The seventh in a series of excerpts from diaries of the 1939 excavation as told by Mark Mitchells, Cultural Historian and Ship’s Company Volunteer Crew Member.
Monday 24th July to Thursday 27th July
Monday 24 July 1939 was a day largely given over to tidying up the site and preparing for the next big step – removing the contents of the burial chamber. The wooden object identified as the shield was much more substantial than first thought, although some of the wood on top was more likely only part of the fallen roof. It was a very windy day and as they worked they could only watch in despair as gold gilt blew off the shield and across the site!
Two new members of the team arrived, Mr. OGS Crawford and Mr. WG Grimes. The latter would be responsible for preparing artefacts for removal to a laboratory.
From now onwards the account mentions some of the great treasures with which we are now familiar. On Tuesday 25 July attention was on the “mass of corroded iron at the east end of the deposit”, which would later resolve itself as the iron bound wooden tub and bucket, with a complex chain beside it. In addition, at the other end of the chamber was “the supposed shield”, which was found to be covering a small silver vessel.
Next day work began on clearing the three bronze cauldrons at the eastern end (the bow). They were badly crushed but it was possible to make out that each had a twisted iron rim, which would have improved their strength. The iron bound wooden tub found the previous day had large iron handles, and was thought to be covered with the wood from the collapsed burial chamber roof.
In the afternoon the great silver dish was removed and it was found to have a deep foot. Beneath it lay a small silver bowl “like a finger bowl” which contained a “small pad of textile”. And there were also six (probably) wooden bottles which had rims of gilt metal.
And there was more. The large silver bowl stood on a leather bag, which had two silver square loop handles “attached to the leather by four plain circular escutcheons.” There was a possibility that all the items had been placed on a large wooden tray, long since decayed.
At the western end of the chamber (the stern) it was now time to remove what is known as the Coptic bowl. This had five angons (or short spears) pushed through the handle, and another on the ground beside it. Phillips admits: “it proved impossible to avoid breaking one of the angons”, but it is surely a miracle that any were intact!
It was at the end of this day that they began excavating the bucket and so discovered “a bronze claw-like object projecting from the face of sand” which was “the figure of a stag with its heading looking north.” Phillips notes that it had been mounted on an iron ring. Modern visitors to Sutton Hoo will find it depicted everywhere as it is one of the most familiar images used by the marketing department!
When work resumed the next day (Thursday 27 July) the first item to be removed was from the west end of the chamber. “It was about five feet in length and consisted of a long iron bar with a heavy pointed end to the north. Fixed at a point about one foot from the south end was a square grill frame of iron with horned animal heads at the corners.” It was found to be in a fair condition, but posed many questions as to its use.
While it is only fair to offer a “fake news alert” there are historians who speculate this may have been a war standard, carried into battle before the troops, and perhaps even decorated with the heads of recently defeated enemies! It is generally taken to be evidence that the Sutton Hoo burial was of a leader of the first importance. Bede speaks of Edwin, King of Northumbria progressing behind a standard “in the Roman manner” and it is possible Edwin got the idea from Raedwald with whom he stayed at Rendlesham. The hero Beowulf was presented with one too. Was it the symbol of the High King? Fancy excavating objects which can even possibly be related to documentary events!
“An iron sword with gold mounts laid with hilt to the west along the middle line of the boat.” In the Anglo-Saxon world possession of a sword marked out a leader. The quality of the sword revealed during this part of the excavation left no doubt that the grave was of the highest rank. It was still within its sheath, although that had all but decayed, leaving only wood and possible ivory traces. The pommel had gold and garnet cloisonné fittings with studs at the end of the grip. What a treasure! It was both a lethal weapon and a work of art. Due no doubt to the roof collapsing, the sword blade was in in many pieces.
Between the sword and the iron stand were found two silver bowls, which were found to contain eight more of similar size. “All save the outer one were either in first-class condition or only slightly affected round the edges.”
Tucked under them were two silver spoons which have attracted a great deal of speculation. It is suggested that they might be baptismal gifts to the person honoured, and that asks the question: Why would Christian objects be found in what is clearly a pagan burial? Well, Bede the historian of the English church tells us that Raedwald for a short time accepted Christianity (until his wife told him to stop!) and that may be yet another clue as to the identity of the person in the boat.
Finally, the great question is answered by Phillips as he wrote his notes at the end of a long and eventful day. “It was agreed by all that although an inhumation had probably taken place in this region of the burial chamber there was no surviving trace of it either in the form of bones or teeth or any local effect.”
to be continued….