The treasures of Sutton Hoo in East Anglia are legendary, including the imprint left by the largest Saxon ship ever found.

Expert shipwright Tim Kirk has been leading a team of volunteers to create an authentic reconstruction of the vessel, with a view to it being sailed in 2025. 

With occasional references to the reconstruction activity at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Tim talks at length to The Viking Herald about how the project came about, the pitfalls of using a unique Saxon burial site as an army training ground, and the quest to discover what the ship was used for 1,400 years ago. 

Sutton Hoo, an iconic site comprising 18 burial mounds from the 600s, was first excavated on the eve of World War II in 1939, leading to further detailed studies in subsequent decades to understand its long-standing history as a cemetery. Photo: Mike Prince / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

What is Sutton Hoo? 

Sutton Hoo comprises 18 burial mounds dating back to the 600s. Most were looted by treasure hunters long before archaeologists began their excavations on the eve of World War II. 

Among the objects discovered were the bare remnants of a 27-meter-long ship, including a sword, armor, and various gold and silver objects.

Tim Kirk takes up the story:

"I was part of a small team that built a new waterwheel for the Woodbridge tide mill as part of a major restoration project. It's literally across the river Deben from Sutton Hoo. 

Alongside was a derelict boatyard called Wistocks. The plan was to redevelop this site, for which the development company was required to put in something of public good for the local community.

They built a community boatshed specifically sized to fit the ship so it could be constructed there."

Subsequently, my boss and I were involved in the planning application and the design of the shed. Then, everything went quiet, so I decided to do a degree in archaeology. 

Two modules in, I was doing a heritage report, for which we could choose any site to analyze. I thought, 'I'd just look at what's happening with Sutton Hoo,' and there was the website up and running, with Jacq Barnard as project manager. 

Initially, I completed two internships during my summer holidays, and afterward, I advanced to the position of master shipwright." 

The 1939 Sutton Hoo excavation revealed a spectral imprint of the ancient ship, documented in H. J. Phillips' film, where the organic decay had left a distinct discoloration in the sand, with only corroded nails remaining in place. Photo: Harold John Phillips (Public domain)

The history of Sutton Hoo 

"The first excavation was in 1939, right before the start of World War II. The mission finished a few days before the war broke out. 

They didn't even have time to backfill the trench. They just covered it with bracken, leaves, and moss. All the artifacts were put in one of the Tube tunnels in London for the duration of the war.

They just packed them up; they didn't even have time to examine them. So, in 1965 through 1967-68, the British Museum decided to return and re-excavate it.

During that time, a lot had happened. With all these mounds and flat grassy areas, the Army had decided it would be a good idea to go in and train tank crews on it.

They put in glider ditches, slit trenches – they put a slit trench right across the back of the ship's trench. It would never happen nowadays.

Despite a significantly reduced imprint, they found the outline of the edges of the planking while a lot of the corroded nails were still in situ. All of the timber had rotted away by this time.

In the late 1980s to mid-1990s, Professor Martin Carver excavated the whole site to look at the context of it as a cemetery. He found it was a cemetery site from 500, 550, maybe right through to 1100.

It started with the royal burial site, the Wuffingas, right through to an execution site. There was a gallows there, and people were hanged, decapitated, even.

So it had a long period of use as a burial site. The key people there were Angela Care Evans, a young postgraduate sent by the British Museum to help with the excavation in 1965.

Angela's now in her eighties, and she's one of our trustees, which gives everything a nice circular feel. Martin Carver served as the chair of the trustees until last summer. These individuals are among the key players who were involved in the planning of it." 

The burial chamber situated toward the bow of the ship, contained the remains of a prestigious individual along with a wealth of grave goods, including ceremonial items and weaponry. Photo: Gernot Keller / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Historical background 

"In the 1990s, the National Trust started fundraising to build the ship – but they didn't have the expertise to do it. A group of local amateur enthusiasts began researching the project in the 2000s, marking the true beginning of this endeavor.

The key was the redevelopment of Wistocks boatyard, so there was a suitable location for the ship's construction.

One of the main reasons to build it is that we don't actually know what it was used for. We know it was a rowed ship with potentially 40 oars, although we're discovering more about that as we build it.

We don't know if it was a sailed ship – conventional academic wisdom is that sails disappeared from Britain with the Romans and didn't come back until the Vikings brought them.

The rationale for that is that we don't have any archaeological evidence for it. And what textual evidence we have is conflicting.

But we do know that we were still exposed to sails because there was trade coming up from Iberia all through the period. There's one being excavated now from the seventh century, just outside Bordeaux.

We know that they are basically in the Roman style; they had a mast, and they sailed. So we know that the English of the time were exposed to sail.

It seems a bit ridiculous that when you've got all that historical knowledge, no one would say, 'Let's put a sail on it' – it would be a lot easier, it would be a lot faster, it would give an element of surprise going into battle." 

The Sutton Hoo ship replica, being reconstructed to its original length of 27 meters, utilizes oak timber for the hull, adhering to traditional shipbuilding techniques like cleaving for plank making and iron riveting for assembly. Photo: The Sutton Hoo Ship's Company

The devil in the detail 

"The upcoming trial phase is expected to raise numerous questions. This follows the research phase, which is still in progress.

The details of this research are thoroughly documented in The Digital Reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo Ship by Pat Tanner and Julian Wainwright, a work that represents the pinnacle of the research phase.

During the 1939 investigation, the Science Museum assigned Lieutenant Commander Hutchison to conduct a detailed survey of the ship. His task involved measuring the positions of the rivets in three dimensions across each of the ship's 26 frames. From these measurements, he developed a plan of the ship's structure.

One of the reasons for the 1967 excavation was to check the accuracy of that plan.

If you look at the excavation photos from 1939, they show people just walking through the ship, trampling on whatever evidence there might have been – but his plan was accurate.

Pat Tanner and Julian Wainwright from Southampton University took that data and used the nail locations to determine plank and keel positions. Roskilde also discovered that most of the keels in the earlier recreations were drawn straight.

As we look at it now with modern technology, most of them had a continuous curve along the length. And that can seriously affect the seaworthiness of the vessel." 

By 2019, the Sutton Hoo ship project had formed a team led by a master shipwright with two assistants, supported by 30 active and 30 waiting volunteers, alongside a research team investigating maritime history. Photo: The Sutton Hoo Ship's Company

The plan began 

"So by 2019, we had a plan and were able to assemble a team of volunteers – it's a volunteer-led program.

There's Jacq Barnard as the project manager, me as the master shipwright with two assistant shipwrights, and that's the entire paid staff of the organization.

We also have about 30 boatbuilding volunteers, with another 30 on the waiting list. There's still a research team looking into related aspects such as rivers, anchors, and anchoring.

Ballast is an interesting topic – we believe the ship had a capacity for a five-ton load, and if it didn't carry that, it would probably have had five tons of ballast, likely stones.

They would simply dump them overboard when they wanted to load cargo.

Across the UK, and I believe in Scandinavia too, there are ballast dumps. The types of stones typically used for ballast aren't found in East Anglia, indicating they were imported.

We've got a retired textiles professor from the States on our team, researching different types of wool, spinning and weaving techniques, and loom sizes.

This collaborative effort brings all the existing research together, enabling us to make an informed decision on whether and how to fit a sail to the ship.

There's also a recording crew documenting the process for future archaeologists." 

With a 2025 launch in sight, the team reconstructing the Sutton Hoo ship is struggling to find large timber, a key component for the central planking of the vessel. Photo: The Sutton Hoo Ship's Company

Timber logistics and other conundrums 

"The plan is to try and launch in the spring of 2025. However, we've encountered a snag – I'm struggling to find trees large enough for the wide planking in the ship's middle.

The planks used in Roskilde are much narrower than ours. It appears there's been a general reduction in availability over those four centuries.

Since then, we've built three massive wooden navies, and all the timber was used up in the two world wars and other conflicts – over the last hundred years, timber just hasn't been appropriately managed.

It's really intriguing. This has become another significant area of research for the project: timber resources.

Given that the planks in the middle of the ship are 14 inches wide (around 35 cm), and we're cleaving them – meaning we're splitting them, all the work is done with axes, just like in Roskilde.

We split the wood into halves, quarters, eighths, and 16ths, so you only get half of the tree for a plank.

Suppose you consider two inches (5.08 cm) of bark, two inches of sapwood, and three to four inches (7.62 to 10.16 cm) of a wiggly pith line in the center of the log. In that case, we realize we need a tree about four feet (1.22 meters) in diameter.

The longest planks identified in the ship were 18 feet (5.49 meters) long, so we're looking for clear, straight stems that are 20 feet (6.10 meters) long – and there aren't many of those available now.

Moreover, due to awareness of trees and climate change, people are quite reluctant to cut them down, which is perfectly reasonable – but it presents a challenge for us!

I've been all over England and almost across to Wales. We've had one log of four-foot diameter (about 1.22 meters), but I probably need three more for the planking.

But you can't tell until you cleave them. A couple of times, we've cleaved a log and found a branch that had grown halfway through the log. It broke off, and the tree healed and grew around it.

Until you actually split it, you don't know what you're going to get. Many of our logs have been donated, but if we were to buy one, it might cost thousands of pounds.

Because we're a charity, some people sell them to us for less. This is commercial timber – if it went to a sawmill, they'd lap it up.

We've also got until 2025 to learn how to use the thing. We always said that the ship had the potential for 40 rowers.

What we've found as we've modeled it at full size is that the very end is too narrow to get two rowers side by side – we're kind of finding things out as we go.

There's also a question about the ship's middle – they didn't find the hook-shaped tholes, the equivalent of a modern rowlock.

Viking ships have an oarport through the side, so they didn't have that issue.

They were evident in their original excavation photos, but there weren't any tholes found in the middle of the ship, so people started thinking why this was – they would have taken them off to build the burial chamber.

But the burial chamber would have sat inside the sides of the ship, not on the sides of the ship. If those tholes weren't there, then it was 28 rowers, possibly 26. So you would be losing 40% of your power." 

Opened in 2001, the Sutton Hoo Exhibition Hall features a simple replica of the Anglo-Saxon ship at its entrance. Photo: Bill Boaden / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

What was the ship used for? 

"We do know that the ship had a service life because there are four areas of repairs on it. The nails are separated at really even spaces, about five inches, 120mm, or, in Saxon terms, a hand's width.

But there's one area about three meters long, where they've also got intermediate nails – which suggests a repair job.

At Roskilde, the Skuldelev 3 was reconstructed, and this replica lasted for 25 years, requiring more repairs as time went on. Now, they've built a reconstruction of the reconstruction.

Considering this, a life span of 20 to 25 years for such ships seems plausible.

Coincidentally, King Raedwald, the central figure in this context and widely believed to have been buried here, reigned from around 599 or 600 until his death in 624 or 625 – a period of about 25 years.

It's a speculative yet intriguing possibility that the ship was constructed for his coronation, used throughout his reign, and finally served as his burial vessel, although there is no direct evidence to confirm this.

But that window of ship burials is very narrow in Britain, where it's about 50 years, whereas it goes on much later in Scandinavia, obviously. This is 200 years before the Oseberg burial.

DNA evidence shows that at that time, there was a large immigration of people from Scandinavia. It's really a very fluid period, much more than people may have allowed for.

We don't know if the ship was English-built or Continental-built because there's no timber to radiocarbon date. There's just a stamp imprint.

We know that Raedwald went to Canterbury to be baptized in 617, maybe a bit earlier. He probably wouldn't have gone by land because the journey would have been arduous. It would have been much simpler to go by sea.

We know he fought at the Battle of the River Idle around 616, which is the same period. That's up at Retford in Nottinghamshire, which flows into the Trent and just before the Trent flows into the Humber.

So, how did they get up there? Did they march? Or did they go by sea? Or did they do a bit of both? So, we can investigate those sorts of things as well.

Potentially, could it have traveled across the North Seas? From here to Ijmuiden in the Netherlands is about 100 miles, which isn't so far." 

Once the reconstruction of the ship is complete, a three-year trial phase will commence, starting with mastering rowing techniques and then proceeding to replicate potential historical journeys to understand the ship's original purpose. Photo: The Sutton Hoo Ship's Company

Trial and error 

"It is an extensive experimental archaeology project, and we aim to record everything thoroughly, even to the extent of over-recording it.

Just as we discovered things from 50 years ago, we don't know what kind of technology the archaeologists of 50 years hence will have.

If we record as much as possible – including written evidence, social evidence, insights from the builders, details about the timber, and utilizing various methods like photographs, video, photogrammetry, laser scanning – then we can provide future researchers with as much information as possible.

There are three years of trials planned. The first year will focus on learning how to row the ship. After that, we aim to explore some of the journeys it might have taken.

Being the largest known ship from that period in Britain, its purpose remains a mystery. Was it a ceremonial barge? A warship?

Perhaps it was used for projecting power, similar to an aircraft carrier today. We don't yet know. By testing it in various conditions and on different journeys, we hope to uncover what its uses might have been." 

For more on the Sutton Hoo Saxon ship project, see here

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