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The Discovery of the Sutton Hoo Treasures Told in Netflix's The Dig

 

Sutton Hoo, located in Suffolk (north-east of London), is the site of richest archaeological find in British history. The extraordinary discovery of a ship burial site has been retold Netflix's new offering, The Dig, starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes.  The movie is based on the historical novel of the same name, by John Preston.


While the movie displayed creative license with historical fact, the central plot is true. A wealthy widow, Edith Pretty, who had an interest in archaeology, hired a local self-taught archaeologist (and astronomer), Basil Brown to dig the 18 burial earth mounds or "barrows" on her property.  


What they eventually discovered was the intact and unplundered tomb of a powerful king. This is reminiscent of the discovery of Egypt's Tutankhamun treasures - the fabulous exception to the looted Pyramids of other Pharaohs. Grave robbers tried but never discovered the Sutton Hoo burial chamber for nearly 1500 years.


Netflix "The Dig" Trailer

 


The Netflix movie features a much younger actress.  Edith Pretty was actually in her 50's at the time of the excavations - her son was born when she was in her late 40's. Peggy Piggott was a real and young archaeologist at the time.  


The movie focuses on the discovery and does not show the amazing finds. So this feature shows you what they looked like and the artistry and skill by unknown artisans.

Edith Pretty (National Trust Collection) and Basil Brown (Suffolk Heritage)


Basil Brown initially dismissed Mound 1, the highest one, as it showed signs of grave robbing and moved on to other mounds. The others he investigated were largely empty.  But Mound 2 had the intriguing evidence of a ship burial, not unlike another in the same area and others in Scandinavia.   


He eventually returned to work on Mound 1. In May 1939, he  uncovered a ship's nail and then the incredible imprint of a 27 m (89 foot) ship. The ship's timbers (as well as other organic materials like textiles and human remains) had dissolved away in the acidic soil leaving tantalizing clues of impacted soil patterns. 


Excavation of Sutton Hoo 
 
This was the eve of World War II, so more archaeologists had to be brought in to excavate the site as fast as they could before war broke out, some months later on September 3, 1939. 

The treasures forever changed the perception of Anglo-Saxons in 7th century Britain. (There was no England at the time).  They were not marauding European barbarians who invaded Britain in the power void left after the fall of the Roman Empire and the withdrawal of the Roman army in the 5th century. But they were a people with a sophisticated society and culture.  

The burial goods included incredible gold accessories set with Sri Lankan garnets, Byzantine silverware, drinking-horns, highly decorated battle gear, bowls and other feasting implements like dishes. The Anglo-Saxons clearly traded with others for these luxury goods which came from faraway lands.

The illustration below shows a human shaped gap surrounded by grave goods. Phosphate analysis of the soil indicated a body once laid there. 
 
Screen capture from British Museum Curator's Corner on the Sutton Hoo Sword

This was clearly the grave of a mighty king. Most experts think it was likely that of Raedwald of East Anglia - a high king with other kings in other areas paying him homage. He was known as a "bretwalda" - an Old English term which meant "Britain-ruler" or "wide ruler".

Here is an illustration of what the ship burial chamber looked like :


Metal objects and garnets survived the acidic soil conditions. One of the warrior king's most spectacular possessions was his iron and tin alloy clad helmet.  It was discovered shattered into hundreds of pieces as the roof over the ship collapsed sometime in the past. A challenging jigsaw puzzle indeed!

When finally pieced together, the helmet reveals a fantastic design of a dragon with its wings forming the eyebrows, the nose and moustache being the body and tail. The eyes and wings were decorated with garnets - the right eyebrow's wing garnets were backed in gold foil but not the left. That little detail might be deliberate as British Museum curator, Sue Brunning, explains in her video (shown at the end). 

Crowns as we know them, did not come into use until about the 10th century. So the helmet and sword were the emblems of kingship before then. 

Photo credit Hornbeam Arts : Actual Sutton Hoo Helmet

The crest of the helmet is decorated with a long double headed snake. Other details in the helmet - more obvious in the replica -  show images from Swedish mythology. The style of the helmet is thought to be similar to a Roman parade ground helmet.

The gem setting, repoussé and chasing skills of those long ago metal workers are pretty impressive. 
 
Photo Credit : Terry Robinson Replica of Sutton Hoo Helmet
 
The sword itself is badly corroded but the pommel (shown below) looks like it was made yesterday. Exquisite garnet cloisonne and "beaded" wire work stand out.  British Museum curator, Sue Brunning, explains in her video (shown below) that the wear on the gold work on one side indicated the owner was left-handed. The sword was placed on the right side of the body, also indicating left-handedness.  

The sword in its scabbard would be worn on the right of the body, allowing the left-handed owner to draw it easily. Left-handed fighters have a preliminary advantage as their opponents are not expecting  blows from a different angle.

Screen capture from British Museum Curator's Corner on the Sutton Hoo Sword Pommel

Some of the most spectacular jewelry pieces were the shoulder clasps inlaid with garnet cloisonne and glass with a hinged pin design.

Photo Credit Rob Roy : Sutton Hoo Shoulder Clasp (closed)

Photo Credit : Rob Roy Sutton Hoo Shoulder Clasp (opened)

400 gms of gold went into the making of the intricate Great Buckle.  That shows great wealth and prestige. 

Photo Credit : David Joyce Sutton Hoo Great Buckle

The organic origins of the purse is long gone but the purse lid remains. 

Photo Credit : Gary Todd Sutton Hoo Purse Lid


British Museum's Curator's Corner :   Sutton Hoo Helmet 
 


British Museum's Curator's Corner on the Sutton Hoo Sword


Sutton Hoo Masterpieces of the British Museum


The treasures were stored safely in the Underground tunnels during the war. Basil Brown carefully protected the ship impression and recovered the mound. The whole area became a battle practice site. When archaeologists returned to the site after the war, they found tank tracks over the covered mound.


Edith Pretty generously donated the Sutton Hoo treasures to the British Museum to ensure lasting public accessibility. She remains one of the largest donors in the Museum's history.  The Sutton Hoo estate is now part of the National Trust.


The once overlooked Basil Brown is remembered in this archival footage here :



UPDATE :  (Spoiler Alert : The Dig - Separating Fact from Fiction

Before You Go:

Disclosure

This blog may contain affiliate links. I do receive a small fee for any products purchased through affiliate links. This goes towards the support of this blog and to provide resource information to readers. The opinions expressed are solely my own. They would be the same whether or not I receive any compensation. 

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 Original Post by THE BEADING GEM 

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10 comments:

  1. "The Dig" is a great movie, I highly recommend it. Thanks for further info and great pics of the grave goods.

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    1. You're welcome! I too enjoyed the movie. I wrote a much shorter post about the Sutton Hoo treasures over 12 years ago. The movie has certainly renewed interest in the dicovery.

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  2. I couldn't agree more about the movie. It's a joy to see here some of the treasures found there. Thanks for sharing. Now if you could find a way to put them in a GiveAway. LOL

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    1. LOL! I don't think the shoulder clasps will be a good look for me!!

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  3. What a fascinating post today!!! Now I know what to watch next on Netflix. Thanks for this

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    1. You're welcome. Many, including I have enjoyed the movie.

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  4. What a fascinating story! Thanks for sharing!

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  5. Spoiler alert! Don't see this until after you have watched The Dig.
    Separating Fact from Fiction:
    https://youtu.be/geWFaJEOgFg

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  6. My husband and I just watched "The Dig" last evening~ it was fascinating! thank you for more of the story, I wondered about the treasure.

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  7. What a wonderful surprise to see this article as I just watched The Dig a few days ago. I wondered what the treasures looked like. They are phenomenal. Love that buckle! As a lefty, it's good to know that if I ever get in a sword fight I might have a small advantage! :)

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