Archaeology

5 Sites That Tell the Story of Early Anglo-Saxon England

Discover the amazing sites that tell us so much about the culture, beliefs and society of Anglo-Saxon England.

Here we look at Sutton Hoo and other amazing sites that tell us so much about the culture, beliefs and society of Anglo-Saxon England.

Who were the Anglo Saxons?

Before we look at the sites – who were the people we are talking about?

We use the term ‘Anglo-Saxons’ to describe a mix of people from northern Germany and Denmark who came to Britain from the mid-fifth century AD, after the collapse of Roman rule. They may have absorbed parts of the existing Romano-British population. They emerged as the main group in England till the Norman Conquest in 1066, speaking a language known to us as ‘Old English’. This era is also sometimes called the ‘Early Medieval’ period so as to encompass groups that had their own separate identities, such as the Cornish or Cumbrians and later on ‘Viking’ settlers.

To begin with the Anglo-Saxons were pagans, later converting to Christianity.

In the early centuries, many tribal groups and then small kingdoms coalesced around leading families or parts of the former province.

An aerial photograph of a group of burial mounds
An aerial view of the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo. Historic England Archive. Image reference NMR_27829_003

A warning to the curious?

The Old English epic poem “Beowulf” depicts a rich elite culture. But until the discoveries made at Sutton Hoo in the 1930s, there had been little hard evidence to suggest that this cultural richness had been anything but legend.

There had been older antiquarian reports – such as a lost crown found in Tudor times at Rendlesham in Suffolk. That story had been the inspiration for MR James’ 1925 ghost story ‘A Warning to the Curious’, where a hobby archaeologist who has taken a Saxon crown is haunted by a ghostly guardian of burial mounds.
Generally, however, the previous impression of the early Anglo-Saxons was that they were barbaric and simple compared to the great Roman empire that had crumbled away.

It would be in the former kingdom of East Anglia that the most stunning archaeological discovery at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk opened a new chapter in understanding the era.

A black and white archive view of a burial mound.
View of Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo © Suffolk County Council. Image reference P03438.

1. Sutton Hoo: the real-life story behind Netflix’s ‘The Dig’

It’s 1937 and Britain is troubled by rumours of a coming war. But Suffolk landowner Edith Pretty is about to make a decision that will forever change how we think of the people that we call “the Anglo-Saxons”, and shed a blazing light on what was once thought of as ‘the Dark Ages’.

After the loss of her husband, withdrawn from society, she has spent more time on her estate at Sutton Hoo. Edith seeks solace in spiritualism; she also becomes fascinated by a group of 18 ancient mounds on her land. Her experiences of travelling in Egypt and of her father’s interest in archaeology tell her these mounds should be explored by a skilled excavator.

Edith makes contact with Guy Maynard, curator of Ipswich Museum, who suggests local self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown, who already carries out archaeological work on behalf of the museum, mostly in Suffolk.

The remarkable Brown, who left formal school aged 12 to work on his father’s farm, begins work at Sutton Hoo in summer of 1938, opening up three mounds using techniques he has honed on a previous excavation.

Black and white archive portrait of a man wearing inter-war clothing carrying a pipe.
Portrait of the excavator Basil Brown  © Suffolk County Council. Image reference P03401.

He and a team of Edith’s labourers find that some mounds have been robbed long ago- but they do recover Anglo-Saxon finds, including tantalising evidence of part of a buried ship, like that found at Snape in Suffolk and only sketchily recorded back in 1862.

On the eve of war in 1939 Brown returns and opens what would become known as Mound 1, the biggest of the group. He and two workers from the estate expose the impression of a 27-metre long ship marked in the sandy soil and identify what may be a burial chamber. Realising this was a find of huge importance, Brown confers with Maynard. Eventually a team of university-based archaeologists -including women like Peggy Piggott- are brought in and the British Museum alerted.

Male and female archaeologists planning artefacts  within a ship burial using a planning frame.
C.W.Phillips of Ipswich Museum watching Sutton Hoo silver dish being planned by W.F.Grimes/M.Guido © Suffolk County Council. Image reference P03541.

The archaeologists open the chamber and gradually reveal a sensational array of finds, including the now-iconic helmet with its face mask, a ceremonial ‘whetstone’ (with the allusion to sharpening warrior’s swords) or ‘sceptre’ and purse lid. There are also objects from as far away as the eastern Mediterranean.

The Sutton Hoo helmet on display at the British Museum © Alex Segre/ Alamy Stock Photo

No longer ‘Dark Ages’

The discoveries at Sutton Hoo completely overturned the previous notion of ‘primitive’ Saxons. Here was a collection of eclectic and beautiful objects from a society with a complex artistic culture and -at least at the elite level- wide international connections. The objects were brought together in an elaborate burial requiring effort and organisation to commemorate a powerful person.

Initially, no body was found, but retrospective analysis of the soil found phosphate traces that suggest a body had decayed in the acidic soil.

Who that person was is still open to interpretation, but most experts suggest that it was Raedwald/ Redwald, a King of East Anglia with a claim to be a ‘Bretwalda’ or ‘wide ruler’ with influence over other kingdoms, who died around 616-627 AD. Raedwald also had a foot in both the Pagan and Christian camps, which may explain the mix of symbolism in the objects from Mound 1.

An artist's reconstruction showing  the funeral of an Anglo-Saxon king in a ship-burial.
Reconstruction illustration depicting the burial ceremony of an Anglo-Saxon King and his possessions in the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, by Peter Dunn. © Historic England Archive. Image reference IC097/001.

Later other archaeologists would work on the site, including Rupert Bruce-Mitford (in the 60s and 70s) and Martin Carver (between 1982 and 2001).

Our predecessor organisation supported the latter’s research campaigns, for example by applying the then-new techniques of geophysical survey to the site. We also continue to work with the National Trust, who own the site, which is legally protected by scheduling, to manage changes – like new installations for visitors needing Scheduled Monument Consent.

We can now see Sutton Hoo as representing part of the evidence for a change in Anglo-Saxon society. During the sixth century, it moved from being a less hierarchical ‘flatter’ society to one dominated by elites who are commemorated in style, with spectacularly elaborate ‘princely’ burials in the seventh century, before Christianity became more widespread later that century.

But Sutton Hoo has not been the only eye-opener in our journey of discovery.

2. A royal centre at Rendlesham

Recent surveys have revealed more details about the Royal site at nearby Rendlesham- this could have been a living centre for those buried at Sutton Hoo. Some describe this as a ‘palace’: but don’t think fairy-tale turrets and sweeping staircases- in this period imagine a big timber hall, open to the roof, with associated smaller timber buildings.

An artist's reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon timber royal hall with associated buildings and structures.
A reconstruction by Peter Dunn of an Anglo-Saxon Royal hall at Yeavering, Northumberland © Historic England Archive. Image reference IC119/001.

We funded some of the research, including testing field-walking methods there. It may have become less important in the mid-Saxon period as the river-port town of Ipswich developed…but that’s another story.

The area is now the subject of a community project Rendlesham Revealed, which aims to involve local people in learning more about the Anglo-Saxon past of the Deben Valley.

A selection of  Anglo-Saxon finds, including coins and broaches.
Some of the finds from Rendlesham © Suffolk County Council

3. The Staffordshire Hoard

The Staffordshire Hoard, first discovered in 2009, has exponentially increased our understanding of Anglo-Saxon metalwork, weaponry and our appreciation of the artistry and skill of the craftspeople that produced it. Some of the work is so fine it is difficult for a lay-person to see how it could have been achieved without modern magnifiers!

It probably dates from the seventh century AD and is made up of around 1,500 items mostly of rich warriors’ equipment and adornment, especially sword fittings. We funded their conservation and specialist research.

There are different theories as to why the artefacts were deliberately buried: in a time where there were no banks it may have been a way of hiding wealth for safekeeping away from thieves or enemies; part of a craftsman’s or armourer’s stock, perhaps buried loot from a campaign or raid or even an offering to the Gods.

A woman inspecting a reconstruction of a richly decorated Anglo-Saxon helmet.
A conservator with the reconstructed helmet from the Staffordshire Hoard. The Hoard consisted of many different fragments of the helmet which were painstakingly replicated so the helmet could be rebuilt. © Birmingham Museums Trust

4. The Prittlewell Prince

In 2003, archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology Service working on a small area of land in Essex as part of a road improvement scheme revealed an elite Anglo-Saxon burial chamber. It is thought to be the earliest ‘princely’ Anglo-Saxon burial, dating to around 580-605 AD.

As with Sutton Hoo, the amazing finds took time to conserve and analyse, for the Prittlewell burial artefacts, this process lasting to 2019 was partly funded by us. Among the finds were parts of a musical instrument called a lyre – and gold foil crosses which may have been placed over the eyes of the dead person. The latter may mean the person was an early convert to Christianity, despite the pagan overtones of a burial with a range of grave goods.

An artist's reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon princely burial chamber, lined with wood and furnished with grave goods.
A reconstruction drawing of the Prittlewell princely burial chamber, based on painstaking research © MOLA.

5. Great Ryburgh cemetery, Norfolk

This site, discovered in 2016 during work to construct a lake, is later than the ones we’ve looked at before and brings us to a time from the later 7th to 9th century when the Anglo-Saxons adopt Christian beliefs more widely. All the graves were roughly aligned east-west (facing Jerusalem) and in contrast to the burials we’ve looked at so far in this blog, there were no grave goods to accompany the person into the afterlife or mark their status.

The remarkable thing about this site is that due to a fluke of local geology, 81 of the graves still contained wooden ‘dug-out’ log coffins, which otherwise would normally have rotted away. These were not limited to the grave of a very important individual. There were also six plank-lined graves. Traces of a wooden building may represent the remains of a chapel or church. This fascinating site was featured in an episode of the TV documentary series ‘Digging for Britain’.

Because of the significance of these incredibly rare survivals, we provided funds for excavation and research work to continue.

It is not yet certain if the community that the cemetery served was one built on trade along the River Wensum, or perhaps a monastic settlement.

Two archaeologists excavating graves in which there are  hollowed-out wooden coffins and human remains.
MoLA Archaeologists excavating waterlogged graves at Great Ryburgh © MOLA.

Our role in archaeology

We help to protect the most important of England’s archaeological monuments, mostly through ‘scheduling’. You can see information about these alongside other aspects of protected heritage in the National Heritage List for England.

As you will have seen from this article in exceptional circumstances, we also fund investigation or conservation work to understand nationally important archaeological discoveries.

Our own ‘flying archaeologists’ also identify thousands of potential new sites each year from the air, while our archaeological specialists carry out surveys and excavations that are not addressed through the normal planning processes.

We also have a team of scientists who conserve finds or provide advice on dating archaeological sites and artefacts.

Find out more about our role in Archaeology

Further reading:

20 comments on “5 Sites That Tell the Story of Early Anglo-Saxon England

  1. artculturetourism

    Great blog, many thanks for sharing! I’ll share on my and Art Culture Tourism social media for you. 🙂

  2. Dr Charles Kightly, F.S.A

    Excellent, thank you

  3. Chris Worsley

    Such a fascinating period and so important in the development of our nation – language, literature, laws. Great to see more information being shared.

  4. Jim Sheehy

    Fascinating! We have visited Sutton Hoo and seen the artifacts in the British Museum. I look forward to visiting the other sites when & if.

  5. Sheila mitchell

    Wonderful information and a giant thank you for all you do

  6. Nicholas Whitsun-Jones

    Very good and informative blog about a fascinating era of history. Highly recommend the film ‘The Dig’.

  7. The princess buried in her bed at Streethouse on the North Yorkshire coast isn’t mentioned. Was it not important enough to be included?

  8. Maureen sandor

    Very interesting! Thank you!

  9. Lenore Wilkison

    Thank you!

    • John Hislam

      Excellent. Please keep going with this fascinating information.

  10. David Brear

    Be nice if you could spell Prittlewell.

  11. Phillip c Dawson

    Very useful information about early Anglo Saxon burial practicds

  12. nigelpicken

    Very enlightening. The links are well-worth visiting.

  13. Ms. Lewis

    Streethouse princess buriel site with a remarkable reconstruction in local N Yorks museum should be mentioned

  14. From the Netherlands, thanks for this blog!
    So many #oldenglish aligns with present day Dutch!

  15. Imagine if one of your relatives had their grave dug up, you would be devastated and outraged. It is dreadful the way graves are unearthed however old. It is never necessary, there is no justification for opening up a grave in this way.

  16. Have I missed something or is the helmet pictured in the Staffordshire Hoard section Roman rather than Anglo-Saxon? Are we to conclude that the site was a Roman one before settlement by Anglo-Saxon incomers or were there really wearing Roman style helmets in the 7th BC ? I much enjoyed this overview of significant Anglo-Saxon sites. Thanks.

  17. Apologies for error in line 3 “there” = “their” !

  18. valhunnisett7119

    As a child I had a ‘story’ book Scandinavian Folk Tales and Legends, Gwyn Jones – the more is revealed about our history, the more I believe these ‘Legends’ rooted in fact.

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