In Defence of the Wuffings: a Review of Martin Carver’s Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings? (British Museum Press, 1998)

I have called this page ‘In Defence of the Wuffings’ but it is as much concerned with the defence of scholarly method. It was originally published as a review in the Newsletter of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology & History, 50 (2000), pp.10-11.

The interrogative form of the title of Professor Carver’s book suggests that his primary purpose is to question the widely accepted status of Sutton Hoo as a royal burial-ground. Yet this is not so, for he acknowledges the site’s royal status in the first paragraph of his introduction. It emerges in later chapters that his purpose is to question, through a curiously political interpretation of Sutton Hoo, our understanding of Old English kingship in general and of the Wuffing kings of East Anglia in particular.

Elsewhere in his introduction, he writes that “this book is offered as a guide” for an “imaginative journey” to Sutton Hoo, visiting “a world of warrior-kings” involving “ritual killing” and “the politics of independence”, as well as for a “real journey” (p.ix). A visitor to this part of Suffolk, however, should be warned against following the directions given here, as neither Staverton Thicks nor Rendlesham Forest can be found by travelling down the B1083, as the author states (p.ix). If his references to the local geography are misleading, we might wonder if we can trust his guidance for this “imaginative journey” to Sutton Hoo.

A little further on he explicitly solicits the reader’s trust. “The present book”, he writes, “is not a detailed argument designed to convince the specialist, but a narrative sequence intended for the visitor, the student and those who like a good story, and are happy to take a certain amount on trust to get it” (p.xii). In fact, he asks his readers to take a very large amount “on trust”. Most would probably be prepared to accept his “good story” on the reasonable assumption that the propositions he advances, imbued as they are with his professorial authority, are based on evidence which has been properly assessed. The way in which he presents the evidence here, however, raises questions about the safety of such an assumption.

For example, where he refers to the Wuffing kings he often gives the impression that he has does not fully understand the nature of the historical sources pertaining to the dynasty. These include the Old English royal genealogies, which he appears to have read at face-value, confusing legendary with historical ancestors, and pedigree with regnal list. He thus presents questionable inference as fact when he asserts that the East Anglian royal eponym, Wuffa, died in “578” (p.33) and that “the earliest kings of East Anglia are recorded to have died in the late sixth century” (p.136). He seems unaware of the work of Dr David Dumville, who has shown that the legendary names in the upper reaches of these genealogies should not be regarded as historical figures whose positions are determined chronologically (D.Dumville, “Kingship, Genealogies, and Regnal Lists”, Early Medieval Kingship, ed. P.Sawyer & I.Wood, [Leeds 1977], pp.72-104; see also my “Beowulf and the East Anglian royal pedigree”, The Age of Sutton Hoo, ed. M.Carver [Boydell 1992], pp.65-74).

His cursory references to the Old English epic of Beowulf, moreover, suggest that he has read the poem a little carelessly. For instance, he makes an elementary blunder when he states that the hero Beowulf is the son of the royal eponym Scyld (p.24), while his literal reading of the epic’s magnificent account of Scyld’s royal ship-funeral (ll.26-52) implies that his appreciation of its poetic significance (p.24) is somewhat superficial (see my own study of this account and its relation to archaeology in my The Origins of Beowulf and the pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia [D.S.Brewer 1993], pp.45-51).

If his reading of these important documentary sources raises questions, we might wonder how far can we trust his reading of the archaeology of Sutton Hoo. Yet even here, where one would expect the evidence to have been handled with judicial scrutiny, doubts arise. For example, it is puzzling to find him describing the sword-belt from Mound One without question as a “Sam Browne” (p.29) or a “baldric” (p.29, Plate 1b, and fig.77) after Dr Rupert Bruce-Mitford had so carefully analysed it in his definitive report on the great Mound One ship-burial and shown it to be otherwise (R.Bruce-Mitford, The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial, Vol.2, [British Museum 1978], pp.564-582). Elsewhere he seems to say that he has not had time to do justice to Dr Bruce-Mitford’s report, to which he refers rather dismissively. “By the time it had all appeared” he writes,

“there were few people whose mode of existence would allow them the time and the space to absorb the whole of such a work. Its existence provided a quarry of information and ideas, rather than a text-book for the student or a briefing document for the busy researcher” (p.41).

This brings us to what is perhaps the central proposition of the book. As part of his research, the author had visited Gamla Uppsala in Sweden, home of “the Inglinga [sic] dynasty” and “scene in the ninth century [sic] of the mass sacrificial hanging of men, horses and dogs which had been observed and reported by the missionary Adam of Bremen” (p.56). Again giving the impression that he has not given his full attention to nature of his source, he seems to have taken Adam of Bremen’s probably exaggerated and certainly propagandist eleventh-century picture at face-value and then sought to project such a scene onto the landscape of seventh-century Sutton Hoo. This might explain why he places such great emphasis on some of the odd burials found at the site, especially those grouped around Mound Five. He describes these as “sacrificial” or “ritual killings”, his proposition being that they should be regarded as victims of royal political murder.

Most of these odd burials are much later in date than the royal mounds and probably derive from the later use of Mound Five as the site of a gallows for criminal execution. This probability has been admirably demonstrated by Dr Andrew Reynolds in his doctoral dissertation (for a useful summary see Andrew Reynolds’s “Sutton Hoo and the Archaeology of Execution”, Saxon, 27 [1997], pp.1-3). This the Professor concedes (p.141), yet insists that “it can however be argued from the Sutton Hoo evidence that execution had begun earlier, and it was the creation of kingship in the seventh century that may have been responsible for its first appearance and provided its context” (pp.141-142).

It is not at all clear what this “Sutton Hoo evidence” might be, for only one of the Mound Five satellite-burials, Burial 53, can be seen to be even vaguely contemporary with the barrow (p.139). This body seems to have been interred in one of the mound’s encircling quarry pits before that pit had silted up much (pp.109, 142). This might have been some time later than the date of the building of the mound, whenever that was exactly, but the author clearly prefers to see Burial 53 as a contemporary victim of royal political murder (pp.109, 142). Whatever the fate that led that anonymous individual to his grave, if this is all the “Sutton Hoo evidence” amounts to, a charge of political murder surely cannot be sustained.

Nevertheless, he speculates further that even the bodies which probably derive from later criminal executions should be seen as victims to the rule of kings. “Public killing,” he states,

“whether sanctioned by judicial or religious belief, must always have been seen as sacrificial [?], in the sense that the act mitigated a threat [?]. But what threat? The most likely answer is that execution was a necessary instrument for the removal of ideological or political deviants, in which case we are looking for a time when there was a new law and authority to challenge. We are led to the conclusion [?] that the ritual killing at Sutton Hoo represents a concomitant [?] to kingship”(p.140).

It is not at all clear how “we are led” to this curious “conclusion”, which sounds more like a prejudicial assumption partly camouflaged by jargon than a properly developed point. It seems to me that so far a justifiable case linking the establishment of kingship to the murder of “ideological or political deviants” in the way imagined here has not been properly presented anywhere. The historical sources for early England provide clear evidence that kings were capable of killing those who challenged them. King Penda of Mercia, for example, brought about the deaths of the Wuffing kings Ecgric (or Æthelric), Sigeberht, and Anna (Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica III, 18), and his slaughter of the Northumbrian king and martyr Oswald (Bede, ibid. III, 9 & 12) might almost be described as a “ritual killing”.

The killing of one king by another, however, is not the concern of our author, who for reasons that are unclear seems to regard some, if not all, of the odd burials at Sutton Hoo as martyrs to some sort of prior egalitarian utopia, executed by Wuffings for dissent. He maintains this strange view long enough to enable him to spin the baseless conjecture that some of the execution burials could even be directly associated with the rich ship-burials from Mounds One and Two (pp.140, 142-143). “On the whole,” he pleads, “the story as we have it is not overly far-fetched” (pp.142-3).

Whether or not any of these apparently tendentious speculations can be substantiated when the Professor publishes the full report of his recent excavations remains to be seen. In the meantime, it seems disingenuous of him to pretend to innocent readers that ‘sacrificial’ or political murder really is a serious possibility at Sutton Hoo and that it should be somehow linked to the glories of the treasure-laden longship from Mound One. As such, his “story as we have it” appears not only “overly far-fetched”, it could be said to amount to a potentially grotesque misrepresentation.

I regret very much having to make these points and have hesitated long before doing so, for Professor Carver was kind to me during the early stages of my own research. There is no doubt that his archaeological technique is sound, as can be seen, for example, in his careful excavation of Mound Two ship-burial. Thanks to his work, much new information has emerged even though the burial-chamber had been thoroughly burgled. We are also indebted to him for his most impressive restoration of the mound to its estimated original shape. It is his puzzling, and peculiarly political, post-excavation interpretation of Sutton Hoo that raises the questions.

None of this would probably matter very much if he was presenting his case before a jury of his scholarly peers, as he did with some of his earlier theories on Sutton Hoo at the research conferences held at Oxford in the nineteen-eighties. But with the realisation that this avowedly populist work, with its attractive cover and pictures, and now to be published in paperback, will probably represent the first introduction to the wonders of Sutton Hoo for many readers thirsty to learn and trusting his authority, we must deplore the fact that he has so muddied the waters for them.

© Copyright Dr Sam Newton, Solmonaþ AD 2000

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