The burial at Sutton Hoo Mound 1 is England’s most famous archaeological site, and contains a body buried in a magnificent ship. But why would the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ have buried their dead in ships – what social, religious and economic significance might they have ascribed to this rare but spectacular form of burial?
I remember the feeling of despair when, sitting down to my mock Oxford history exam in third year, I was faced with a question I’d never even thought about: why were some Anglo-Saxons buried in boats? Sure, I’d covered the big examples in my research – Sutton Hoo mounds 1 and 2, alongside Snape. But what did I have on the boats themselves? Perhaps a more model student might have had slightly less panic…
Boats are clearly a powerful symbol. But of what? Well, we’ll never have a clear answer for that, but there are three possible (interconnected?) areas of interest…
War and Life Stories?
It is clear that a ship is an impressive engine of war, carrying warbands to battle and glory. Sutton Hoo mound 1 shows a clear attempt to stress the individual buried therein as a war leader through its material assemblage – in it we find a sword, shield, helmet and mail. Is the ship, as a symbol of war, to be interpreted in a similar manner?
Indeed, the ship used at Sutton Hoo shows signs of repair, and likely was practically used through the lifetime of the buried individual rather than made for the ceremony itself. What adventures were had in it? What glory was achieved? Is this what is being stressed in the positioning of Mound 1, set high above the river Deben and viewable by passing river traffic?
We know very little about English pagan religious practices, and we should be wary about assuming a simple correlation between them and Norse practices, themselves unclear and the result of later Christian texts. It has been suggested, however, that the boat is a deliberate piece of religious symbolism.
It is remarkable that the Mound 1 Sutton hoo ship burial includes 37 golden tremisses of Merovingian origin, three unstruck blanks and two small ingots (in an ornate purse).
Grierson has suggested that this number corresponds with the 40 hypothesised oarsmen that the ship would have originally held. Do they, in fact, represent a Charon’s Obol, a payment for a ghostly oar crew to row the deceased to some kind of afterlife (perhaps with 2 ingots for a steersman)?
Important parallels can be drawn with the writings of Ibn Fadlan, a tenth-century writer from the Islamic Caliphate. His works famously recounts a meeting with the Rus, the Scandinavians who settled in eastern Europe.
The text recounts, at the death of an important individual, that a slave-girl will volunteer to die also. After the body is placed within a ship, there follows a set of animal sacrifices and ritual sex. In a set of prophetic actions, the slave-girls is lifted over a door-frame to see the dead. The rather ominously named ‘Angel of Death’, an apparent female overseer of the ceremony, then stabs the slave-girl to death, as a final human sacrifice. To top off the event, the ship and its contents are set ablaze (by, and this is of course important, a naked man deliberately obscuring his anus).
A general religious symbolism to ships is therefore possible.
It is remarkable that the two major examples here – Snape and Sutton Hoo – are found in East Anglia. Did they have a particular cultural affinity with ship burials? Well, it’s significant that our other examples all stem from the ‘Viking‘ world – both the account by Ibn Fadlan above, but more importantly the ship burials at Upsala where the burial form predominates. Was the ruling family in East Anglia trying to stress a strong cultural or dynastic link with Scandinavia, perhaps in an attempt to emphasise a sense of legitimacy? Where they following their own heritage, or deliberately copying someone else’s, for show?
So, we’re left with three possible interpretations for why individuals were buried in boats in East Anglia. In fact, in this brief summary, we’re left with many more questions than answers. It’s completely possible that the answer is a mix of two or three of these explanations. What is clear, however, is that ship burials provide yet another method of expressing power and prestige through the theatre and performance of death and burial.