Eighty years ago this summer, one of Britain’s most important Anglo-Saxon archeological finds was discovered at a site in Suffolk called Sutton Hoo. Beneath an earthen mound, the remains of an 88′ long burial ship was found. Within this grave was found the largest horde of treasure ever discovered from early medieval Europe. Emblematic of this find is the Sutton Hoo helmet. With its exceptional survival and haunting appearance it has become an icon that now serves to represent this early medieval period. The original helmet and a replica that shows its former glory both reside in the British Museum. In a New Yorker article entitled, Revisiting Sutton Hoo, Britain’s Mythical Ship Burial, Sam Knight recounts the story of how the boat was first discovered and then how the helmet and many other artifacts eventually made their way to the museum.
A wealthy widow with an interesting name, Edith Pretty is central to this story. Eighty years ago, she owned the property called Sutton Hoo. In Old English Hoo means a spur of land. On her property were a series of mysterious mounds. Old maps marked them as Roman burial mounds, but local legend held that they contained treasure. A house guest of a spiritualist bent claims to have once seen a mounted warrior in their midst at night. Pretty hired Basil Brown, an amateur archeologist to explore the mounds. He began with some of the smaller mounds. Brown found a few broken artifacts, but nothing of note. He eventually tackled the largest hillock and soon discovered the outline of the ship. The soil’s acidic nature had eaten away at all of the wood, but left behind in the dirt was the hull’s impression and rows of metal rivets that once held the boat’s boards together. At the boat’s center was found a chest that contained treasure.
263 beautiful relics were eventually discovered. They came from far away, as far away as the likes of Constantinople and South Asia. The sophistication of their artwork indicates that the so-called Dark Ages may not have been as dark as supposed. It is believed that this burial mound was the grave of a King Raedwald of East Anglia, who died around 625 AD. Sutton Hoo shed new light on the age of Beowulf. Experts from the British Museum were called in. They pushed Brown aside and wanted to halt further excavation and first erect a protective roof, but a medium advised Pretty to continue. They discovered the site’s most important gold and silver artifacts.
Before further study could commence the question of ownership of this treasure had to be decided. If the treasure had been deliberately concealed, it would go to the Crown, or if it had simply been abandoned, then Pretty would own it. A local jury decided that the builders of this grave had wanted it to be known, but that it was later abandoned as pagan when Christianity eventually took hold. Pretty was awarded ownership. She promptly donated it all the British Museum. This story of discovery played out on the eve of World War II, eighty years ago.