The early seventh century AD Anglo-Saxon ship burial from Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, England, is one of the richest and most important ship burials from early medieval northwest Europe. Indeed, it is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world, a status stemming mainly from the stunning wealth of grave-goods excavated from the site and now displayed in the British Museum.

The imprint of the 27m long ship, left behind in the soil, attests to a large clinker-built vessel fit to contain a royal burial. The nature of the wider site, the burial, and the general arrangement of the ship is understood through initial excavation in 1939, and further re-excavation in mid and late 20th century. Despite several attempts, and the building of a half-scale replica in the 1990s, the detail of the vessel has not been fully investigated from an experimental archaeological perspective – encompassing its construction, use, and burial.

Our project seeks to undertake the full-scale reconstruction of the ship in order to better understand its use, performance, and deposition. Phase One of this project, is concerned with digital reconstruction and testing of the hull, prior to full-scale physical reconstruction. Initial work was undertaken, based on the archival material, to reconstruct the lines of the vessel. This is followed by detailed 3D modelling of every element of the ship’s hull to inform detailed hydrostatic testing and to finalise the construction plan of the ship for the subsequent full-scale construction to be undertaken in Phase 2.

Undertaking Phase 1 of the project will shed valuable new light on the characteristics and potential performance of the original Saxon Longship. The methodology involved will ensure that the conclusions of Phase 1 offer the most informed understanding produced so far, of what the original ship might have looked like, and how it might have been crewed and rowed.

But, desk-based modelling can only do so much, literally, in a virtual sense. The only way to understand the grandeur of the original ship is through the full-scale building of our interpretation, of the archaeological excavation. In doing that, the challenges of building and using such a large vessel will be revealed, and will be better understood as a result. This in turn will increase our knowledge about the seafaring capabilities of the early Anglo-Saxons.

Dr Julian Whitewright, Senior Teaching Fellow in Maritime Archaeology at the University of Southampton