11 July, 2008

Sutton Hoo Mound 17: The horse and his boy

Apart from the famous ship burial, the only one of the grave mounds so far excavated at Sutton Hoo to have come intact into the hands of archaeologists is Mound 17. This unusual double burial contained a young warrior and a horse, and was excavated by Martin Carver’s team in 1991 (Carver 1998). I mentioned it in an earlier post on horses in seventh-century England. Here are some more details.

The burial

Mound 17 had been so eroded by ploughing that it was hardly visible as a mound at all, just a slight platform of raised earth. (Apparently Martin Carver’s golf technique was partially responsible for its discovery). Every other mound excavated at Sutton Hoo, except the great ship burial of Mound 1, had been robbed, so Mound 17 was extremely unusual in being discovered intact. A robber’s pit had indeed been cut in the mound, but had been placed in the centre and had come down between the two grave pits, no doubt puzzling and disappointing the robbers and leading them to conclude that the mound was empty. It wasn’t.

Excavation revealed two grave pits under the mound, one containing a young man and the other containing a horse. The horse was a stallion or gelding, five or six years old and about 14 hands high.

The young man was aged about twenty-five, and had been buried in a rectangular wooden coffin fitted with iron clamps. At his side there was a long sword with a horn pommel, together with an iron knife in a leather sheath. The buckle of his sword-belt was made of bronze inlaid with garnets. A small cloth-lined leather purse or pouch had been placed by his shoulder, containing seven rough-cut garnets, a single garnet in the shape of a bird’s beak, and a fragment of red and blue glass – keepsakes of some kind, perhaps?

Underneath the coffin were two spears and a shield with an iron boss; the coffin had been laid on top of the shield boss and had canted over at the time of burial. Alongside the left (north) edge of the coffin were an iron-bound bucket, a bronze cauldron with an earthenware cooking pot stacked inside it, and a handful of lamb chops propping up a bronze bowl. The cauldron had probably contained some perishable material such as grain, which had decayed and been replaced by sand from the grave fill, and the lamb chops and the bronze bowl had originally been in some kind of haversack or kit bag, along with some other perishable food (perhaps bread or fruit?).

At the west (head) end of the grave pit a splendid horse harness was found – a bit with gilt-bronze cheek pieces, joined to reins, nose-band and brow-band. The strap connectors were gilt-bronze and covered in animal ornament, decorated with axe-shaped bronze pendants. Two gilt-bronze strap-ends were decorated in the form of human faces (rather sweet, as strap-ends on human garments are often decorated with animals). Fragments of leather and wood on top of the harness were probably from a saddle, and on top of that was a tapering wooden tub for feeding the horse.

Leaning against the coffin side, as if it had been dropped into the grave at the last minutes, was a comb.

There are some photographs of the grave-goods here.

Opinion is divided on the date of the burial, with Angela Evans dating it to the late sixth century and Martin Carver to the early seventh century, according to a review of a recent publication.

The excavator describes the young man in Mound 17 thus:

….a heroic image worthy of a young Siegfried: mounted on his stallion, with gold and silver roundels, strap-ends and pendants dangling and turning; the horn-pommelled sword in its sheath, right hand holding the spears, left arm through the shield strap and left hand holding the reins; and behind, attached to the saddle or body harness, the camping kit: bucket, cauldron and pot, and the haversack with iron rations and a bronze bowl to fill at forest stream or spring. His early death was mourned through the evocation of every young man’s dream: to ride out well-equipped on a favourite mount, on a sunny morning, free of relatives, free of love, free of responsibility, self-sufficient and ready for any adventure.

--Carver, 1998.

Who was he?

The short and accurate answer to this is that we don’t know and we can’t know, unless some future discovery happens to include an inscription with the dead man’s name. It is, however, fun to speculate.

In his Ecclesiastical History, Bede mentions Raegenhere, son of Raedwald King of the East Angles (more information on Raedwald in an earlier post). Raegenhere died a hero’s death in battle in around 617:

….he [Raedwald] raised a great army to make war on Aethelferth and allowing him no time to summon his full strength, encountered him with a great preponderance of force and killed him. In this battle, which was fought in Mercian territory on the east bank of the river Idle, Raegenhere, son of Raedwald, also met his death.

--Bede, Book II Ch. 12

How about Raegenhere as a candidate for the princely occupant of Sutton Hoo Mound 17? He was presumably a young man, since his father King Raedwald was still of fighting age. If the grave dates to the early seventh century the date is consistent. A warrior’s grave with weapons and a horse would seem appropriate for a young man who died in battle far from home. No traumatic bone injuries were mentioned for the young warrior in Mound 17, but plenty of fatal injuries would leave no mark on the skeleton. For example, a puncture wound to the abdomen or a flesh wound that happened to sever a major artery could quickly lead to death from loss of blood without damage to a bone. Assuming the battle was fought somewhere near modern Bawtry, where the River Idle flows north-south (and therefore has an east bank) and is crossed by a major Roman road, the distance from Sutton Hoo was about 140 miles. This would be a long way to bring a body home for burial in a cart or a horse litter (though it might have been undertaken for a sufficiently important casualty). However, Bawtry is not far from the River Trent, which is easily navigable at that point (a few centuries later the Vikings could sail still further upstream), and a journey by ship down the Trent to the Humber and then round the coasts of Lincolnshire and East Anglia to Sutton Hoo would have taken the Sutton Hoo ship only a couple of days with a fair wind. If Raedwald’s “great army” used ships for logistical support and/or transport, this could have been quite a credible way of bringing the casualties home.

I should stress, of course, that I don’t claim that Raegenhere is the young man in Mound 17, only that he could be. No doubt the royal or aristocratic dynasty that buried its members at Sutton Hoo had plenty of young men who met early deaths due to accident, illness or injury some time around the turn of the sixth and seventh century, any of whom could be the occupant of Mound 17. As ever, other interpretations are possible.

Carver M. Sutton Hoo: Burial ground of kings? British Museum Press, 1998, ISBN 0-7141-0591-0.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin, 1990, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.


Gabriele Campbell said...

Lol, don't you love it when archaeologists suddenly get all romantic? A young Siegfrid indeed. Next they'll dig for some dragon bones. ;)

Carla said...

I thought it was rather a good description! It's nice to be reminded of the human side - archaeology, even with all its scientific techniques, is a humanities subject.

Dragon bones are for the paleontologists :-)

Gabriele Campbell said...

It was a good description. It still made me smile, though.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Excellent post Carla - thank you!
I was particularly interested in the Sutton Hoo photos because of the reconstructed helm. It was made for the National Trust by a chap called Ivor Lawton at a cost of around £10,000 - and would have cost more if he'd used real garnet instead of resin in the inlays. I have an Ivor Lawton helm, an antler work comb and several pairs of replica shoes made by this awesome guy - but not at such a price! So it's great to see his helm in situ. I love the cloisonne work on the grave finds too. Superb.

Rick said...

No doubt the royal or aristocratic dynasty that buried its members at Sutton Hoo had plenty of young men who met early deaths due to accident, illness or injury some time around the turn of the sixth and seventh century

Surely not all that many! Presumably such rich burials weren't 'ordinary' aristos, but a dynasty that can't have had all that many dead princes in a generation or two.

But there's the maddening and fascinating edge-of-the-mist thing again. Raedwald and Raegenhere made enough impact to be remembered in Bede's day, but if the burial was a few decades earlier, it could have been forgotten before he came along.

Carla said...

Gabriele - also, the opportunity to excavate an intact rich burial doesn't come up very often in a career, so I can see why he might have a soft spot for the original owner :-)

Elizabeth - he must be a remarkable craftsman. The skill required for the Sutton Hoo jewellery is extraordinary.

Rick - the ship burials are certainly off the scale (which is one of the reasons I favour Raedwald for the occupant of Mound 1). The other mounds are rich but not in the same league (although it's difficult to judge how rich the robbed mounds might once have been). The Mound 17 man has a shield, two spears, a knife, a nice sword, some jewellery, some food and vessels to put it in, and his horse. Apart from the horse it's not so very far out of the ordinary for a well-equipped warrior burial, what you might call an ordinary aristo. And the horse is paralleled in a couple of burials at Lakenheath, which is also in East Anglia and dated to about the same period. I suppose the Lakenheath burials would be the aristocracy of their region.

The fact that the Sutton Hoo site has the two ship burials suggests that it belonged to/was associated with a dynasty that was right at the top of the social hierarchy, but that dynasty might have had quite a few members if it extended out to, say, distant cousins, step-relations and assorted hangers-on. It might not be a single dynasty, if there were rival family groups involved, and there may also be a possibility that people associated with the dynasty but not part of it by blood might count (e.g. foster-brothers, especially favoured friends or retainers). We don't really know who had the right to be buried there. Also, depending on how wide you draw the date range it might span, say 550 to as late as, say, the 630s, so there could be three or four generations. The pool of candidates might be confined to the brothers and sons of a couple of generations of kings, or it might be quite a bit bigger. I'd be cautious about arguing for Raegenhere on the basis that it was exclusively a family cemetery; it might not have been.

Edge of the mist - yes, exactly. It's largely accident that Raedwald's name and Raegenhere's have come down to us, because they happened to be closely involved with the events that led Northumbria to become Christian and were therefore relevant to Bede's church history. All we have of the East Angles before then is a few names in Raedwald's genealogy. If Angela Evans is right about the burial being dated to the late 6th century, a generation or two before Raedwald's time, we have no real idea at all what was going on in (what later became) East Anglia at that period, or who was involved. There aren't even any surviving legends, let alone any history.

Rick said...

I guess that what with the plundered graves, we don't really know how many people were buried there to begin with. More edge of the mist!

Kathryn Warner said...

Fascinating post, Carla! Wish I had something intelligent to contribute to the discussion. ;)

Bernita said...

A wonderful post. The heroic and romantic do emerge suddenly from the mist and fire full-blown.

Carla said...

Rick - And only part of the cemetery was excavated, on the grounds that future archaeologists will have better techniques than we do and some of the site should be left for future investigation. So the rest of the site is an unknown quantity.

Alianore, Bernita - thanks.

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy these posts about Sutton Hoo. Such a fascinating burial site, and such fun to debate :)

Carla said...

Steven - thanks. Glad you found it interesting.