gilt zoomorphic terminals consisting of boar heads, and strips of garnet cloisonné work immediately above the eye sockets. The nose and mouth-piece are cast as one they are made of parcel-gilt and partly tinned copper alloy, with engraved detail and silver inlay.”

It gives a definition of tinning as ‘A technique in which a thin layer of tin is applied to an otherwise non-tin item to give it an impression of being made of silver.’

Sonja Marzinzikcontinues,“My favourite reinterpretation is found on a Swedish brand of pickled herrings. An image of the Sutton Hoo helmet has been modified to give a gentle smile, presumably in anticipation of the delicacies inside. The big question has always been how the Sutton Hoo helmet relates to other helmets from this time found in Scandinavia. Having seen a number of them in the flesh, I am convinced that whoever made the Anglo-Saxon helmet must have known the Swedish example. Although each helmet is an individual piece, they all have commonalities that unite them as a group. In addition, there’s the presence of the same motifs on the repoussé panels, for example the spear dancers and the fallen warrior, and the similarity of wire-inlaid eyebrows and animal heads cannot be a coincidence.

Whether this was because the Sutton Hoo helmet came from Scandinavia, whether it was made by a Swedish craftsman travelling to East Anglia, or by an Anglo-Saxon craftsman who had travelled eastwards is a riddle still to be resolved.”

Perhaps the best description, both of the piece itself and the wider importance of this most significant and famous find in the British Isles, is given by Martin Carver, Professor Emeritus, Department of Archaeology, University of York. “The helmet is the armoured head of a warrior, attended by gods. Made of hammered iron, proof against spear, sword and axe, it is also covered with protective metaphors.

Across the face is a bird with splayed wings, its body forming the warrior’s nose, the tail his moustache and the wings his eyebrows. The bird soaring up meets the jaws of a dragon plunging down, its thick iron body inlaid with zigzag silver wire curving over the crest.

The man’s head is equipped with defence at every angle, like a battle ship: the wingtips finish in wild-boar jaws, guarding the lateral blind spots the dragon has a snarling mouth at its tail, bringing up the rear. All the heads, even the bird’s, have sets of sharp fangs: the bared teeth of the animal bodyguard.

On the top of the crest is a little hole to carry a plume, and the sides of the helmet carried small panels commemorating victories – an enemy ridden down by a horseman, triumphant warriors dancing. Dragon and bird each have two gleaming eyes of red polished garnet, extra vision for the warrior’s own eyes, watching within their hollows, menacing as dark glasses.

Dragon, wild boar, bird of prey – these are the symbolic animals of Anglo-Saxon East Anglia where the helmet was found – part of an immense treasure buried with a political leader in a chamber, in a ship, in the early seventh century AD. Helmet and ship-burial were elements of a language of belief then shared widely among the peoples of the Northern Seas. In partnership with their animal gods, men win battles, hoard wealth, claim land. Ruthless, brave, enduring, these people built the kingdoms that northern Europe still has.

The Sutton Hoo helmet is more than a face-guard – it is a poem, a political manifesto in silver and iron. “

The finds from the mound are on display in the British Museum and in 2017 they were moved to a new room – number 41 – specially designed to hold these most precious finds.

Description of the Helmet

Studies of the helmet fragments show that its cupola was most likely to be a one-piece forged. But there were two cheek guards and a one-piece forged neck-flap attached to it. The eye-slits were not as deep as those of most helmets. There was an iron mask attached to the helmet in the front. It resembled the face of a man with a mustache. The mask connected to the helmet cupola at three points – in the center and on the edges. The nose and the mustache are separate items made of bronze.

The nose is a pronounced one, and it has two holes for breathing in the bottom. The whole mask is covered with plates made from tinned bronze, which formed a beard at the bottom of the mask.

The mask’s superciliary arches have a triangle shape in section, and they are decorated with silver wire. At the bottom, the mask was decorated with a line of andradites in the shape of a rectangle. At the end of the superciliary arches, there are animal heads – specialists consider that these are wild boars made of gilt bronze.

The whole helmet, including its protection components, was partially covered with stamped decorated sheets made from the tinned bronze of five different types. Both the sheets themselves and the way they were fixed to the helmet completely matched those used for helmets from the Vendel period. Although, the scientists didn’t succeed in finding out exactly which sheets should go where on the helmet.

The time and effort spent on the helmet reconstruction were rather significant because only the mask, the helmet-crest, and both superciliary arches were found in a satisfactory condition. Nevertheless, the helmet was almost completely reconstructed. Namely, the shape of the helmet cupola was defined due to its curved helmet-crest.

A bird and a dragon

The helmet mask and its forehead deserve a separate story. In the middle of the mask, there is a relief picture of a bird with wings displayed. Its body forms the mask nose the tail is a mustache, and the wings are superciliary arches on the mask.

The bird rising in the sky can be seen with the dragon’s jaws, and the dragon looks down. Its large iron body is decorated with a silver wire that goes winding along the whole helmet-crest.

The whole bird and dragon’s heads are made from gilt bronze. The superciliary arches of the helmet have a triangle shape they are decorated with silver and andradites at the bottom.


In 1939, archaeologists excavating barrows overlooking the River Deben near Woodbridge, Suffolk, discovered an Anglo-Saxon grave of unparalleled wealth. [2] The Sutton Hoo ship-burial was quickly labelled "Britain's Tutankhamun" the finds reshaped views of what was then termed the Dark Ages, which—with new understandings of its wealth and sophistication—became known as the Middle Ages. [2] The most iconic artefact, the Sutton Hoo helmet, was pieced together from more than 500 fragments. [3] In the decades since, the Sutton Hoo helmet has come to symbolise the Middle Ages, archaeology, and England. [4] [5]

The Sutton Hoo finds were donated to the British Museum within weeks. The estate was privately owned until 1998, when its 245 acres, and Tranmer House (originally Sutton Hoo House and renamed by the Trust in honour of the donor), were bequeathed to the National Trust. [7] [8] In 2000 the Trust commissioned van Heyningen and Haward Architects to design a visitor centre. [9] Their work included the overall planning of the estate, the design of an exhibition hall and visitor facilities, car park, and the restoration of the Edwardian house. [10] The £5 million visitor centre (equivalent to £8.2 million in 2019) was opened on 13 March 2002 by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, whose translation of Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon epic poem that describes extravagant burial customs similar to those observed at Sutton Hoo, had been published in 1999. [11]

The National Trust commissioned the English sculptor Rick Kirby to create a work for the visitor centre. He was tasked with making something with a "fierce presence". [1] Kirby's works then included several public commissions, among them a sculpture outside St Thomas' Hospital, unveiled by Princess Margaret in 2000, and another in the Calne town centre, announced by Queen Elizabeth in 2001. [12] The National Trust Sutton Hoo Helmet was winched into place above the entrance of the exhibition hall on 26 February 2002, ahead of its official unveiling in March. [1] [13] The sculpture remained above the doors, dominating the entrance, until 2019 [14] [15] on 30 May it was installed in a new location at the entrance. [16]

In the course of making the sculpture, Kirby completed a mock-up, or maquette. The maquette, 1.97 m (6.5 ft) high with pedestal, was offered for sale by a private art gallery in 2005, with an asking price of £9,600. [17] [18]

Kirby's sculpture is based on the famous helmet found in the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, but is rendered on a much larger scale. [19] It is made from 900 kg (2,000 lb) [1] of mild steel plates that have been coloured red, and is 1.8 m (5.9 ft) high, 1.2 m (3.9 ft) wide, and 1.6 m (5.2 ft) deep. [13] [20] The external structure rests on an internal steel frame. [13] By contrast, the actual helmet is 31.8 cm (12.5 in) high, 21.5 cm (8.5 in) wide, 25.5 cm (10 in) deep, and originally weighed an estimated 2.5 kg (5.5 lb). [21]

Like the fragmented Anglo-Saxon helmet, Kirby's work is made of many pieces of metal, evoking an object reconstructed by an archaeologist. [1] The sculpture intentionally emulates the fragmentary appearance of the helmet's second reconstruction, reassembled from 1970 to 1971 by Nigel Williams, [22] [23] rather than the glistening replica made by the Royal Armouries. [13] Sutton Hoo Helmet was described by the National Trust as "fantastic—such a striking image and it has a real wow factor", [1] [19] and by the East Anglian Daily Times as an "iconic" sculpture greeting visitors to the site. [14]

Both the material and the subject are typical of Kirby's work. Steel is Kirby's material of choice, for what he describes as "the ability to go huge" and its "whoom-factor!" [24] Much of Kirby's other work focuses on the human face and form, [25] and his later pieces Masks and Vertical Face repeat the same staring, unemotive quality. [19] [24]


The helmet bell is bowl-shaped, has a neck visor, cheek flaps and a face mask. The entire surface consists of square plates that are connected to one another with metal strips. The plates are decorated with figurative representations and were made by driving . The pictures show warriors on foot, on horseback, during battle, as well as fallen enemies. Several of the warriors depicted wear horned helmets. The cheek flaps are attached to the helmet with hinges . A wide rail, which is partly made of gold , runs across the apex . This splint ends roughly between the eyebrows and overflows into the nose piece. The end of this rail is designed as a dragon head at the front and rear end . The nose is also made of gold, is engraved and has two holes to make it easier for the wearer to breathe under the helmet. Metal eyebrows are attached over the eye openings, the ends of which terminate in boar heads . These probably served as symbols of strength and courage. The design of the nose, eyebrows and splint over the helmet appear as a stylized representation of a bird flying over the helmet. It is believed that the helmet belonged to the Rædwald of East Anglia († 617 or 625), an English warrior prince or early medieval " warlord ". When it was found, the helmet was broken into about 500 individual parts and was restored by the restorers at the British Museum, and an exact copy was made (see web links).

A trip to Sutton Hoo

Reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet

For many the Sutton Hoo helmet is the face of Anglo-Saxon England. It was a great pleasure, while on holiday in East Anglia this week, to return to Sutton Hoo and view this iconic site that is once more open to the public.

The site is believed to be the royal burial ground of the Kings of East Anglia. It is situated on a sandy ridge overlooking the River Deben in Essex, near Woodbridge. It is only a short distance from Rendlesham, which was recorded by Bede in the 8th Century as the principal royal estate of the Kings of East Anglia.

The River Deben from Sutton Hoo

You can still view the burial mounds, but the ground is being rested at present and so you are unable to walk amongst them. Nevertheless you can view the site where in 1939, the impression of a ship was unearthed beneath a mound. The wood had rotted, but the lines of rivets showed clearly where the ship’s timbers has once been.

The burial mounds at Sutton Hoo The ship burial unearthed in 1939

The ship contained a burial of significant wealth. The helmet was a symbol of royal power in the early 7th Century, before kings began wearing crowns. So the helmet found in the burial is usually taken as evidence that it belonged to one of the Kings of East Anglia. The design of the goldwork in particular dates the burial to the first half of the 7th Century, and the mix of Christian and pagan imagery suggests a man who was hedging his bets over the new religion only recently introduced under the influence of King AEthelberht of Kent in 597. It is generally thought that the best candidate for who was buried in this ship was King Raedwald, who died in 625. He is known to have nominally converted to Christianity, while maintaining pagan shrines.

On a previous visit to Sutton Hoo in 2015, we found that the National Trust had created in the exhibition hall at the Visitors’ Centre a wonderful reconstruction of the burial chamber in the ship showing how the king was laid out with his finery around him. Sadly, this has been swept away in a reorganisation of the exhibition hall, and the current exhibition is a rather limited selection of replicas of some of the finds from the burial, combined with a range of narrative and reconstructed artefacts that explore the roles of various members of the king’s court. It is interesting to see the kind of dress that might have been worn by Raedwald’s Queen (and indeed by Queen Ethelburga who was an exact contemporary), as well as examples of decorative textiles. This all reinforces an impression of royal courts at this time being alive with colour and the glitter of gold. But I do feel it is disappointing that there is no longer such a focus on the burial of the king himself, as it is first and foremost the ship burial and its gold treasure that causes anyone to visit Sutton Hoo at all.

How King Raedwald’s Queen my have dressed Vibrant reconstructed textiles

Sutton Hoo is of more than passing interest for anyone interested in the story of Anglo-Saxon Lyminge. This is because Queen Ethelburga’s husband King Edwin spend some time in exile at the court of Raedwald, and it was with the assistance of Raedwald that Edwin seized back the throne of Northumbria in 616. Edwin’s father Aelle had been King of Northumbria, but on his death, the throne was taken by AEthelfrith, forcing Edwin to flee into exile. Eventually he ended up at the court of Raedwald. AEthelfrith is recorded as having offered money to Raedwald to betray Edwin to him. Instead, Raedwald’s Queen persuaded him to stand by Edwin and instead together they marched out to defeat AEthelfrith in battle on the River Idle in Nottinghamshire. Having gained the throne of Northumbria, Edwin then proceeded to secure a political alliance with the greatest power in England at that time, the Kingdom of Kent, and his own succession through marriage to Ethelburga, sister of Eadbald King of Kent.

Sutton Hoo brings you into close contact with the story of Edwin and Ethelburga that ultimately reached its conclusion in Lyminge. It remains a site of huge interest for anyone seeking to understand England in the 7th Century and the period when Ethelburga was alive.

Watch the video: Sue Takes on the Sutton Hoo Helmet. Curators Corner S6 E5 #CuratorsCorner #SuttonSue #TheDig (December 2022).

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