However, a dig in 1938, just before the break of the Second World War, uncovered a hoard of buried treasure, giving us a window into early medieval Anglo-Saxon England. 

A changing era of archaeology 

The story of archaeology in the 20th century was the rapid professionalization of the once amateur pastime into a modern science. 

The general academic and popular perception was that the high water mark of this new era of professionalism was the discovery of the previously undisturbed tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun by a team led by Howard Carter in 1922. 

Yet, less than two decades later, on the eve of the Second World War, within a generation, a self-taught archaeologist uncovered one of the United Kingdom's most significant archaeological finds: the Sutton Hoo treasures. 

The land on which the Sutton Hoo treasure was unearthed – an Old English term meaning "southern farmstead" – was owned by Edith Pretty. 

She turned to self-taught amateur archaeologist Basil Brown to commence an archaeological dig to try and discover what was buried beneath some of the huge burial mounds that dotted her property. 

In an era where archaeology was becoming increasingly scientific and less of an amateur pastime, Brown was the ultimate outsider. 

However, what he lacked in formal education, he made up for in archaeological passion and endeavor as he soon oversaw one of the greatest historical finds of the 20th century. 

The discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasure on Edith Pretty's estate, located along a tidal estuary and just 7 miles from the North Sea, was made by Basil Brown in 1938, who unearthed an extensive Anglo-Saxon burial site. Photo: Gernot Keller / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5)

The eastern edge of Anglo-Saxon England 

The Vikings were not the only early medieval people responsible for great burial mounds. 

Given our later image of Anglo-Saxons as being preyed upon by Vikings, it is sometimes hard to remember their origins. 

As the name suggests, the Anglo-Saxons were believed to have been one of the many Germanic peoples that migrated westward following the collapse of Rome's authority in Western Europe during the 5th century. 

Leaving what is now Denmark and northern Germany, the Angles and the Saxons nautically migrated to the British Isles, landing in what is now eastern England.

They would go on to forge a civilization that straddled the early medieval period and was the foundation of the modern United Kingdom. 

In fact, it was only the Norman invasion of England, led by William the Conqueror, an ancestor of the famed Viking leader Rollo, that spelled an end to the more than five centuries of cultural supremacy that the Anglo-Saxons had over much of England.

The land that Edith Pretty owned was about 7 miles (11 kilometers) from the North Sea and by the banks of a tidal estuary. 

With such a prime position close to the ocean, it was only a matter of time before great archaeological riches were to be uncovered, or so Basil Brown thought. 

The reconstructed ship burial chamber at The Sutton Hoo Exhibition Hall vividly presents the burial scene, believed to have been a ceremonial vessel for an Anglo-Saxon king. Photo: Gernot Keller / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Ships ahoy and treasure beneath 

Little did Brown know what he would uncover when work began on the dig in 1938. 

Starting with the apparent burial mounds, Brown soon discovered that the land owned by Edith Pretty was, in fact, part of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery. 

Carefully excavating a large burial mound, Brown found a ship burial not dissimilar to one discovered a generation earlier in Norway. 

While the Oseberg ship holds a place of pride in the Norwegian national psyche, the treasures, including the Anglo-Saxon ship, would do the same... at least for those in England with an archaeological inclination. 

Spanning approximately 27 meters (89 feet) in length, the ship is thought to have been the final resting place of an Anglo-Saxon king. 

It contained a variety of exquisitely crafted items, each exemplifying the detailed artistry of Anglo-Saxon craftsmen and highlighting the elevated status of the ruler interred within. 

Undoubtedly, one of the most iconic pieces discovered at the Sutton Hoo dig was an Anglo-Saxon helmet. 

This helmet has become as synonymous with its era and people as the Viking helmet found on a Norwegian farm

The helmet is the finest example of the "insular style," showing influences from Anglo-Saxon, Irish, Pictish, and even Mediterranean cultures. 

It is elaborately adorned with gold and bronze and was situated in the burial next to 10 silver bowls. 

Alongside this were laid several weapons – including a spear, a sword, a shield, and numerous golden buckles and clasps. 

Though Brown gets credit for much of the discoveries, the dig was soon taken over by the Ipswich Museum and eventually the British Museum. 

The ship was bequeathed to the British Museum by Edith Pretty, which, at the time, was the largest archaeological gift given to that hallowed institution. 

The golden belt buckle, found among the rich array of items in the Sutton Hoo burial, showcases the remarkable artistry of the period. Photo: Michel wal / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 1.0)

Scandinavian influences 

The burial at Sutton Hoo has been compared to similar archaeological finds across the North Sea in Scandinavia. 

In the Swedish town of Vendel, some 14 graves were unearthed in the early 1880s, containing boats, swords, and shields from a similar period to Sutton Hoo. 

Historians believe that the regalia found on Edith Pretty's land had direct Scandinavian connections, indicating the close links and influence that Viking societies had on Anglo-Saxon England.

While most of the archaeological treasures at Sutton Hoo were unearthed in 1938-1939, the work continued throughout much of the 20th century, extending into the early 1990s. 

It was in this decade that a museum was built on the grounds, opening at the dawn of the new millennium in 2001. 

The ruler buried at Sutton Hoo has been likened to a ruler in the epic Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, which the famed Irish poet Seamus Heaney honored with a new edition published to coincide with the museum's opening. 

The shoulder clasps found at Sutton Hoo, crafted by a master goldsmith, served the practical purpose of holding together the two halves of armor, fitting the torso in the Roman style. Photo: Aiwok / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 1.0)

Still a place for potting amateurs 

The entire archaeological excavation undertaken by Basil Brown was depicted in the recent Netflix film The Dig

It is not often that the world of real archaeology makes it to the silver screen (sorry, Harrison Ford, but archaeologists don't all carry whips), and we here at The Viking Herald highly recommend this film. 

The treasures uncovered at the Sutton Hoo site remind us that, while archaeology has evolved into a modern science, full of technology and structure, there is still a place for budding archaeologists and history lovers who can sometimes unearth treasures that are rich in both monetary and cultural value.

For more information on the recent film adaptation of the Sutton Hoo dig, visit The Guardian here

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