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When an Anglo-Saxon warrior king died 1,400 years ago in East Anglia in the United Kingdom, he was placed inside a ship and surrounded by treasures. The 90-foot-long (27.4-meter-long) wooden ship, dragged half a mile (0.8 kilometer) from the River Deben, was buried inside a mound.
Archaeologists excavating the mound in 1939 recovered weapons, a warrior’s helmet and intricately designed treasures made from precious metals and jewels, along with 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 likely that of Raedwald of East Anglia, who died in 624 AD.
If you’ve watched “The Dig” on Netflix, the story of the site at Sutton Hoo and its seventh century royal burial ground is a familiar one. 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 amazing levels of craftsmanship and far-reaching trading connections,” said Laura Howarth, archaeology and engagement manager for the National Trust and Sutton Hoo site.
The ship itself, which has captivated so many, no longer exists. The wood rotted away in the acidic soil, but the precise positions of the planks left an impression in the sand, resembling the ghostly outline of the ship.
Two photographers, Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff, captured images of the ship’s “fossil” imprint in 1939 before the mound was covered once more as World War II loomed.
Now, Martin Carver, professor emeritus of archaeology at the University of York, and The Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company charity are undertaking the monumental task of bringing the ship back to life and enlisting a crew to row it across England’s rivers once again.
Raising a ghost ship
In the town of Woodbridge, near Sutton Hoo, there has long been a dream to build a full-scale replica of the famed 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 hasn’t been reconstructed, Carver said.
After the ship’s company charity was formed in 2016, the team began designing the plans.
Carver, who directed excavations at Sutton Hoo between 1983 and 1992, is overseeing the construction, which is underway, and is raising funds for the project. The team hopes to raise 1.5 million pounds to build the ship, row it across rivers and estuaries, and give the ship a permanent home.
The reconstruction project has 70 volunteers, and the oldest volunteer just recently turned 90. Their task is to reconstruct the ship as accurately as possible with techniques from the Anglo-Saxons themselves, like using axes to shape the timbers. Oak trees from East Anglia are being used to construct the ship.
Anyone with an interest in supporting the reconstruction can sponsor handcrafted rivets and other parts of the ship on the Sutton Hoo charity website, Carver said.
The company plans to launch the ship on the water and begin rowing trials in the spring of 2024. A team of 40 rowers will train and learn how to handle the 16.4-foot-long (5-meter-long) wooden oars.
The original ship served a ceremonial purpose for the king’s burial, but there is evidence that the ship was mended and had a life on the water before the burial, Carver said.
Between 2024 and 2029, the ship will undertake three voyages that trace where the earliest English kingdoms were formed.
“We want to put the rivers in the limelight, the motorways of the day,” Carver said. “The voyages will take us past many of the great early settlements discovered by archaeologists in the last few decades.”
Anglo-Saxon ships were used to transport warriors, kings and cargo alike, and they were elegantly decorated and painted.
“I’m hoping that when the ship makes its trips, it will excite people in many different ways, but particularly in giving them a feeling of what a brilliant period this was in seventh century Britain,” Carver said.
By 2030, the ship will end its voyages and go on display – possibly across the river from Woodbridge at the Sutton Hoo visitor’s center.
Stepping 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 a master’s degree in medieval studies, specializing in seventh century Anglo-Saxons.
When visitors arrive at Sutton Hoo, they are greeted by a sculpture that shows the scale of the ship. The intrigue of the ghost ship continues to draw people in, which is why Howarth believes that a tangible re-creation will allow them to connect with the adventurous spirit of their ancestors – as well as the ship’s symbolism.
“It all kind of links back to journeys, both in life and in death and the ship being that kind of metaphor,” Howarth said.
Research continues at Sutton Hoo, and a number of tantalizing questions remain. No written records remain from the time period, but the artifacts and cemeteries the Anglo-Saxons left behind are beginning to fit together like a puzzle, revealing connections between communities.
A new exhibit, “Swords of Kingdoms: The Staffordshire Hoard at Sutton Hoo,” has united items from the Staffordshire Hoard – the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver ever found, recovered in 2009 – with treasures from the Sutton Hoo site. The exhibition runs through October 30.
The similarity in both design and craftsmanship of the objects from the two collections suggests they were made in the same seventh century East Anglia workshops, 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 complex designs and concentrate them down to these tiny glittering treasures?” Howarth said. “That would probably be one thing that I’d like to go back and watch if I could jump in a time machine.”