By Ashley Strickland, CNN
When an Anglo-Saxon warrior king died 1,400 years ago in East Anglia in the UK, he was placed inside a ship and surrounded by treasure. The 90-foot-long (27.4-meter-long) wooden vessel, dragged half a mile (0.8 kilometer) up the River Deben, was buried inside a mound.
Archaeologists who excavated the mound in 1939 recovered weapons, a warrior’s helmet and intricately designed treasures made from precious metals and jewels, as well as rows of iron rivets.
Edith Pretty, owner of the Suffolk property including the mounds, donated the treasure to the British Museum in London. The burial was probably that of Raedwald of East Anglia, who died in 624 AD.
If you’ve watched ‘The Dig’ on Netflix, the story of the Sutton Hoo site and its 7th-century royal cemetery is familiar to you. It remains one of only three known Anglo-Saxon ship burials.
“It kind of revolutionized our understanding of who the Anglo-Saxons were. This discovery illuminated the so-called Dark Ages and showed that these people were culturally sophisticated with incredible levels of craftsmanship and far-reaching trade connections,” said Laura Howarth, Head of Archeology and commitment to the National Trust site and Sutton Hoo.
The ship itself, which captivated so much, no longer exists. The wood rotted in the acidic soil, but the precise position of the planks left an imprint in the sand, resembling the ghostly silhouette of the ship.
Two photographers, Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff, captured images of the ship’s ‘fossil’ footprint in 1939 before the mound was covered again as World War II loomed.
Now Martin Carver, Emeritus Professor of Archeology at the University of York, and the charity The Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company are undertaking the monumental task of bringing the ship back to life and enlisting a crew to row it back on the rivers again. English.
Raise a ghost ship
In the town of Woodbridge, near Sutton Hoo, people have long dreamed of building a life-size replica of the famous ship. Of the hundreds of finds from the burial, nearly all of which were originally found in pieces, the ship is the only item that has not been reconstructed, Carver said.
After the ship’s charity was established in 2016, the team began designing the plans.
Carver, who led excavations at Sutton Hoo between 1983 and 1992, is overseeing construction, which is ongoing, and raising funds for the project. The team hope to raise £1.5million to build the vessel, row it across rivers and estuaries and give the ship a permanent home.
The reconstruction project has 70 volunteers, and the oldest volunteer has just turned 90. Their task is to rebuild the ship as accurately as possible with techniques from the Anglo-Saxons themselves, such as the use of axes to shape the timbers. East Anglia oaks are used to build the ship.
Anyone interested in supporting the rebuild can sponsor handcrafted rivets and other parts of the ship on the Sutton Hoo charity’s website, Carver said.
The company plans to launch the vessel on the water and begin rowing trials in the spring of 2024. A team of 40 rowers will train and learn to handle the 16.4-foot-long (5-meter) wooden oars long).
The original ship served ceremonial purposes for the king’s burial, but there is evidence the ship was repaired and had life on the water before burial, Carver said.
Between 2024 and 2029, the ship will undertake three voyages that trace where the first English kingdoms were formed.
“We want to put the rivers in the spotlight, the highways of the day,” Carver said. “Travel will take us past many of the great early settlements discovered by archaeologists over the past few decades.”
Anglo-Saxon ships were used to transport warriors, kings and goods, and they were elegantly decorated and painted.
“I hope that when the ship makes its voyages it will excite people in a variety of ways, but most importantly by giving them a sense of what a brilliant time it was in seventh-century Britain,” Carver said.
By 2030 the ship will complete its voyages and be on display – possibly across the river from Woodbridge at the Sutton Hoo Visitor Centre.
To go back in time
Working on the ship is its own kind of experimental archaeology, Howarth said. She has worked at Sutton Hoo since 2014 and holds an MA in Medieval Studies, specializing in 7th century Anglo-Saxons.
When visitors arrive at Sutton Hoo they are greeted by a sculpture which shows the scale of the ship. The plot of the ghost ship continues to draw people in, which is why Howarth believes a tangible recreation will allow them to connect with the adventurous spirit of their ancestors – as well as the symbolism of the ship.
“It all goes back to journeys, both in life and in death and the ship being that kind of a metaphor,” Howarth said.
Research continues at Sutton Hoo, and a number of tantalizing questions remain. There are no written records from this period, but the artefacts and graveyards left by the Anglo-Saxons are beginning to fit together like a puzzle, revealing connections between the communities.
A new exhibit, “Swords of Kingdoms: The Staffordshire Hoard at Sutton Hoo”, has brought together artefacts from the Staffordshire Hoard – the largest Anglo-Saxon gold and silver hoard ever found, recovered in 2009 – with treasures from the Sutton Hoo site. The exhibition lasts until October 30.
The similarity in design and manufacture of the objects in the two collections suggests they were made in the same workshops in East Anglia in the 7th century, Howarth said.
She still marvels at the tiny gold and garnet cloisonné sword pyramids, decorative fittings associated with scabbards, discovered in the ship’s burial chamber by archaeologist Peggy Piggott in 1939.
“How did they come up with such intricate designs and focus them on these tiny glittering treasures?” Howard said. “It would probably be something I would like to revisit and watch if I could jump in a time machine.”
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