The Sutton Hoo burial ground in East Anglia, England, provides vivid evidence for attitudes to death immediately before the conversion of an English community to Christianity in the seventh century C.E. Founded about 600 C.E., and lasting a hundred years, Sutton Hoo contained only about twenty burials, most of them rich and unusual, spread over four hectares. This contrasts with the "folk cemeteries" of the pagan period (fifth–sixth centuries C.E.), which typically feature large numbers of cremations contained in pots and inhumations laid in graves with standard sets of weapons and jewelry. Accordingly, Sutton Hoo is designated as a "princely" burial ground, a special cemetery reserved for the elite. The site was rediscovered in 1938, and has been the subject of major campaigns of excavation and research in 1965–1971 and 1983–2001. Because the majority of the burials had been plundered in the sixteenth century, detailed interpretation is difficult.
The Sutton Hoo burial ground consists of thirteen visible mounds on the left bank of the River Deben opposite Woodbridge in Suffolk, England. Four mounds were investigated by the landowner in 1938–1939; all are from the seventh century C.E., and one mound contains the richest grave ever discovered on British soil. Here, a ship ninety feet long had been buried in a trench with a wooden chamber amid other ships containing over 200 objects of gold, silver, bronze, and iron. The conditions of the soil mean that the body, timbers of ship and chamber, and most organic materials had rotted to invisibility, but the latest studies suggest that a man had been placed on a floor or in a coffin. At his head were a helmet, a shield, spears and items of regalia, a standard, and a scepter; at his feet were a pile of clothing and a great silver dish with three tubs or cauldrons. Gold buckles and shoulder clasps inlaid with garnet had connected a baldrick originally made of leather. Nearly every item was ornamented with lively abstract images similar to dragons or birds of prey. The buried man was thought to be Raedwald, an early king of East Anglia who had briefly converted to Christianity, reverted to paganism, and died around 624 or 625.
Investigations at Sutton Hoo were renewed in 1965 and 1983, and revealed considerably more about the burial ground and its context. In the seventh century, burial was confined to people of high rank, mainly men. In mounds five to seven, probably among the earliest, men were cremated with animals (i.e., cattle, horse, and deer) and the ashes were placed in a bronze bowl. In mound seventeen a young man was buried in a coffin, accompanied by his sword, shield, and, in an adjacent pit, his horse. In mound fourteen, a woman was buried in an underground chamber, perhaps on a bed accompanied by fine silver ornaments. A child was buried in a coffin along with a miniature spear (burial twelve). Mound two, like mound one, proved to have been a ship burial, but here the ship had been placed over an underground chamber in which a man had been buried.
Because the graves were plundered in the sixteenth century, interpretation is difficult. The latest Sutton Hoo researcher, Martin Carver, sees the burial ground as a whole as a pagan monument in which burial rites relatively new to England (under-mound cremation, horse burial, ship burial) are drawn from a common pagan heritage and enacted in defiance of pressure from Christian Europe. The major burials are "political statements" in which the person honored is equipped as an ambassador of the people, both at the public funeral and in the afterlife.
A second phase of burial at Sutton Hoo consisted of two groups of people (mainly men) who had been executed by hanging or decapitation. The remains of seventeen bodies were found around mound five, and twenty-three were found around a group of post-sockets (supposed to be gallows) at the eastern side of the burial mounds. These bodies were dated (by radiocarbon determinations) between the eighth and the tenth centuries, and reflect the authority of the Christian kings who supplanted those buried under the Sutton Hoo mounds in about 700 C.E.
Carver, Martin O. H. Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.