As Netflix's The Dig is released, read the EADT's extraordinary Sutton Hoo 1939 exclusive
- Credit: LARRY HORRICKS/NETFLIX © 2021
On July 29, 1939, the East Anglian Daily Times broke the world exclusive story of the Sutton Hoo discovery - now turned into Netflix film The Dig, starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, released today.
The EADT helped reproduce authentic copies of our newspaper for the film. Today, we reproduce the story we published in 1939, word for word, as written at the time by our journalist Alfred Bowden.
Great Archaeological Find In Suffolk
- Details Of The Ship-Burial Near Woodbridge
- Valuable Articles In Gold Found: Unique Anglo-Saxon Relics
A discovery which may go a long way to dispel obscurity which at present enshrouds the early history of England, and therefore may be as important in this country as was the finding of the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt, has been made in Suffolk.
The Sutton Hoo Estate, near Woodbridge, is the scene of this momentous find. It is a ship burial of about 600 A.D., possibly that of an early Anglo-Saxon king.
This belief is prompted by the extent and richness of the funeral deposits discovered amid the remains of the 82 feet long vessel.
They include many gold, silver and jewelled ornaments of great beauty and fine workmanship.
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These highly valuable finds will probably be declared as treasure trove, on which an inquest will be held.
It will be some time before the objects are available for public inspection, as most of them require skilled attention in the British Museum laboratory. Their final destination is not yet decided upon.
An archaeological discovery which is expected to rank as one of the most important made in Great Britain - indeed in Europe - for many years has been revealed in the Sutton Hoo (near Woodbridge) excavations, to which brief reference was made in the East Anglian Daily Times earlier this week.
The find consists of a ship-burial, and is believed to be that of an Anglo-Saxon tribal leader, or king, of about 600 A.D., - in any case, as one of the founders of the Anglo-Saxon culture in Suffolk. Accompanying the burial were numbers of rich and exceedingly fine gold ornaments and silver vessels, as well as a variety of other objects, and thus the extreme importance of the find may be appreciated.
Suffolk's Archaeological Treasures
The discovery is expected to throw considerable light on the customs and cultural standards of the early years of the Anglo-Saxon occupation of Eastern Britain, a period which hitherto archaeologists have been able to visualise but dimly in consequence of the comparatively few remains so far brought to light, especially of undisturbed burials. East Suffolk is rich in archaeological remains but hitherto no discovery comparable with the present has been made.
The present researches were initiated by and at the expense of Mrs E M Pretty, J.P., the owner of the estate, in 1938 and were carried on under the supervision of Mr Guy Maynard, Curator of the Ipswich Museum, by Sir Basil Brown. When about half the ship had been excavated, and the magnitude of the discoveries was realised, it was decided that the national authorities ought to be informed, and the work latterly has been carried on by Mr C W Phillips, P.B.A, in connection with the Office of Works, and, in association with Mr Maynard and Ipswich Museum, under whose auspices the enterprise has been carried on from the start, with Mr Brown as foreman of the excavation.
It is understood that the area, including the group of burial mounds, has been scheduled as an ancient monument by the Office of Works. The area, which is situated in a private estate and is not approached by either road or public footpaths, is under strong guard.
It should be clearly understood that on no account will members of the public be admitted to the site.
The Buried Ship
The ship, which was discovered in a tumulus, had a length of 82 feet and a beam of about 16 feet, being constructed of long wooden planks, fastened together by strong iron nails or rivets. With the exception of the deeper portions in the centre of the vessel, little trace of the wood remains, but the outline and dimensions can be clearly traced by the rows of iron rivets.
The rich collection of ornaments of precious metals and other objects lay on the floor of the central part of the ship, and were covered by a mass of rotted timber and sand, which appeared to be derived from the collapse of a timber structure, or cabin, built for their reception.
Fine Gold Ornaments
The relics found in the ship included a number of exceedingly fine gold ornaments, decorated with garnets and coloured glass, comprising a massive gold buckle enriched with interlaced ornament, plaques and clasps of various forms, remains of a purse, which contained a hoard of coins, remains of a sword with a richly decorated gold and jewelled pommel, small plaques of gold cloisonne bearing a representation of a human figure between two rampant animals, gold cloisonne and garnet belt studs of pyramidal form, all being objects of great beauty and skilled workmanship.
Another important find was a salver-shaped object of silver, enriched with engraved ornamentations, covering other silver vessels.
The design of the cloisonne ornaments is of a type likely to be very puzzling to English archaeologists as their associations appear to be with the Frankish culture of the Continent and not with the Kentish settlements of the early Anglo-Saxon-Jutish period.
A Unique Find
Despite the nature and beauty of the gold and silver articles, perhaps the most remarkable item in the burial is a sceptre-like object which was evidently a ceremonial hone-stone, or weapon sharpener. It was, perhaps, in the nature of a symbol rather than an instrument intended for use.
At each end were carvings of four bearded faces, surmounted by a lobed ball, with the remains of a bronze cup, which may have held a jewel or other object. This specimen is unique and of the greatest interest.
In addition to the foregoing, the excavators have also brought to light several large bowls of bronze decorated with enamelled plaques, one or more iron cauldrons, spear heads and traces of fabric and what may possibly be sandals.
The interpretation of these objects will naturally take a considerable time, and the most expert knowledge available in the archaeological world will be brought to bear upon the problem of their origin and significance.
The importance of the find may be judged from the fact that, with the exception of traces of a smaller ship, possibly of the same period, in a mound on Snape Common many years ago, and from which very few objects were obtained, no ship burial has hitherto been found in Britain. Neither has an undisturbed burial of such richness been discovered in this country before.
Until the Sutton Hoo discovery known ship burials had been confined to Scandinavia, with one exception in Schleswig-Holstein and the finding of an undisturbed ship burial to Britain is, therefore, an archaeological event of the first magnitude.
The dimensions of the ship equal, if not exceed, those of any of the Scandinavian burials, and the richness of the funeral deposits suggests that it is the tomb of a very important leader, one who must have had a position of considerable authority among the early Anglo-Saxon tribes. It may, indeed, be that of an early East Anglian king.
As to the date of the burial there can be no doubt that it belongs to a very early phase of the Anglo-Saxon occupation of Britain. It is said at the British Museum that the burial cannot be earlier than 600 A.D., but considerable study will be needed before a close approximation can be made.
While the Anglo, the Saxon, and other tribes, had previously harassed the British coast for some considerable time, it was not until after the collapse of the Roman government in Britain, in the early fifth century, A.D., that these tribes penetrated and established settlements at various points on the East and South-East coasts. According to the Welsh and Saxon records, the Anglo-Saxon chiefs, Hengist and Horsa, entered the country at the request of the British ruler, Vortigern, in the first half of the fifth century.
The entire absence of ship burials of the Anglo-Saxon period in this country and their characteristic association with the Viking peoples of Scandinavia, naturally at first prompted the idea that this, and a boat burial discovered in 1938 in a smaller tumulus near the present excavation belonged to the Viking period (late eighth and early ninth century).
This conjecture was strengthened by the form of a battle-axe found in a third burial mound opened in the same year. The presence of Anglo-Saxon ornaments in these burials was noted however, and it was at first thought that these might have been loot from Saxon settlements raided by the Vikings.
The predominant Anglo-Saxon character of the finds made in the present excavations, however, clearly point to a much earlier date and one which, from the point of national history, is of still greater interest and importance.
Probably A Rowing Galley
The Sutton Hoo ship was probably a huge rowing galley rather than a sailing ship, but it could not have been very different from the craft in which the earliest Saxon invaders arrived on these shores.
The ancient practice or custom of ship burial is, in itself, a subject of intense interest, but one which it is impossible to deal with at any length in this article.
In the case of the Scandinavian ship burials the remains of the deceased were placed in the ship and surrounded by many personal belongings. In one of the graves excavated at Sutton in 1938 distinct traces of cremation were found, and it is to be expected that the burial in the present case was of the same nature.
It is evident too, that the Sutton ship, as in the case of the Scandinavian examples was taken bodily ashore and buried, with the funeral deposits, in a great mound of earth or tumulus.
Another point of special interest with the Sutton burial is that the ship had been taken from the tideway up to the highest point of the adjacent country – an undertaking which must have required great effort and management.
It will be some time before the objects are available for public inspection, as most of these required skilled attention in the British Museum Laboratory, and their final destination is not yet decided upon.
It is probable that some of the finds will be officially regarded as treasure trove, and will therefore become the subject of an inquest.