Artist’s impression suggesting what the burial ceremony for King
Raedwald might have looked like.
We have a requirement for timber to use in the reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo ship. This document gives a brief background to the ship and the project and identifies the timber required. As a small charitable organisation we are seeking to source the timber as economically as possible, whilst maintaining a high quality of the build.
The Sutton Hoo ship is believed to have been the burial ship of King Raedwald of the East Angles who died and was buried on the promontory at Sutton Hoo, above the River Deben and opposite the modern town of Woodbridge, Suffolk. Raedwald died in 624 or 625 AD, and it is believed that the ship was built around 600AD and saw considerable service before being buried with its owner. The burial site was first excavated in 1939 and the grave goods discovered there form the centrepiece of the British Museum’s early-medieval exhibition. The excavation was recently portrayed in the Netflix film, ‘The Dig’.
The ship is currently being re-built by the Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company in a major Experimental Archaeology project in association with the University of Southampton and other academic institutions. The build is taking place at ‘The Longshed’, a site purpose built as a community boatshed and museum on the town quay at Woodbridge (see www.saxonship.org).
The ship was a 27m (88ft) long open, clinker-built rowing boat powered by forty oars (there is some evidence that she may also have been sailed), built of oak with iron nails fastening the planking to neighbouring strakes and willow trenails fastening the planking to the oak frames. Other timbers native to the location and period which may have been used include Ash, Scots Pine and Chestnut.
The timber we are seeking will predominantly come in two forms; long clear runs of oak from trunks 6m to 9m in length and up to 1.2m diameter (at chest height) for planking and other longitudinal timbers, and curved timbers up to 4m long and 0.4m diameter for frames. Multiple smaller sections are also required as described below.
Oak for the planking and longitudinal members requires to be straight-grained and clear of knots, shakes and other defects. ‘Twisted grain’, evidenced by a spiralling of the bark fissures around trunk, is generally not acceptable due to the twisting of the wood grain within providing twisted planking once ‘cleaved’ (split with wedges and mallets) and finished to thickness with axes. However, one length of this, approx. 6m long x 0.9m dia., is required for the natural twist evident in the lower plank-ends.
2. Curved timbers
The framing of the ship is built up from multiple curved pieces of timber: ‘floors’, which cross the centreline of the ship and provide much of its transverse strength; ‘futtocks’, which attach to the ‘floors’ and frame the sides of the ship; and ‘rongs’, which combine a floor and a futtock. When regularly interspersed along the length of the ship, combinations of these frame-sections minimise the weaknesses caused by the scarfed joints and maximise the athwartships strength of the ship. These timbers, either as curved trunks or larger branches from the lower canopy of the tree, will be up to 3m long and 0.5m diameter in order that the central ‘pith’ and, ideally, the outer sapwood might be avoided. However, this is not absolutely essential, and there is some archaeological evidence from other ships that both the centre of branches and sapwood might be included at times. The key requirement is that the curvature of the grain meets the natural curve of the ship at that point in order that maximum strength is obtained. Unfortunately, this means that individual full-size patterns are required to be placed against a potential timber to assess its suitability (or at least separate patterns are required for every second or third frame).
Larger curved sections are required to form the stem and the sternpost of the ship. One trunk has already been obtained, but at least one more, dependent upon size and suitability, will be required. The trunk shown below is 10.8m long x 0.9m diameter at chest height. Subsequent timbers will not require such a length – 6m (or possibly less) would be suitable – but this girth allows two pieces of timber to be obtained, one from either half, from the same length. Full-size patterns have been made and can be taken to potentially suitable trees, but the largely individual nature of each piece means that, ideally, potential pieces would be grouped together on one site for selection and onward transportation.
The tree obtained for stem and sternpost sections, standing and felled (10.8m long x 0.9m dia.)
Other, smaller curved pieces may be obtained from smaller branches in the canopies of these trees. They are, generally, difficult to obtain from timber yards as in modern settings they are deemed to be of little use and are often cut up for firewood. Shown below are grown crooks for the end frames in the ship and branch junctions for ‘tholes’. These tholes are the point at which the oars pivot on the gunwale of the ship and through which the thrust of the oars is transmitted to the hull. Multiple patterns are available. we require approximately fifty of these sections, each approximately 1.2m long x 0.3m diameter.
‘Grown Frame’ and ‘Thole’ patterns on appropriate timber
For the oars of the ship, and with spares and experimental examples, we will require approximately sixty oars. Initially, we will be trialing different materials – Oak, Ash, and Scot’s Pine – approximately six of each type. These need to be of the straightest sections possible, clear of knots and other defects, and approximately 6m long x 0.2m diameter. Once a final decision on the material is made, material for forty oars will be required. Larger diameters would allow multiple oars to be made from each piece. The presence of small amounts of Ash Dieback disease in the butt end of a tree might be acceptable as it could be removed in the conversion process.
Oars, in production in the Longshed and in use on our experimental midships model.
Other parts of the ship are expected to come from offcuts of the larger sections. It is expected that we will use the equivalent of around twelve mature oak trees to build the ship, although this total will undoubtedly require more than twelve trees to be felled.