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A Query Into “Princely Burials”: Can the Material Culture of Grave Goods Infer Religion?

The question posed is an inquiry concerning the grave goods found in “princely” burials during the conversion period in Anglo-Saxon Britain. The term princely here does not necessarily refer to a member of a royal family but rather social elite or high status individuals within local tribe groups. For the purpose of this essay the focus will be on the analysis of famous goods found in the ship burial of Sutton Hoo to discuss whether the presence of grave goods insinuate religion.

   The site at Sutton Hoo is a collection of burial mounds spanning various time periods, from Neolithic to mid-seventh century.[1] This essay shall focus on the site called Mound One. In this ship-burial a plethora of artifacts were discovered that have intrigued scholars from “…a wide range of disciplines, including archaeology, art history, economic history, folklore, literary studies, and numismatics.”[2] This site has attracted attention due to several factors. Firstly, while most of the other mounds had been plundered, Mound One was left intact, due to the odd position of the burial chamber. This also was the largest and most complete Anglo-Saxon ship found in Britain. While these ship burials are commonly found all over Scandinavia and continental Europe, they are a rare find in Britain. The artifacts excavated at this site are of the upmost importance as they aided archaeologist in gaining a deeper understanding of Anglo-Saxon England. Some have even compared its discovery to that of Howard Carter’s find of the intact tomb of the boy king, Tutankhamen.

   Of the artifacts recovered, one of the more famous is the Sutton Hoo mask. The mask involved of an iron cap, neck guard, cheek pieces, and face plate (possibly a later form of the Late Roman cavalry helmets). With the collapse of the burial chamber the helmet was shattered into hundreds of pieces but specialists were able to reconstruct the helmet after a period of time. The design of the helmet is unique in that it resembles Swedish work rather than Anglo-Saxon. This is fascinating as it implies ties to Scandinavia before the age of the Vikings.[3] According to Bruce-Mitford, the first reconstruction was not widely accepted by scholars and as a result another reconstruction was produced. The original was to have been covered in parts by bronze sheet work with intricate designs. Several of these include animal overlays, a set of twin warriors, as well as a depiction of a rider and his conquered enemy.[4] It is suggested that these twin warriors represent an engagement with the cult of Odin, the pagan war god.[5] The rest of the depictions were torn off during the possible pagan ritual of killing the object in order to release its spirit.[6] The depiction on the helmet as well as the spear through the inside of the helmet could be classified as potentially pagan elements.

   While one might conclude that Bruce-Mitford alludes that the helmet contains pagan inferences one must also contemplate the other potential arguments for this funerary rite. Grinsell, in his article “The Breaking of Objects as Funerary Rite,” discusses many potential theories, one in particular concerns the authority of the figure buried. This theory confers the funerary practices found throughout various parts of the world within their respective time periods. He discusses the symbolism attached to swords and “other symbols of authority” and the culture’s view of reuse of the decease’s weapons as inappropriate.[7] For his evidence on the burials of Great Britain he covers the possibility of the Sutton Hoo helmet being “killed” following pagan practice but also encourages the reader to take in other evidence such as the theory of the symbol of authority.

   There was also a set of ten silver bowls and two silver spoons buried within Mound One. These set of Byzantine bowls and silver spoons are thought to be elements of the Christian tradition within this Anglo-Saxon burial. Michael Bintley wrote an article concerning these bowls and spoons. In his article, “The Byzantine Silver Bowls in the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial and Tree-Worship in Anglo-Saxon England”, suggests that perhaps the bowls are simply being viewed through a Christian worldview, he says;

The crosses have been read as having Christian implications, as they would have done in the Byzantine sphere at this time, if not in the pre-Christian culture of those to whom they were introduced to Britain. However, no attempt has yet been made to unravel the significance of their central roundels…Rosettes of one kind or another had appeared on jewelry and architecture, Roman, Germanic, or otherwise, long before these bowls made their way to Britain, and whether we interpret them as flowers, sun-wheels, or as emblems of the sol invictus, their symbolism is multifarious and easily transferrable.[8]

The bowls, placed in a nesting formation, were decorated with a cross from a central roundel containing a floral motif. The two silver spoons accompanying the bowls bear the inscription ‘Saulos and Paulos’ in Greek, possibly referring to the conversion of the Christian Saint Paul. The interpretation of these items has been debated as they are a clearly Christian artifacts in a seemingly pagan burial.

Whilst any attempt to judge what this reception context was can only be speculative, the most immediate possibility that presents itself is that they may have been donated in a Christian context, perhaps in exchange for baptismal vows, and that they may thus have formed a part of an exchange of high-status goods in the early seventh century though which the Church may have sought to secure and reinforce its foothold in south-eastern England.[9]

As seen through the quote above, it has also been implied that the East Mediterranean works were possibly a baptismal gift, with various intentions, possibly political.  Bintley continues his argument to compare the design of the bowls to the previous pagan worship of the Anglo-Saxons. He discusses the transition period and the utilization of pagan ideals in the conversion process.

On these grounds it is reasonable to suppose that similar attempts, and for the same facilitating purpose, may have been made elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon England during the heathen period to combine elements of Christian and pre-Christian concepts and traditions associated with sacred trees. In this context, if the rosettes that center the ten silver bowls were understood to be connected with some form of sacred tree, they would have been at home in either a Christian or pagan context…[10]

Essentially, Bintley is advocating the theory of syncretism. Within this model the converted kingdom might maintain their practices and pagan beliefs along with the newly adopted Christian faith, or perhaps incorporate pagan elements into their Christian lives. This point, along with the other arguments mentioned above, contribute to the analysis that the individual was a part of a syncretic society and one is unable to truly identify his religious affiliation.

   Bruce-Mitford suggests that due to the seemingly syncretism of the burial, the deceased was most likely King Rædwald. Further evidence would include the collection of coins found in the burial as well as the non-Christian objects.[11] Most historians tend to agree with this specific theory, or more broadly that it was the burial site of one of four, seventh century East Anglian kings. It is thought that there is more evidence for the deceased to be Rædwald as Bede’s description of his two altars reveals the potential context of his kingdom’s beliefs,[12] though one cannot be certain about the common population as Bede records historical information concerning the kings.

   The archaeological context of the Sutton Hoo burial Mound One can be classified as a “transitional burial”.[13] Burials can be put in various classifications based on items such as grave goods, alignment, grave structure, location, etc. ‘Princely’ burials tend to be a trend only seen in the seventh century as during the eighth the Church begins to become more active in the role and ritual of death and burial. With grave goods, such a weaponry and jewelry, usually classifying a burial as pagan, the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo is intriguing. There appear to be present both pagan and Christian elements. Perhaps the burial and its contents are not meant to relay religious affiliation but rather status and rank. With items, pagan or Christian, of various origin and the vast wealth found within the grave one might assume a kingly or at least noble rank. With the presence of weaponry one would assume the deceased to be a male, as high status female burials are not as prevalent till the later end of the seventh century.[3] As to who was buried there, the specific identity of the person may not be conclusively known but through archaeological interpretation of the artifacts found one could conclude with most certainty that Mound One at Sutton Hoo is a ‘princely’ burial.

   Can the artifacts, however inform the archaeologist about the religion of the deceased? If one must infer religion from the artifacts represented then he or she most likely will conclude with the theory of syncretism. Perhaps archaeologists are only analyzing the artifacts with a religious perspective defining the time by the transition. An example of this biased lens or interpretation could be the poet of the epic poem Beowulf[15]. “There is no reason to suppose that the Beowulf poet lived in East Anglia, and he might have composed the poem at any time from the later seventh to the tenth century. He was a retrospective vision of the pagan past, seen through the filter of Christianity.”[16] Just as the poet’s approach to writing Beowulf, perhaps the scholars studying the relics of Sutton Hoo are analyzing through a filter of religion. It is easier to conclude the political and high-ranking status of the burial through the artifacts found rather than using artifact interpretation to determine religion. This is not to say that one cannot make educated assumptions about religion at the time of the burial based off of the findings. However, to simply put that grave goods are always able to reveal the religious affiliation of the deceased would be shortsighted.


[1] Calvin B. Kendall and Peter S. Wells, “Sutton Hoo and Early Medieval Northern Europe” Voyage to the Other World: The Legacy of Sutton Hoo. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), ix.
[2] Ibid., ix.
[3] Rupert Bruce-Mitford, “The Sutton Hoo Helmet: A New Reconstruction” The British Museum Quarterly. (Vol. 36, No ¾, 1972), 120.
[4] Ibid., 122.
[5] Ibid., 129.
[6] Ibid., 122.
[7] L. V. Grinsell, “The Breaking of Objects as a Funerary Rite”, Folklore. (Vol. 72, No. 3, 1961), 477.
[8] Michael D. Bintley, “The Byzantine Silber Bowls in the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial and Tree-Worship in Anglo-Saxon England” Papers from the Institute of Archaeology. (London: University College London, 2011), 37.
[9] Ibid., 36.
[10] Ibid., 43.
[11] James Campbell, “The Impact of the Sutton Hoo Discovery on the Study of Anglo-Saxon History” Voyage to the Other World: The Legacy of Sutton Hoo. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 82.
[12] Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo-Shirley-Price (London: Penguin, 1991).
[13] Dr. Toby Martin, “The Archaeology of the Conversion” (Oxford Lecture, 30/01/15) Slide 4.
[14] Ibid., Slide 14.
[15] This epic poem has often been connected to the burial at Sutton Hoo as the descriptions in the texts mirror that of items found within the site.
[16] Calvin B. Kendall and Peter S. Wells, “Sutton Hoo and Early Medieval Northern Europe” Voyage to the Other World: The Legacy of Sutton Hoo. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), Xxi.
Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo-Shirley-Price
(London: Penguin, 1991)
Bintley, Michael D., “The Byzantine Silber Bowls in the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial and Tree-Worship in Anglo-Saxon England” Papers from the Institute of Archaeology. (London: University College London, 2011)
Bruce-Mitford, Rupert, “The Sutton Hoo Helmet: A New Reconstruction” The British Museum Quarterly. (British Museum) Vol. 36, No. 3/4 (Autumn, 1972), pp. 120-130.
Grinsell, L. V. “The Breaking of Objects as a Funerary Rite” Folklore. (Taylor & Francis, Ltd.).
Vol. 72, No. 3 (Sep., 1961), pp. 475-491.
Kendall, Calvin B., and Wells, Peter S., eds. Voyage to the Other World: The Legacy of Sutton
Hoo. Minneapolis, MN, USA: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.
Martin, Toby, “The Archaeology of the Conversion” (Oxford Lecture, 30/01/15).