Sutton Hoo and Beowulf
Beowulf displays at the beginning and at the end such very lavish burials that they formerly seemed to be the work of the poet’s imagination. Then Sutton Hoo changed all that by giving historic evidence supporting not only the types of burials but also many other aspects of the Old English poem.
“. . . the poem is the product of a great age, the age of Bede, an age which knew artistic achievements of the kind buried at Sutton Hoo . . . (Stanley 3).
Sutton Hoo was the ancestral burial ground of the East Anglian kings, called the Wuffings, from Wuffa. Their father was said to be the first of this dynasty to rule the East Angles. Fifteen of their barrows or grave mounds make up Sutton Hoo; the first was excavated in 1939, and Beowulf has not been the same since.
Mound One contained a a great ship burial, the richest treasure ever dug from British soil, and the most important archaeologicl evidence found in Europe for the era of Germanic migrations during the fifth to seventh centuries (Clark 34). This find made the ship-burial of King Scyld in the opening of Beowulf very realistic and true to historic fact:
Scyld then departed at the appointed time,
still very strong, into the keeping of the Lord….
They laid down the king they had dearly loved,
their tall ring-giver, in the center of the ship,
the mighty by the mast. Great treasure was there,
bright gold and silver, gems from far lands (26-37)
Scyld’s body was placed beside the mast along with a supply of arms and armor, with treasures in his lap, and his golden standard set high over his head. Beowulf’s remains were placed in a burial mound with “jeweled rings, all the ornaments the brave-minded men had earlier taken away from the hoard” (3163-65). In Mound One amidships was the burial chamber containing golden coins, arms and armor, household goods, cups, dishes, vessels for food and water, artifacts symbolizing royalty. The royal and aristocratic milieu of Beowulf with its lavish burials and gold-adorned armor “can no longer be dismissed as poetic exaggeration or folk memories of an age of gold before the Anglo-Saxons came to England (Cramp 114).
The Sutton Hoo ship is a royal ship indeed with accommodation for 40 oarsmen and with woodwork done by true artisans. It has no mast, possibly because a mast would have made it too heavy to be moved 600 yards inland and uphill or because the body and tresure were located amidships where the mast normally goes (Clark 35).
Mound One included some very reliably datable gold coins of Frankish origin – 37 in total – a study of which indicated that the collection was completed in about 625, making King Raedwald (d. 624/625) possibly the East Anglian king honored here. A second study showed that all coins were marked with dates from 595 to 613....