The Treasure of Sutton Hoo
The time period between 500-950 is often referred to as the Dark Ages. This time period is believed by most to be a time of ignorance and lack of prosperity.(Asimov 85-88) These ideas are generated from a number of artifacts found in a couple of excavations that have taken place recently. From these excavations much knowledge is gained about the past. There was an excavation at Sutton Hoo, England which proved these beliefs to be wrong. The archaeological dig at Sutton Hoo, England unearthed artifacts from the Anglo-Saxon time period, which prove that the term Dark Ages is a misnomer. Items, such as pottery with elaborate designs and eating utensils, prove that this really was not a period of ignorance in England, but in actuality, a period of growth.
The common belief of the Dark Ages is that it was a period with no interest in the arts or literature. The next time period was even named the Renaissance just to sound much more superior and intellectual than its predecessor.(Garraty, Gay, and McGill 481) The Anglo-Saxons were the barbaric setters of this Middle Age time period. Western England is the part of England that is most often associated with the negative label of having the Dark Ages. Here even the study of medicine was halted and literature was not studied at all.(Thomas 66-67) Their lifestyles were very different from ours today, because of their barbaric nature. The Anglo-Saxons were at constant warfare. They fought in a style known as total warfare , which was a type of fighting that had proven to be a very poor type of war. This was a style of fighting from the past which had proven to be extremely wasteful in regards to casualties which, were abnormally high when fighting occurred. In most cases people were not buried when they died, and they were almost never buried if they were killed in war. With England being at constant warfare, there was no time for the spread of new ideas, and the economy, along with education, came to a halt. Children were taken out of school to practice for battle and the adults stopped working and also began to prepare for fighting; only the priests and monks were literate.(Asimov 163-167)
The Anglo-Saxons ways of life were very different from today s lifestyles. Very little stress was put on the fundamentals of life such as literacy, religion, and the arts. They thought there was no relevant reason for them to spend time studying and continuing to progress as more educated people, and in a sense, they probably should not have. They were constantly fighting trying to protect their well being and their homes, because they were under relentless attack. Up until the Dark Ages the ideas of cities were beginning to spread rapidly but they quickly died when they reached Western England.
There were many different types of burials that were performed when someone of importance died. One of the most interesting burials were ship burials , like the one at Sutton Hoo. These took place almost strictly for people of the upper class, such as royalty. There was usually a ceremony, and then everyone who was mourning put objects of importance into a chamber of the ship and the body was placed in a different chamber of the ship. Sometimes they just buried something with the objects of importance as a monument to the deceased and buried the body in a different location.(Phillips 39) This type of burial is described very well in a portion of Beowulf:
They laid then the beloved chieftain, giver of rings, in the ship s bosom, glorious by the mast. There were brought many treasures, ornaments from far-off lands. Never have I heard that a vessel was more fairly fitted-out with war-weapons and battle-raiment, swords and coats of mail. On his bosom lay a host of treasures, where were to travel far with him into the power of the flood.(Johnson)
In this quote Beowulf speaks of the flood that takes place in the poem and the ship a man of great importance was buried in. This is a good translation of the ship burials which took place in the Dark Ages.(Kendall and Wells 46-59) A Christian burial during this time was to bury a body at one site and put some type of a monument, in this case a ship, at a different location. These burials were fairly rare, considering that very few are unearthed and when they are these excavations are very significant to our understanding of the history.
Most of the people from this time period were Pagan, while the few others were Christian. These were the three most widespread religions of that time. The Pagans were the irreligious people of the Dark Ages who did not attend church and spent all of their lives fighting and battling. The Christians did not reside at the Sutton Hoo area because they did not practice religion, literacy, or arts. Since this archaeological site was filled with artwork and religious items the Christians were ruled out as to being the settlers.
There was little artwork made in the Dark Ages and when it was, it was usually as a tribute to someone of great importance. There was great stress placed on the importance of leaders and royalty in this period, so very frequently the only artwork found was made for a great king or ruler.
In 1939 C.W. Phillips began to dig and eventually unearthed an ancient Anglo-Saxon ship in Woodbridge Suffolk, better known as Sutton Hoo, England. He was the leader of an excavation team, which was formed by the British Museum. In this excavation an actual ship was not unearthed but actually the tracing of a ship along with pieces of the ship. The rotted wood from the ship stained all of the sand and these stains left an elaborate picture of the ship in the ground. The site was excavated so carefully that an actual photograph of the entire ship was taken, even though all of the wood had decayed and all that remained were the stains left in the dirt. The ship had originally been approximately 86 feet long and it took the shape of a rowing boat. At this time the excavation team concluded that the site had never been looted and this was the first knowledge of Sutton Hoo. The area was eventually left because of the start of the second world war and was re-excavated in the 1960 s, but it was obvious that some of the materials from the site were stolen by grave robbers. Even with this looting there was still an excess of material found for research purposes and display in museums.(Anderson and Crumlin-Pederson) This site was hypothesized to be a burial site because of its eleven large mounds before excavation. After the site was excavated their beliefs proved to be true and a further conclusion was made: that this was a burial site of the Wuffings, an Anglo-Saxon tribe. Their main concern was a very large mound shaped unlike all of the others. It was a large oval, which had sunken in at the center. After digging the site the shape was explained by a ship which was under the land, the inner cavity of the ship had collapsed from the rotting of wood, leaving a hollow spot at the top of the oval.(Phillips 46)
There was so much treasure found that archaeologists are fairly certain it was for a very grand king. All of the treasure has been classified into three distinct groups. These groups are: domestic utensils and minor weapons, personal ornaments and personal weapons, and royal regalia. The objects found range from weaponry to eating utensils to jewels.(Phillips 47-52) All of the materials were extremely extravagant and elaborate. This grave is considered the greatest treasure ever to be unearthed in Britain.
The main question brought to mind with this excavation is, who was buried there, but there is not a definitive answer to this yet. The dating of coins found in the ship can help us put a label on the deceased Anglo-Saxon, that was commemorated at Sutton Hoo. Through today s technological advances we are able to place strategic dates on materials such as these coins which were unearthed, using a process known as carbon dating.(Phillips 52-53) Through this process we have concluded that the coins were made around five hundred AD. Scientists have also found that the king must be a member of the Wuffings dynasty, through strict studies of the materials unearthed, and their relationship with the Wuffings. There are three possible answers to the question of who was tributed at Sutton Hoo, and none of them have been proven because each of the ideas can seem very far-fetched. One of the possibilities is Redwald, an Anglo-Saxon king of East Anglia. He ruled in 616 and the carbon dating of the coins proves that he is a possible king. One more candidate was Anastasius, an emperor of Byzantine who died in 518. Anastasius is a likely choice because of an artifact, which was found in the burial cavity of the ship. This artifact was a silver dish which had Anastasius written on it. It is more probable that it was Anastasius because he was a Catholic leader and most of the materials unearthed are of Catholic styles. Another fact that backs up this opinion is that the Byzantine Empire was one of the few parts of England, which was not in a Dark Age; therefore, explaining the surplus of artwork and religious memorabilia found at Sutton Hoo. The last possibility is Aethelhere who died in 655 in battle. His body was lost in the floodwaters of the Winwaed, which would explain the lack of a body at Sutton Hoo. Anastasius is the most likely still to be the one honored at Sutton Hoo.(Phillips 46-47)
Much can be said about the ship itself, which showed excellent craftsmanship and technical innovations that far exceed those of any other ship from this time period. Among these great innovations were better flexibility of the ship for a smoother ride, provided the planks were much narrower; it also had a fixed steering position which made navigation much simpler.(Kendall and Wells 15)
There are many ideas of why the body is not located at the burial site in addition to who is being honored there. One possibility is the body could have been cremated and the ashes have been lost or spread over time. It is believed by some that the body was most likely lost in battle because this type of burial known as a cenotaph, where the body is in a different location from a monument, was used most often when a body was not located and this was a Christian style of burial. The body could have also been eaten away by the soils at Sutton Hoo, through chemical tests the soil at Sutton Hoo has been confirmed to being highly acidic and this could have eaten the body completely leaving no remains.
With this great discovery of the ship of Sutton Hoo many beliefs about the Dark Ages have been proven to be illegitimate. This grand burial ship infers that the Germanic people of this time period were not as barbarian as they are frequently mistaken as being. They actually took time to bury those of importance and give them proper tribute. A connection between England and Scandinavia was confirmed from the excavation. Though historians believed that during the Dark Ages people did not attempt to expand ideas or relations with other countries. Some of the objects unearthed confirm the relations between England and Scandinavia. Some of the instruments excavated are of a style that was only prevalent in England and Scandinavia, this proves that trade actually took place between the two and contact was actually frequently made. England was not such a lonely country like most history books state. All of the extravagant weapons and armor made of gold and other fine materials prove that this time period actually was a period of prosper and interest in arts. People were actually concerned with the advance of technology with such advances in types of shipbuilding. There were many misconceptions, which were proven to be very untrue after the excavation at Sutton Hoo, England. We are very lucky today to have such an advanced technology. We are able to extremely expand our knowledge of the past by these new advances which help date items all they way back to the so-called Dark Ages . With this great excavation we have been able to prove many past well-known beliefs to be wrong. We can take these little materials from this site and from them learn about the entire civilization that was placed at Sutton Hoo almost two thousand years ago.