Re-enacting the Sutton Hoo Burial
What’s the most astounding aspect of the Sutton Hoo story? The obvious answer is ‘the treasure’ – and it’s certainly easy to be in awe of the helmet, the jewellery, the golden belt buckle. Yet that ‘awe’ created by the consummate quality of the craftsmanship doesn’t bring me any closer to the real men, women and children who lived in East Anglia 1400 years ago.
In contrast what does strike a chord is the huge effort those people put into burying their leader. It’s fascinating to think about aspects of the burial that are easily over-looked amidst the glitter of the objects – the king was dead and needed to be celebrated, sent on his way to the after-life with all possible ceremony and all those treasures and comforts. So what needed to be done?
A huge trench had to be dug to contain the boat which measured 89 feet long and was 14 feet wide at its broadest point. Then that ship had to be hauled a third of a mile – nearly 600 yards – uphill from the River Deben to the burial place.
Next the king was laid to rest in the chamber within the boat, his weapons and armour and all those wonderful objects placed alongside him. And finally earth needed to be heaped up to create the mound marking the king’s resting place. All in all it was a huge physical effort, a great investment of time and labour in marking the death of the king. Digging, hauling and creating the mound don’t sparkle like the treasure but perhaps they are a little easier to relate to and understand?
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To see what the burial might have looked like see this reconstruction by Peter Dunn:
Of course this activity requires plenty of preparation in creating the pictures of the objects and, ideally, laminating them so they can continue to be used by other classes or other years – but the investment of time may well be worthwhile because the activity should prove memorable.
For illustrations of the objects see:
The Activity: Re-enacting the Burial
The burial process itself has the potential for some memorable teaching and learning – so here’s the outline of the idea:
• children will better understand the burial by measuring and marking out the size of the boat [89 feet long and was 14 feet wide at its broadest point] in the hall or outside on the field. They could then sit inside the boat as rowers to get the feel of its scale – how many fit inside it?
• now ‘bury’ the king – place a doll (or even a colleague?) in the boat to play the part of the king and then ask children individually or in pairs to come forward to lay a picture of each object in the boat. As they bring in the objects they could explain what each is and why they think it was included.
Finally cluster your class of Anglo-Saxons around the ship, the king and his treasure and read out the passage from the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf describing the hero’s burial – give it plenty of drama!:
‘On a spot overlooking the sea, the lords of the people began to build the funeral fire, hanging on it his helmets, battle-shields and shining armour. In the centre they laid his body and all the time they were weeping at their hero’s death.
Black wood smoke began rising from the fire and then the sound of roaring flames and weeping men.
Then the lords built a burial mound, high and broad so it could be seen out at sea. It took ten days to finish this monument to their hero. Inside the mound they put rings and jewels and ornaments and all his gold and treasure.
Finally they rode round his grave mound, praising his greatness and all his brave deeds.’
How you develop the detail of this activity will obviously vary from class to class but it will provide a better understanding of the context of the Sutton Hoo treasure than more ‘orthodox’ methods. The picture of the dig showing the outline of the ship and the lines of rivets will make much more sense after this activity. You could even consider how you might bring in the hauling part of the process – how far is 600 yards from the classroom? How would they have hauled the ship that far? [might they have used rollers?] Just giving children a sense of the distance involved will increase their awareness of the scale of the task.
What can children learn from Sutton Hoo about the Anglo-Saxons?
So assuming the burial process is as significant a part of teaching as the treasure itself, what can children learn from Sutton Hoo about the Anglo-Saxons? This is important to discuss so it links to their wider work on the Anglo-Saxons.
1. They could be well-organized, capable of planning and carrying out detailed, complicated projects.
2. Their religion was important to them. Whether it was Christian or not it was clearly important to bury the king with full religious ceremony - for example the 40 coins found at the site may have been for the 40 rowers it was believed would take him to the after-life.
3. They were highly skilled craftsmen, capable of producing the many beautiful objects found by archaeologists.
4. People and objects travelled far more than we often think – the coins and bowls found at Sutton Hoo came from across Europe and as far afield as the eastern Mediterranean.
5. Warfare was an important part of their lives, exemplified by the military objects found in the ship.
And you may well find they have learned other things from the activity. We never know what children are taking away from an activity until we ask!
Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.