What’s on : Lectures

Flagship of Early England: Reconstructing the Sutton Hoo ship

22 Nov 2022
Start time
7:00 PM
Martin Carver, Professor Emeritus, University of York, Department of Archaeology
Flagship of Early England: Reconstructing the Sutton Hoo ship

Event Information

Flagship of Early England: Reconstructing the Sutton Hoo ship
Martin Carver, Professor Emeritus, University of York, Archaeology Department

In 1939, at Sutton Hoo in east Suffolk, landowner Mrs Edith Pretty and archaeologist Basil Brown found – by chance – the imprint of a spectacular 90ft long rowing ship.

In a chamber amidships were discovered a fabulous range of weapons, regalia, textiles, and personal effects of gold, silver and bronze. Many of these objects have been repaired or restored and are now viewable in the British Museum.

But the largest artefact of all, the ship, has never been reconstructed. Without this we will never know what it looked like, how it performed or why it was held in such high esteem.

To make this happen, the Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company was formed. The goal is to examine the archaeological findings and build a full size reconstruction of the ship in all her glory.

Once the ship is built, an exploration of the major English rivers and shore lines familiar to the earliest English will begin, to learn how these waters served seventh-century people, and to encourage our own generations to give them new respect today.

The aim of this exciting project is to inspire enthusiasm in people from all walks of life to discover how early Europeans built and used their watercraft and interacted with the rivers and sea.

Professor Martin Carver, Chair of the Trustees of the Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company, will explain the project and give us an update on progress. Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company

Image: Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company

Member’s report

Professor Martin Carver gave a tour de force lecture battling against technology when his powerpoint failed to materialise until halfway through his lecture on Sutton Hoo.  He divided his presentation into three parts, firstly an introduction to Suffolk, moving on to how the story of Sutton Hoo had changed before finishing with the reconstruction of the ship.

The discovery of Sutton Hoo was a big moment for the people in Suffolk, creating a feeling of being part not just of a local event but also of a bigger drama, leading to the richest ever find of treasure in England and certainly in East Anglia. The mounds on the land of Mrs Pretty attracted her attention and led to the initial archaeology by Basil Brown who recognised the importance of the iron findings as rivets from a ship. In turn this came to the attention of Charles Phillips from Cambridge who was asked to take charge of the continuing excavation together with Stuart and Peggy Piggott. In the early days it was believed that the burial chamber was designed for a 7th century King owing to its magnificence, and was identified as Raedwald by Hector Munro Chadwick the Cambridge Anglo-Saxon scholar. This attribution has become more widely accepted there being no sensible alternative to date.

At this point, the powerpoint emerged from the shadows revealing wonderful images of gold buckles, shoulder clasps with wild boar symbols and the Sutton Hoo helmet complete with dragon and bird of prey signifying protection for the wearer and terror for the enemy.

Work stopped in 1939 owing to the Second World War, but in 1983 a decision was made to continue digging at which point the University of York became involved. Three separate sections were identified, the 6th century cemetery, the princely burial ground dating from the 7th century and the execution site of the 8th to the 11th centuries, all providing a window on a changing society. By now Sutton Hoo was not so much a treasure, more of a story.

So why reconstruct the ship? Mainly because this was the one artefact which has not had this treatment. The site is now in the hands of the National Trust, but an independent company, the Sutton Hoo Ship Company, was formed with 11 trustees, 3 staff and 87 volunteers with an emphasis on attracting the interested rather than the academic. A site plan was drawn up providing information for a digital model. All work was to be done in the same manner as the original, using oak and, with an eye to the environment, 28 trees are being planted for each oak felled. The plan is to now to launch the ship in various rivers to ascertain, inter alia, how it was rowed and whether it was sailed. For those who wish to know more of the project and/or how to support it, visit www.saxonship.org.

Dorothy Nott