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The mystery of Sutton Hoo

Dinah Starkey brings archaeology into your classroom Photography by Brian Harris

History is about more than the passing of time - it is about the ways in which people used to live, the gods they worshipped and the hopes and dreams they fought and died for.

More mundanely, it is also about finding, examining and interpreting historical data - and realising that opinions about great events may change through the ages for a variety of reasons, such as when archaeologists make new discoveries or use technological innovations.

A study of the find at Sutton Hoo in East Anglia will give pupils the chance to find out about how and why archaeologists work and give them an insight into the lives and times of the Anglo-Saxons.

SHADOWS OF THE PAST

About 50 years ago, archaeologists in East Anglia dug up the ghost of a ship. It had been filled with treasures, and buried in the ground to mark the death of a Saxon king who ruled there more than a thousand years ago.

Edith Pretty owned the land where the ship was found, close to the river Deben at a place called Sutton Hoo. It was an empty field filled with big grassy hummocks and one night, as she looked out of her window, she thought she saw the shadowy figures of ancient warriors. She believed she was looking at the people who had built those mounds and she asked a local archaeologist to excavate them for her.

He dug into one of the mounds but found nothing. So he moved on to another, the biggest in the field, and before very long he came across iron nails or rivets, buried in the sandy soil. They had once been used to hold together the planks of a boat. The wood had rotted away but the rivets, and a faint shadow in the sand, remained to show where it had once been.

Inch by inch, he and his helpers shaved away the sand to uncover the shape of a large ship. They soon realised that this was a very important find and more archaeologists were brought in. The ship was 90 foot long, but the most exciting discovery was a cabin-like structure in the centre; its roof had fallen in long ago but in the sand they could see a smear of purple - that meant there could be silver there and, excavating it very carefully, they found a jewel made of gold and coloured glass. Digging deeper, they found the remains of weapons, bowls and precious objects that had once belonged to a Saxon king.

WHAT DID THEY FIND?

When archaeologists first saw the helmet, it had been crushed into hundreds of tiny pieces. It has been fitted together like a jigsaw. This is what we think it once looked like.

The sword was once beautiful and precious. The blade was patterned and the hilt was decorated with gold and precious stones. The Saxons prized fine swords and often gave them names. Sometimes they carved magic runes along the blade.

The gold buckle weighed more than 4kg and is decorated with animals and birds. It may have been used to hold a broad belt.

Other objects found in the ship

Why do you think each of these object was placed in the ship?

Which do you think was the most important to the dead king?

* A metal frame was all that remained of a purse. Inside were 37 gold coins. Archaeologists have dated the coins to help them to work out how long ago the ship was buried. The purse may have hung from a belt.

* A lyre was found, close to traces of animal fur. It is thought that the musical instrument was protected by a bag made of fur.

* At Saxon feasts, the drinking horn was filled with mead, a drink made with honey, or with beer, and passed from hand to hand. Those found at Sutton Hoo were made from the horns of a wild ox and decorated with silver.

These gaming counters were made of ivory. Archaeologists think they were used on a chequered board like the reconstructed one shown here.

WHAT THEY DIDN'T FIND

The archaeologists didn't find a body. There was no trace of bones or any remains of a person in the ship. Archaeologists did not find any sign of a ring or a brooch or clothes that the dead person might have worn. Some archaeologists say there never was a body. Perhaps the king died somewhere else and his people buried his ship as a way of honouring him. Others believe that there was once a body in the ship, but it dissolved away over time, and left no trace. What do you think?

The plan on the next page shows where some of the objects at Sutton Hoo were found between the ribs of the ship. Can you see a place in the ship where a body might once have lain? Is there an inscription or writing telling us the name of the dead king? We can only guess who he was. The coins help us to work out roughly when the ship was buried. That helps us to make our guess more accurate, but without an inscription we can't be certain.

A very few traces of clothes and carpets remain but most have rotted away over time. We think the ship was richly furnished with decorated cloths but we can never know for sure what they looked like.

Look at the plan and the objects on the previous pages. Imagine you are writing an archaeological report on Sutton Hoo. Write down some things you know for certain about the ship burial, and some things you can guess from the remaining evidence. Then write down some things you don't know. What does this find tell us about life in Saxon times?

TEACHER NOTES

* Prepare a flat seed tray with sand and bury some objects in it. Make a grid by tying string across the tray to make squares. Give children a teaspoon and a paint brush and get them to "excavate" the objects, first using the spoon and then very carefully brushing the sand away with a paint brush.

* Emphasise the importance of recording exactly where each object was found. For this, give children a photocopied sheet divided into the same grid pattern as the sand tray and ask them to draw each object on the sheet before taking it out of the sand. They could number the objects in order of finding them and make a list of what they find.

* Introduce them to some of the problems of reconstruction by giving them a broken plate or pot. Car-boot sales are a good cheap source. Ask them to reconstruct the original shape, and draw a picture of their finished work.

* Look at the way archaeologists use coins to date sites. Provide a small selection of coins. Ask children to look at the dates and arrange them to make a timeline. Which is the most recent? Bury them somewhere. Now the children can take on the role of archaeologists of the future; get them to write a report describing their finds and working out the earliest possible date for the burial of the coins.

* Talk about the way in which museums display objects. Look at some examples of museum labels and ask children to choose a picture of an artefact from Sutton Hoo. Write a label describing what it is, where it was found and adding information about what it tells us about Sutton Hoo in particular and Saxon life in general.

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