The Royal Burial Chamber
Amidships was the burial chamber, originally quite a building, made of oak beams five inches square and with a strong gabled roof formed by two layers of one inch oak planking laid cross-grained This structure eventually collapsed when the beams rotted and the thousand or so tons of sand and soil of the mound above fell in, sandwiching the contents.
Except in certain protected locations, such as underneath the great silver dish at the foot of the body space, most things organic disappeared over the centuries in the acid sand of Sutton Hoo.
The body of the king had been laid down along the line of the keel, with his head towards this western end, resplendent in the most marvelous regalia of gold and jewellery (some of the best of which appears to have been made in an East Anglian royal workshop), of a quality and a quantity unparalleled in the archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England, as we shall see in a moment. After thirteen centuries underground the mortal remains of the king had returned to dust but there can be little room for doubt that he had once lain there.
He may have been lying on a bed or dais (perhaps with pillows and covers) on the deck of the ship with the great gable-ended burial-chamber above him, and about a thousand tons of soil of the mound above that. The eventual collapse of the decking and burial-chamber would have made it difficult to locate a probably already decayed body, all the more so given the acid nature of the sand in which all was buried.
As to the identity the king embarked on this great vessel’s last voyage, given that the evidence of the coin collection buried with the body suggests a date around the third decade of the seventh century, the most likely candidate on the present historical evidence is King Rædwald, one of the greatest of the Wuffing kings, who was overlord of Britain from c.617 until his death c.625.
Although his body seems to have turned to dust, we can reconstruct him! For much of the splendid personal regalia of this warrior-king has survived the thirteen centuries or so underground. Mrs. Pretty was right all along, there was certainly gold in this hill – and not just gold, also jewellery and silver of the highest quality.
The Sutton Hoo ship was truly, to borrow a phrase from the Old English epic of Beowulf, a céol gegyrwan, a ‘comely-decked keel’, laden with the most splendid crown jewels, what the Old English would have called wundormaþþum, ‘wonder-treasures’, or þéodgestreonum, ‘folk-treasures’.
Let us now embark upon a voyage around some of the wonders of this great royal ship-burial, beginning with the royal sword and culminating with the reconstruction of the king.
© Copyright Dr Sam Newton 2000, 2014