THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

05 February 2019

Sutton Hoo and Anglo-Saxon East Anglia

The British Library’s landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, is open until 19 February 2019. Alongside some of the most significant manuscripts from our own collections, and important loans from other institutions, are a number of outstanding archaeological finds. Among them are artefacts from Sutton Hoo.

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The Sutton Hoo belt buckle: British Museum BEP 1939,1010.1

Sutton Hoo is one of the most famous excavations in British archaeological history. In 1939, the owner of the site, Edith Pretty, asked her gardener to investigate the curious mounds on her land. After some initial digging, it was thought prudent to involve the experts at the British Museum, and over the coming weeks they revealed a ship burial and many precious objects. We are delighted that a selection of these treasures are on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.

The Sutton Hoo treasures included weapons, such as a sword, a set of spears and a famous helmet, and items associated with Anglo-Saxon dress, such as the great buckle and two shoulder-clasps. In our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition are displayed the sword-belt, complete with scabbard slider and strap distributor, and the gold belt buckle. These stunning objects have been generously loaned to the British Library by the British Museum.

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The scabbard slider and strap distributor from the Sutton Hoo sword-belt: British Museum BEP 1939,1010.10

The Sutton Hoo burial site lies within the territory of the former Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia. Some people have argued that the man in the main ship-burial was the 7th-century King Rædwald, who is described in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. According to Bede, Rædwald was a pagan when he came to the throne, before converting to Christianity later in his reign. Rædwald does not appear to have entirely given up his pagan ways. In Bede's words, 'he seemed to be serving both Christ and the gods who he had previously served; in the same temple he had one altar for the Christian sacrifice and another altar on which to offer victims of the devils'.

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Bede describes Rædwald’s pagan practices in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 54v

In our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, these treasures from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial are displayed alongside other archaeological discoveries found in the kingdom of East Anglia or the neighbouring kingdom of Kent. Many of these items are on loan from Norwich Castle Museum.

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Pendant from Winfarthing, Norfolk: Norwich Castle Museum 2017,519.6

On display in the exhibition is a gold and garnet pendant, found in the grave of a woman at Winfarthing, south Norfolk. This elaborately decorated pendant rivals the jewellery from Sutton Hoo. The woman who was buried with it seems to have been a Christian, as she was also buried with another gold pendant that features a cruciform design.

The decoration on the Sutton Hoo gold buckle features an intricate web of thirteen snakes, predatory birds and long-limbed beasts, delineated by alternating gold and niello backgrounds that give their bodies contrasting texture. The exhibition provides an unrivalled opportunity to compare their design with the decoration of contemporary manuscripts. For example, very similar insular interlace can be found on the pages of late 7th-century gospel books, such as the Book of Durrow, on loan to the exhibition from Trinity College Dublin.

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The Book of Durrow: Dublin, Trinity College, MS 57, f. 85v

The sources and inspiration for the artwork in the Book of Durrow stretch from Ireland to Anglo-Saxon England and from Pictland to the Mediterranean. The items found at Sutton Hoo in turn show connections between East Anglia and other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Francia and Byzantium. These treasures bear witness not only to Anglo-Saxon ambition and workmanship, but they also demonstrate their relationships with the wider world.

The spectacular treasures from Sutton Hoo are on show in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library until 19 February. Many session have already sold out, so to avoid disappointment we suggest that you book your tickets in advance

Becky Lawton

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