Appointment of new Chair

We are delighted to announce that Sean McMillan who has been a long-time supporter and member of the Witan has been appointed to the board of Trustees and will be the Company Chair with immediate effect.

Sean has spent the last thirty-five years designing and building wooden yachts with about a hundred now afloat. He was the founder and CEO of Spirit Yachts and has a deep knowledge of managing complex builds from the drawing board to the sea. Prior to his career in yacht construction, he ran an advertising and marketing firm and spent much time at sea on a great variety of sailing craft.

If you would like to see Sean in action, he appeared in an episode of ‘We are England’ at the end of last year called Making Waves: Building Boats This link goes through to the BBC iPlayer

International Artist supports ship

We are thrilled to report a generous donation from international artist Sarah Gusten, who was born in Liberia and has lived in Ghana, Rome, USA, and Yorkshire but recently settled in Portugal. Sarah is currently involved with the Madiba project as part of the Nelson Mandela legacy. This work is inspired by her loving parents and a passion for travelling, “travelling is finding… and this is a very important happening. I have travelled all my life and it has made me who I am”.

We are hoping that Sarah will travel to us soon and see how her kindness is making such a difference to our Project.

Photo: Sarah Güsten and Marina Pizziolo with Professor Martin Carver

In memory of Pete Clay

You will have read in our February Newsletter that one of our founding Trustees, Pete Clay, sadly died in January. Without Pete pushing for the ship to be built in the first place we wouldn’t have this amazing project so it is only fitting that his drive and enthusiasm are remembered and celebrated. To do this we will dedicate ‘Frame 1’ in Pete’s memory. This is the first V-shaped frame in the bow of the ship and will always be the first part of the vessel to arrive at its destination which echoes the way that Pete pushed the project forward. This is likely to be fitted early next year when we will have a special dedication ceremony and once again celebrate the life of a great friend.

Thanks go to everyone who contributed to Pete’s memorial fund which raised over £4000 for the project.

Jewson Sponsorship

We would like to send out our heartfelt thanks to the team at Jewson who have agreed to sponsor us with discounted materials and have funded a new bandsaw.


We have developed quite a relationship with the Woodbridge branch hope to welcome more Jewson employees in the near future so that we can give them a closer look at what we are doing with all their deliveries.


From left to right: ‘Mac’ Macdonald (Production Crew), Jon Buck (Woodbridge Jewson Branch Manager), Tim Kirk (Master Shipwright), Andrew Bullard (Jewson Timber Development Manager, Jacq Barnard (Project Manager)

The Ship’s Co announced new relationship with Tim Taylor’s Time Team

The Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company is very proud to be working with Tim Taylor, Emily Boulting, Helen Geake and the rest of the ‘Time Team’ for the foreseeable future.

The ‘Time Team’ started broadcasting their archaeological TV programmes in 1994 with the last official ‘dig’ programme being aired in 2014. Following a relaunch, the team are now hugely successful again with their revival YouTube Channel called ‘Time Team Classics’. The channel has attracted over 157,000 subscribers in just a few months and is now delighting its fans with regular broadcasts once again.

Link to Time Team Classics YouTube Channel

Time Team Digital – Website

The Ship’s Company will be working closely with the producers to ensure that all the ship’s major milestones are captured on film so that the experience can be shared and retained forever. It is very clear that the aims of both organisations are directly aligned and that the love and enthusiasm for our experimental archaeology project is as important to the Time Team as it is to us.

More updates to follow!

Joe Startin speculates about whether Anglo-Saxon sailors navigated long distances by the skies

Bede the Venerable was a Benedictine monk who lived AD672-732.  At the age of 7 he entered the Benedictine monastery at Monkwearmouth, near Sunderland.  This was a recent foundation, with an excellent library.  A few years later he transferred to a new sister monastery at nearby Jarrow.

He never travelled far, but he communicated widely.  His Latin was good, and he ranks highly as an early medieval historian.  As far as I know, he wrote nothing about navigation, I believe this is significant.

It would be good to know if in his day, sailors were deliberately making long-range crossings of the North Sea to and from England.  Doing so would demand good offshore navigation skills, based on timekeeping and observation of the sun.

Bede was fascinated by the regularities of nature and all this would have impressed him.  The opportunity to exploit the rules of nature in this way would have seemed like divine providence.  He would not have been able to resist writing about it.  As it was, he wrote nothing; so, I would argue, this level of navigation was not current.

Okay, he might have mentioned it in a work that got lost, or I might have got the man wrong.  It is always dangerous to argue on the basis of absence of evidence, but please bear with me.

Bede wrote ‘De Temporum Ratione’, (On the Reckoning of Time) in AD 725.  He describes how to count and record the passing of time; explains that the solar year is not an exact number of days, and how the Julian Calendar uses leap days to account for this; deals with why the moon appears in the different ways that it does, and how it passes through the constellations of the Zodiac. He links the moon to the tides in a more thoughtful way than anyone earlier. Eventually he moves on to the major topic, which is his favoured method for forecasting the date of Easter – using the Metonic cycle, the observation that 235 lunar months are very close to 19 solar years.  (We now know the discrepancy is only a couple of hours.)

[Image from De Temporum Ratione, translation by Faith Wallis, Liverpool University Press]

De Temporum Ratione brings together information which up until then was only piecemeal.  It was coherent and lucid, and became a standard text across Europe for three hundred years or more.

In passing, Bede explains the variation in the length of daylight through the seasons, and why this is more marked in higher latitudes.  He expects his readers to be familiar with sundials.  He points out how high tides occur at different times around the coasts of Britain, moving as a wave rather than a simultaneous surge.

Suppose sailors were using the position of the sun and time of day to work out their direction of travel.  Suppose they could spend days out of sight of land and arrive where they wanted to.  Bede would have been enthralled, revelled in the details, and found it a source of uplifting metaphor, but he wrote not a word about it.

Joe Startin

Follow the Ship

It will be a while yet before the Ship is launched, but last month there was a launch of different kind – a brand new education programme called “Follow the Ship” designed to encourage local schools to visit the Longshed, learn about how the Ship is being built, follow its progress over the next few years, and discover a lot more about our Anglo-Saxon heritage.   28th June saw the first group of young ‘shipmates’ arrive and over the next few days more than 100 children from three local schools (Bawdsey Primary, Woodbridge Primary and Woodbridge School) visited the Longshed.

The programme developed by our sister charity Woodbridge Riverside Trust (WRT), includes: exploring the lifecycle of the wood used to build ships, the tools and techniques Anglo-Saxons employed, the river Deben and its environment, and how that influenced the lives of the people who lived here 1400 years ago.   The children split into groups to take part in activities in the ground floor workshop, in The John Gibbins Gallery and outside The Longshed with a team of our local Anglo-Saxon re-enactors. 


Each session of “Follow the Ship” links to the National Curriculum.   At KS1 it ties into the History curriculum – thinking about ‘significant historical events in their own locality’. It also makes links to Geography as children ‘Interpret a range of sources of geographical information, including maps.’ In the KS2 sessions the children ‘understand how our knowledge of the past is constructed from a range of sources’ and in relation to Geography they ‘describe and understand key aspects of physical geography, including rivers.’ At KS3 it makes links to both Geography and History, and to Science – extending the children’s knowledge of forces and medicine and health.

Mike Sutton from WRT, and Joe Startin from SHSC organised a secure space in the workshop where the children could learn about the wood that is being used to build the ship, how wood is split using mallets made from holly, how to tell the age of a tree, and also have a go at making trenails (tree nails).

The Ship’s Crew team was working throughout the visits, so the children were able to observe – at a safe distance – how axes are used to prepare and shape the planks that will be part of the finished Ship. This photo shows Alec Newland talking to the children about the tools that the Crew are using.

Everyone seemed to have a wonderful time during their visit, and we look forward to welcoming many more local schools to “Follow the Ship”.

We are grateful to everybody on the WRT team who helped make these pilot visits a success. If you want to find out more about the programme please contact Woodbridge Riverside Trust chairman Bryan Knibbs

Photos courtesy of Jason Smith and Sam Simpson


Experimental Archaeology in Practice

David Pryor discusses what we are learning about the shape of tholes for the Ship.

We know from the excavations at Sutton Hoo that our Ship was fitted with tholes for oar propulsion – Joe Startin’s (Director) paper “Tholes in the Sutton Hoo Ship” (in the research section of this site) discusses the archaeological evidence.

The midship model section that we are building in the Longshed is designed to accommodate four rowing positions on each side.  Jacq Barnard (Project Manager) explains the purpose in this video.

Working from drawings that Pat Tanner provided as part of the work that was done to produce digital plans for the Ship, members of the Ships Crew constructed four tholes to be mounted on the port side model.  They have also made experimental oars.

The tholes were constructed from softwood, generating a bearing surface on the thole face of 2 inches with the base of the thole piece measuring 3 inches so as to fit onto the 3-inch thick gunwale strake.  That produced a thole with a radius of 3 inches.

However, when Jacq, a very experienced rower, tried using one of the experimental oars on the model she found that it was impossible to get a good purchase on the thole.  The radius of curvature needs to be significantly smaller than 3 inches.

So we are now planning to construct tholes with a much shallower curvature – more like the ones shown on the banner in the Longshed (photo of one section below) which is a reproduction of the image in volume 1 of  Bruce Mitford’s “The Sutton Hoo Ship” (published in 1975).

This one aspect of the Ship reconstruction perfectly exemplifies what experimental archaeology is all about.  Needless to say, there is a lot more to find out about how the hull, the tholes and the oars interact.  At least it is reasonably easy to change things on the model!

David Pryor

April 2021


Anglo Saxon Tools – Part 1 Axes

The Anglo Saxon ship that was buried at Sutton Hoo was of course made out of wood, a widely available, buoyant, and relatively easily worked substance that was the material of choice for ship-building from the earliest times right up until the beginning of the nineteenth century when traditional wooden hulls were gradually replaced with metal hulls, first iron and then steel.

That being the case, all ship-builders until that time, including the Anglo Saxon ship-builders responsible for building the ship that the Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company is reconstructing, had a close affinity with wood: they knew how to source it and how to work it.

So it’s not surprising to learn that Anglo Saxon woodworkers were called ‘treewrights’. This of course suggests strongly that they viewed the means by which trees were selected, felled, worked and turned into whatever was required as one continuous and interlinked series of activities and skills, a natural and organic form of vertical integration not commonly found in today’s timber industry. So the reconstruction of an Anglo Saxon ship inevitably involves rediscovering and learning from the Anglo Saxon artisanal mindset.

But what exactly were the tools the Anglo Saxon treewrights used for constructing the ship whose ghostly remains the Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company sets out to construct. And what did they look like?

Archaeological evidence from excavations and studies of worked timbers of the period suggests very strongly that the treewright’s tool of choice was the axe. We have axes too of course but do they resemble Anglo Saxon axes and if not, how do they differ?

Well, the answer is that broadly speaking, the Anglo Saxon ship-builders used two different types of axe, both with different uses and different shapes: the felling or chopping axe; and the T-shaped axe.

The Felling or Chopping Axe

As its name suggests, the purpose of the felling or chopping axe was twofold. First, it was used to fell the carefully selected trees that were the object of the treewright’s attention. Secondly, it was used for shaping: working the felled wood roughly into the shapes and objects required by the treewright.

The narrow, convex blade of the chopping axe lends itself to removing material quickly and to working on curved sections such as the frames and stems of a ship. So they were most likely used for carving the frames of the ship and the rough shaping of the keel, stems and planking.

What did they look like? Well typically, the felling or chopping axe has a flared blade that makes it particularly suitable for its purpose. The illustration below gives you a good idea of the general shape of the felling or chopping axe. These axes were excavated at Nydam in Denmark between 1859 and 1863 (Fig 1)

Figure 1. Migration period axes and other woodworking tools found at Nydam (Engelhardt, 1866; pl. XV)

The most well-documented examples of Anglo Saxon woodworking axes come from the excavations at Flixborough in Lincolnshire which took place between 1989 and 1991 (Figs 2 and 3 below).

Interestingly, contemporaneous representations of these felling or chopping axes can also be seen in the Bayeux Tapestry (see Fig 5 below).

T-shaped axes
It is likely that this type of axe was developed from T-shaped axes that were originally used as weapons. It’s a highly specialised tool used only for hewing out planks and smoothing the faces of timber: to get a really fine finish on the planking and flat keel sections, for example.

The T-shaped axe found in Hauxton, Cambridgeshire shown in Figure 4 will give you a good idea of what they looked like.

Again, representations of the T-shaped axe can also be seen in the Bayeux Tapestry (see Fig 5).

Use of axes in the Sutton Hoo Anglo Saxon ship reconstruction

The Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company sets out to make sure that the Anglo Saxon ship that’s being reconstructed in the Longshed at Woodbridge is built as accurately and authentically as possible; and using, as far as possible, replicas or likenesses of the tools with which it would originally have been built.

It’s accepted of course that for pragmatic reasons, compromises inevitably have to be made. For, example, the two trees which were selected in Wiltshire for the keel, and which are now being worked in the Longshed in Woodbridge, were felled using chainsaws. And they were not of course transported to the Longshed by Anglo Saxon methods.

But the Longshed ship-building team is already using T-shaped finishing axes made by blacksmith Alex Pole whose design is based on examples from the Bayeux Tapestry (Fig 6) as well as modern Gransfors Bruks forest axes, one of the closest modern equivalents to the Anglo Saxon felling axe that can be found (Fig 7).

Similarly, they are also using a replica axe which is based on the felling and chopping axes found in the Nydam and Flixborough excavations mentioned above (Fig 8).


Figure 8 . Replica Anglo Saxon felling axe, based on axes found at Nydam and Flixborough

Even more impressively, the team is also using a T-shaped finishing axe, based on 6th and 8th century examples from Tuddenham, Suffolk and Hauxton, Cambridgeshire respectively, with a wrought iron body and a forge-welded steel bit made by blacksmith Hector Cole from recycled mediaeval iron (Fig 9).

Figure 9. Replica T-shaped axe made by Hector Cole

So there you have it. Construction work has started in earnest using as far as is achievable the methods and tools similar to those that the original ship-builders would have used.

We’ll keep you posted with more news as this exciting and important reconstructive archaeology project moves inexorably forward to the slipway and flotation!

Written by, Peter Drew, with thanks to Alec Newland, Ship’s Company Volunteers


Where’s my fixing ?

One of the things that we promise our rivet sponsors is to let them know when the rivet goes into the ship – which means that we must have a map of every single one. I’m pleased to say that I have now completed a project mapping and cataloguing rivets and other fixings that were found in the excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship and cross-referencing these with the fixings shown on plans for the reconstruction of the ship.

Not the sort of thing to set pulses racing you might say, but nonetheless indicative of the many pieces of background work needed to inform both the experimental archaeological aspects of the reconstruction of the ship and the archaeological record of the original Sutton Hoo Ship.

The starting point was the plan of the fixings that were found when the Sutton Hoo burial mound was excavated.  That plan was included in ‘The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial’ by Rupert Bruce-Mitford (published by the British Museum in 1975).  This book, often referred to as “Volume 1”, is regarded as the definitive work on the subject.  The plan shows just over 1550 numbered fittings in positions where they were found on excavation.

The initial work involved mapping all the fixings shown on the Volume 1 plan.   I found the original numbering system to include some quirks – which made the task harder than it might have been.

I developed a bespoke numbering system that could be applied to both the fixings shown on the  Volume 1 plans of the Sutton Hoo ship, and those used in the reconstruction.   This system uses a unique combination of characters for each fixing which collectively provide a reference specifying the type and precise position of the fixing on the ship.

The final stage involved allocating numbers generated using the new system, to all the fixings shown in the Volume 1 plan and the corresponding fixings on the plans for the reconstruction. 

The numbers used to identify the fixings on the reconstruction during its build will not only simplify the recording of what fixing goes where but will also enable sponsors of individual fixings to pinpoint exactly where on the ship their fixing was used.  

Our aim is to input all the above data into a digital system which will simplify the process of providing an answer to any sponsor who asks ‘Where’s my fixing?’.

Roger Hopkins

May 2021