Joe Startin speculates – did the Sutton Hoo ship sail?

Did the Sutton Hoo Ship buried in Mound 1 use a sail?  The conventional wisdom is reflected on the British Museum website. “….it is just not possible to tell if the ship had a mast and was sailed in the open sea, or if it just had oars for rowing along the coast and rivers.”

But the romance of sail is strong.  Edwin Gifford built a half-length replica, Sae Wylfing, to test some of his theories about sailing.  There is a famous (infamous?) picture of her creaming down the Deben taken by Cliff Hoppitt in 1994

Photo of Sae Wylfing on the Deben taken in 1994 (courtesy of Cliff Hoppitt)

Who would want to imagine things otherwise?  It seems unthinkable that the Anglo-Saxons would have been such spoilsports as to forego a mast.

The ‘sailing’ I am thinking of uses a sizeable mast and a big sail.  And it is more than allowing the wind to puff you along from behind.  To be a regular, practical option, you must be able to sail when the wind comes from the side too – you must be able to ‘reach’.There is nothing convincing in the written record to say whether the early Anglo-Saxons were sailing or not, let alone what our particular ship was doing. Scandinavians have plenty of evidence to show that they made brilliant use of sail from about 800CE onwards.  How and when they got to that state is the subject of endless debate.  There is some indication of earlier prowess in pictures carved on standing stones on the Baltic island of Gotland.

Fragment of a standing stone from Gotland

A simple sail, using sheets (ropes) at the corners, starts to appear around 500 or 600, depending on who you believe. The sea-faring kingdom of Dál Riata, covering the NE tip of Ireland, the Inner Hebrides, and the adjacent Scottish coast, was flourishing around 600CE.  Their naval ships were ‘seven benchers’, with two men to each oar.  But they are also said to have had a mast and a single sail as well with 28 rowers.  Alas, Dál Riatans would not have had the slightest contact with East Anglia until Irish missionaries started arriving in the 630s.

There is a strong motivation for merchants to use sail.  If they can turn up somewhere with rare and attractive goods, they might make a killing.  They cannot afford to pay and feed lots of rowers, but they are prepared to hang around waiting for a fair wind.  A shortish, tough, beamy old tub would do for a ship, so long as it could get there.

In the middle of the 6th century, the overland trade route from Byzantium to Scandinavia was interrupted.  Goods went instead via the mouth of the Rhine, and along the coast, through the Wadden Sea, to Jutland and onwards.  The trade grew, becoming dominated by the Frisians.  Emporia (trading settlements) sprouted on the continental side, and had counterparts on the English side too, not least in Ipswich – “England’s oldest  continuously inhabited town” – from about 600CE.

I think sailing would have been around in Raedwald’s time, if only for trade.  And anyway, it would be odd if it had been completely forgotten since the Romans left for good in 410CE.

To be continued…..

Joe Startin