Bailey Young

title.none: Carver, Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings? (Young)

identifier.other: baj9928.9902.003 99.02.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Bailey Young, Eastern Illinois University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Carver, Martin. Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings?. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. Pp. xii, 195. $29.95. ISBN: 0-812-234455-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.02.03

Carver, Martin. Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings?. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. Pp. xii, 195. $29.95. ISBN: 0-812-234455-3.

Reviewed by:

Bailey Young
Eastern Illinois University

Su tton Hoo is arguably the best known medieval archaeological site discovered in the British Isles in the twentieth century, and its outstanding importance has been described, discussed and debated in print since H.M. Chadwick, in issue 53 of Antiquity (1940), first proposed that the buried ship and its fabulous treasure marked the grave of the East Anglian King Raedwald (died ca A.D. 625). For a generation or more the dominant name in Sutton Hoo studies was Rupert Bruce-Mitford, who, as Keeper of Medieval Antiquities at the British Museum, directed the team which carefully analysed, reconstructed and interpreted the finds, and led a new series of excavations from 1965 to 1971 designed to answer questions raised in the course of performing these tasks before venturing into full-scale publication. Many readers will be familiar with with this publication, which appeared in three volumes in between 1975 and 1983 (R.L.S. Bruce-Mitford, The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, British Museum Press). Many will also know that in 1983 a new phase of Sutton Hoo research began under the direction of Professor Martin Carver of the University of York, and may indeed have heard one or more presentations by him and his collaborators at conferences such as those held in 1989 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original find, or have read the many interim reports and conference papers already published (notably in the very useful volume: M.O.H. Carver, ed., The Age of Sutton Hoo, 1992). The present book is not, let them be warned, the definitive scholarly publication of this latest phase of investigations; this is promised for 1999. In the author's words, this book is not "a detailed argument designed to convince the specialist, but a narrative sequence intended for the visitor, the student and those who like a good story, and are happy to take a certain amount on trust to get it. Nevertheless, it is hoped that the photographs, figures and footnotes included here will provide the reader with an adequate foundation in fact." (p xii).

Professor Carver has chosen to tell the story in two different fashions. Part 1, subtitled Investigations, recounts in three chapters the story of Sutton Hoo as a twentieth-century archaeological site. Readers are introduced to Mrs. Edith Pretty, who bought the property in 1926 and, in the enlightened antiquararian tradition, chose to employ Basil Brown, a local "self-taught archaeologist and amateur astronomer" to explore the mounds she could see from her bay-window. In 1938 three mounds were partially trenched, all of them showing signs of previous disturbance, and the Anglo-Saxon character of the site was established. In May of 1939 Brown attacked the largest standing mound (Mound 1) and soon understood, from the positioning of iron-rivets, that a ship had once been buried under it. He also found that robbers had dug into the mound before him--in the sixteenth-century from the pottery he found--but by early June it was clear that these had missed the treasure they had been seeking, and that Brown needed help. By July a makeshift team of some of Britain's most promising young archaeologists (Stuart Piggott, W.F. Grimes) under Charles Phillips of Cambridge was working desperately--for war was on the horizon--to record and remove the 263 objects of gold, garnet, silver, bronze, enamel, iron, wood, bone, textiles, feathers and fur in what proved to be a burial chamber with no trace of a body. It was "one of those magical excavations that few are given to experience: when every day brings a new discovery, and each find discovered reveals the glimmer of the next." (16) Even the weather held good! In August, as work was completed and the mound backfilled, a Coroner's jury, responding in part to archaeological testimony to the effect that the objects had been deliberately buried and not lost, ruled that they belonged to the landowner, not to the Crown. Shortly thereafter Mrs. Pretty gave them all to the British Museum, "the most generous donation to the Museum ever made in the lifetime of the donor" (22) thus launching Sutton Hoo into the public domain with a gesture worthy of an open-handed Dark Age ruler. Soon thereafter Europe was engulfed in war, the Sutton Hoo site was trenched with anti-glider ditches and the mounds became targets attacked by Sherman tanks in training! What a story indeed!

And it was only the beginning. Over the next half century Sutton Hoo was to stimulate much new research, often mixed with controversy within the scholarly community, while the impact of the site on the general public continued to grow, thanks to the stunning display of the artifacts in the British Museum and to sympathetic and savvy media presentations. From 1940 to 1982 the focus was on restoring the objects and putting them into context, a task that led from the laboratory back to the field in 1965. It is often said that in the course of trying to answer scholarly questions, new questions are raised. But how often is it possible to bring to bear the immense resources of a highly competent, imaginative and enthusiastic research team to answer them? Had there ever been a body in Mound 1 (no bone had been found) or was it a cremation or a cenotaph? Was it a royal monument, and if so, could the king be plausibly identified? Could the plan of the ship be accurately reconstructed, and its relation to the chamber where the objects were found better understood? Could key artefact fragments be recovered from the 1939 spoil heap? Could Mound 1 be more closely related to other early medieval ship-burials under mounds, like those in Sweden? Had horses been sacrificed and buried there? Could the site itself have been chosen because of older, prehistoric monuments? How many other mounds were on the site? The 1965-1971 re-excavation of Mound 1 and its immediate context, along with a survey of the the other mounds (there proved to be seventeen, of which two were questionable) was followed by the exemplary publication of the ship-burial site and its artefacts, in three volumes, appearing in 1975, 1978 and 1983: 2,441 pages with hundreds of illustrations--not a bad result! But even before this project was complete, a new one was being planned and put into effect, in the face this time of serious opposition. This part of the Sutton Hoo story is perhaps less well-known and makes fascinating reading, with some archaeologists, and their friends in the press, condemning any more resources spent on royal burials as "selfish and elitist" (p 47), as well as intellectually uninteresting. "It is an astonishing reflection of the tenacity and sang-froid of the archaeological establishment of the day that this reception offered no obstacle to their proceeding" (p 45) writes Martin Carver as he describes the formation of the Sutton Hoo Committee (later transformed into the Sutton Hoo Research Trust) backed by the Society of Antiquaries of London and the British Museum. Here Carver himself enters the scene, submitting to the committee on October 30, 1982, his successful proposal for a new campaign. Few will doubt, after reading the rest of this book, that the committee chose well.

The third major phase of Sutton Hoo research was designed to answer larger questions, more in keeping with the post-processual times. The questions had to be carefully framed, and the research methodology specified (and debated) with the aim of keeping actual excavation (famously qualified by Sir Mortimer Wheeler as destruction) to the necessary minimum. Thus the first years (1983-1986) of the onsite research component were devoted to evaluation: mapping, fieldwalking, geophysical surveys leading to the development of an excavation strategy (it may come as no surprise that Carver, like Wheeler and Wheeler's intellectual master, General Pitt-Rivers, had been a military man) which was made public and approved by the Research Trust. As Martin Biddle commented approvingly: "This has been a turning point in British archaeology. For the first time a project has been presented to the archaeological fraternity before it has happened." (p 50) Two other major components helped develop the project (and build support for it) before ever a trowel touched ground. One was a programme of comparative studies. These included scholarly meetings at such venues as Spoleto, Cambridge and Oxford devoted to such themes as "Princely Burials" and "The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms". There was also travel to comparative sites in Scandinavia. Another major research component was the "Kingdom of East Anglia Survey", organized and carried out by archaeologists of the professional Norfolk and Suffolk units, to identify settlement sites through systematic fieldwalking and artifact collection in six representative regions. Thus the actual fieldwork at Sutton Hoo would benefit from new streams of reflection and information.

Carver directed seven seasons of excavation (1986-1992). A cruciform transect, 200 m west east and 100 m N-S, including seven mounds, was systematically stripped of its turf cover and explored to better understand the topographical development of the cemetery and the variety of burial practises therein. It came as no surprise that that the mounds had all been "visited" by earlier diggers, some in the nineteenth century but mostly in the sixteenth century, as the 1938-1939 excavations had already discovered. Careful and alert excavation gleaned much valuable information even from the most badly-disturbed of these, and the happy surprise was that the robbers missed their jackpot in the case of Mound 17, digging right between the inhumations of a young warrior in his coffin and of his horse. An even bigger surprise were the "sand bodies": flat graves in which the subject survived not as a skeleton (except for minute fragments, the bone had dissolved in the acid milieu) but as a crusty shape in the sand which could be delicately disengaged. These burials proved to be odd, as well: "one was kneeling, head to the floor of the grave; one stretched out, hand above head; another folded forward, another back, another sideways; and strangest of all, one splayed out in a hurdling position, accompanied by a wooden object that seemed to belong to an ard or primitive type of plough. Every burial seemed to be different,and the body positions of most, differing from the peaceful norm of a person laid out on their back, indicated some special abuse of the individual that we referred to as'ritual trauma' or 'deviance'." (p 73) The spacing of these graves was also peculiar. Some were clustered around Mound 5, the cremation burial of a young person with blade injuries to the head, and very possibly the oldest, or founding grave at Sutton Hoo. The others were grouped far from the mounds, around what is now interpreted as a gallows. In a preliminary report on the excavations, published as a chapter in The Age of Sutton Hoo, Carver had suggested that these "ritual trauma" burials might be interpreted as human sacrifices in the context of a defiantly pagan royal burial site. In this volume he terms them "execution burials": further research has established that a public gallows existed there in the Middle Ages and radio-carbon dates which would place at least some of the burials in the later Anglo-Saxon period suggest a connection between the development of strong kingship at that time and public execution. But some of the execution burials are carbon-dated to the seventh century, that is, contemporary with the use of the mound cemetery (indeed, plausibly with the origin of the mound cemetery, if Mound 5 proves to be the founding grave), leading Carver to suggest that the publicly-displayed power of life and death may have been an important symbolic attribute of kingship as it was then being invented. The marshalling of the evidence and its elaboration into hypotheses like these into a synthesis exemplifies the five years of post-excavation work.

Having thus in his first three chapters recounted Sutton Hoo as an unfolding series of archaeological projects from 1938-1998, Martin Carver tells it again as the reconstructed history of this piece of landscape from prehistoric times to the present. The question of possible continuity between the prehistoric and Anglo-Saxon site had been one of those raised in the discussions that led to the new research project. The analysis conducted under prehistorian Madeleine Hummler suggests that Sutton Hoo was developed as an agricultural settlement site in the early Bronze Age. After this was abandoned, there was a pastoral period, then, around the middle Iron Age, a Celtic field-system showed a reprise of farming. This use continued into the Roman period, but soil loss led to renewed abandon before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, who built upon this handy terrace overlooking the River Deben at least eighteen striking burial mounds, mostly during the seventh century. Some, like the possible founder's grave Mound 5, were cremations; others were inhumations; two of them were ship burials; Mound 17 (the only one besides Mound 1 to escape plundering) contained a splendidly furnished young warrior and his mount in an adjacent pit. One mound only (Mound 14) may have held a female; most were clearly male. Mound 5 was surrounded with sattelite "execution graves", at least some of them contemporary with the use of the mound cemetery. That this was a place of elite burial cannot be doubted; Carver's argument that it was a deliberately, even theatrically royal cemetery embodying a consciously northern and pagan ideology in confrontation with the Christian ideology coming from the old Roman lands to the south are cogently developed, and this reviewer finds them convincing. Sutton Hoo's span as a Burial Ground of Kings (?) was in any case brief: in one place (p132) Carver suggests that all of the mound burials seem to date to the period around 600, and in any case by 700 (if not much earlier) no new ones were built. Executions, however, which may have begun in a context as much ritual as punitive when Mound 5 was built, continued intermittently for centuries, with possibly a strong phase of activity in the tenth century, the heyday of a unified Anglo-Saxon monarchy. In the Middle Ages the gallows moved to a new site, close to the bridge built at Wilford, and the grassed-over mounds became the grazing ground of sheep. In the early modern period agriculture returned, as the gentry took over the English landscape in the wake of Henry VIII's confiscations of monastic lands. It would seem that the mounds were then systematically opened by treasure seekers. This can be deduced by some of the waste they left behind, like the Bellarmine gin flask Basil Brown found in Mound 1. A second wave of gentry-directed mound digging, in the mid-nineteenth century, left written traces in the newspapers. When in 1860 a Mr. Barritt opened some five mounds at Sutton, the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and Natural History was meeting nearby. The fascination with buried treasure was already becoming conjoined with, if not replaced by, a genuine interest in learning about the past. Mrs. Edith Pretty and her hired local excavator are almost ready to enter the scene.

Sutton Hoo, as recounted by Martin Carver, is thus not a story but --in good postmodernist form--an overlapping and intertwining of stories. Not the least of these, for him, is its function and its future as a public monument. The impetus which led to the formation of the Sutton Hoo Research Trust was as much concerned with the long-term prospects of site preservation, and its accessibility to the general public, as it was with historical research. The moral of this story is that preservation cannot be taken for granted. Over the centuries the site has suffered from agriculture, treasure-hunting, military manouvres and so forth, and its very fame by the late 1970's rendered it all the more vulnerable. To their credit, the Pretty family and Mrs. Annie Tranmer, who bought the property from them, displayed generous public spirit, the former in assigning its excavation rights to the Research Trust, the latter in offering the estate to the nation in exchange for relief from estate duty. Is one surprised to learn that this was easier said than done? English Heritage, the government agency formed to manage publicly owned monuments "did not seem to regard the acquisition of the earliest burial ground of English kings as appropriate or opportune." (p 158-9) The Getty Trust, approached for help in raising the money needed to pay off the estate taxes--had they not recently bought a field in Ely to prevent spoiling the view of the cathedral?--said no. Finally it was a private charitable organization, the National Trust for England and Wales, which awarded resources from its Heritage Lottery Fund, allowing the transfer of Sutton Hoo to custodianship in August, 1997. It is pleasant to end on such a happy note a story which had, since 1939, owed so much to the spirit of teamsmanship, resourcefulness, ingenuity and public spirit.

This book is very well-illustrated (97 figures and 8 color plates for 161 pages of narrative text). A useful appendix offers a Digest of Evidence: 1) List of Interventions at Sutton Hoo (56 between 1844 and 1993); 2) Inventory of burials so far encountered at Sutton Hoo; 3) Inventory of early medieval finds. The Further Reading and Notes are succinct (6 pages) but useful. There is an index. The narrative is followed by a chapter called Open Forum: fifty questions often asked of the author in his many public presentations on Sutton Hoo and brief answers. Martin Carver has produced the kind of book which would be called haute vulgarisation in France, in which serious scholarship is presented attractively and cogently for an interested, non-specialist audience. The book is well suited to introduce students to some of the fundamental problems regarding the relationship between archaeology and history. The exposition is lucid and the writing is graceful. We are reminded again and again of the unpredictable element in all human enterprises, which can daunt the best-made methodologies of mice and men. The impromptu excavation of the burial chamber of Mound 1 in July 1939 might have been a disaster had the weather not been remarkably, unusually good. And Mound 17, the only other one with an intact burial, the last one to be dug in the summer of 1991, might have been overlooked. It had been so reduced by long years of ploughing that it barely showed on the ground surface, and owed its discovery to "the author's persistent hook with a number seven iron." (p 82) Carver had devised a golf game to pass the time while guarding the mounds during the evaluation period, and he noticed that when he chipped short at one spot the ball always rolled back toward him. Alerted by this, he noticed a very faint shadow in the ground at sundown which led to the identification of two mounds--or should we say former mounds? Such episodes bring to mind Sir Mortimer Wheeler's remark in the preface to Archaeology From the Earth (1954): "In a simple direct sense, archaeology is a science that must be lived, must be 'seasoned with humanity.' Dead archaeology is the driest dust that blows." (p v). Martin Carver has given us a book much seasoned with humanity, which should long play a role in keeping Sutton Hoo alive.