Today, I was asked: what is wrong with the term ‘The Sutton Hoo Treasure’ (note capital ‘T’ in treasure)? I had been ranting at a friend’s Facebook post about a news story claiming that modern Britons are reverting to ‘Iron Age’ burial practice by placing grave-goods in coffins which contains the line:
‘But while our ancestors’ graves left us great finds such as the Sutton Hoo Treasure, future archaeologists may find the items modern Britons tend to choose to accompany them on their final journey more modest and more revealing”
I won’t comment on the article itself, but this article has served as a catalyst and I am now reacting in hatred at the widespread use of the term: ‘The Sutton Hoo Treasure’.
My friend replied: what’s wrong with calling the rich range of weapons, armour, feasting gear and personal items disposed of in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo and famously discovered in 1939, as ‘treasure’? What’s wrong with popular parlance calling it treasure?
My answer is that it is utterly wrong. Insidiously wrong. Insultingly wrong. It is wrong on so, so, so many levels and here’s why.
First up, let’s be clear. The contents of Mound 1 was not ‘declared Treasure’ under the law: expert testimony declared this grave, buried not to be retrieved. It was instead gifted to the nation by its finder, Mrs Edith Pretty. So it is not officially ‘treasure’ today in legal terms and that therefore shouldn’t be a problem. Still, in colloquial terms, the finds are also a ‘national treasure’ taking pride of place in the British Museum and replicas on display and reproduced in multiple media at the National Trust’s Sutton Hoo Visitor Centre. Furthermore, the Anglo-Saxons might have regarded select items buried in Mound 1 as ‘treasure’ in the sense of prized possessions, gifts and heirlooms displayed, circulated, bequeathed and inherited by elites.
This may all be the case. However, people who call it ‘treasure’ are misled at best, peddling idiocies to be mildly generous, and dangerously delusional to be honest. It must stop now for the following reasons:
- there is an ethical point that is bigger than early medieval archaeology about regarding artefacts and assemblages from mortuary contexts ‘treasure’ at all. Today, around the globe and in the UK too, ancient graves are robbed by idiots with metal-detectors, rifled by treasure-hunters, destroyed ahead of construction and their contents continue to fuel the international illicit trade in antiquities. Calling the most wealthy early Anglo-Saxon grave ‘treasure’ peddles an association between grave-goods and ‘booty’ that is insidiously monetary;
- We shouldn’t be using legal declarations to define our terminology for archaeological contexts and their public portrayal. This is simply wrong if found yesterday, and just as wrong to refer to finds from 1939 as treasure. We are not bound by tradition to keep calling the contents of Mound 1 ‘treasure’. The Sutton Hoo Treasure is as much ‘treasure’ as the bombed out remains of Palmyra are ‘shrapnel’ because IS have blown them up. No more ‘treasure’ than Stonehenge is just a ruin with a visitor centre. No more ‘treasure’ than the Rossetta inscription is just a ‘stone’;
- The term ‘treasure’ suppresses, even denies, the funerary roles and associations of the Mound 1 assemblage. The artefacts were found in a wooden chamber within a clinker-built ship in a burial mound. They were a disparate range of artefacts brought together for a specific set of mortuary practices. Everyone knew in 1939 they were dealing with a burial, and no-one has ever doubted it, despite the inconclusive evidence of a body (or bodies). . It is only ‘treasure’ if Otzi is simply an old frozen body. Only treasure if Richard III’s bones were just… a skeleton. Only ‘treasure’ if robbed of its historical and funerary contexts;
- I’m really not sure why it gets the label ‘treasure’ when other wealthy early medieval graves are defined by their context of discovery, not as treasure! Archaeologists and the public seem to cope with this situation. For example:
- Wikipedia calls the Prittlewell burial a ‘royal tomb’ and that is fine by me!
- Wikipedia calls the second-most wealthy Anglo-Saxon grave from Taplow simply the ‘Taplow burial’.
- Childeric’s tomb is called ‘Childeric’s tomb‘ on Wikipedia!
- St Cuthbert was buried with ‘relics’ in his ‘tomb’ in popular parlance; no-one talks about the display at Durham Cathedral as ‘treasure’
- Late Antique and early medieval hoards are almost never referred to as ‘treasure’ even if they are found out of contextual association with any settlement or burial contexts and are legally ‘treasure’. Let me hammer home this point with a few classics:
- the Hoxne hoard;
- the Thetford hoard;
- the Cuerdale hoard;
- the Staffordshire hoard;
- the Vale of York hoard;
- the Huxley hoard;
- getting bored? You get the point!
- Hang on though.. it is the ‘Mildenhall Treasure”… Is this some weird Suffolk thing like pink cottages? The Water Newton Treasure too…. not sure what to think about this…
- Around Europe and the Mediterranean world, ancient funerary contexts are often defined by their … mortuary context … The public are well-versed in doing so and it causes no problem for the public:
- The Amesbury archer contained many diverse artefacts but manages to not mention ‘treasure’ when discussing the grave;
- Wikipedia is able to describe the wealthy 6th/5th-century BC burial from Vix as the ‘Vix Grave‘ and talks about ‘finds’ and ‘grave-goods’ without using the term treasure;
- The partially contemporaneous Vendel cemetery can be discussed without mention of ‘treasure’;
- For crying out loud, even the tomb of Tutankhamun (excavated by a slightly less famous archaeological Howard) is described on Wikipedia without a mention of the ‘t’ word!
- Calling the Mound 1 artefacts and materials ‘treasure’ prioritises our narratives to focus on gems, gold and silver, while the grave contains many other exciting artefacts made of ‘non-precious’ materials and are demonstrably ‘not treasure’ by modern reckoning. Items in this list are more numerous than the items that might be called ‘treasure’; from the ship and chamber themselves, to the textiles, spears, knives, combs, cups and buckets. For example, one of the most unique artefacts from Mound 1 – the axe-hammer – has received only two published studies and is often missed out of discussions of the grave, perhaps this is because it is simply iron rather than precious metal encrusted with precious stones!
- Remember, we know far more about Mound 1 and its cemetery and landscape context than any other single early medieval burial site. Even for the work done in 1938 and 1939, there is no excuse to regard these items as an isolated, context-less assemblage. Any doubts of this would be cast aside by the excavations in the 1960s and the major campaign of excavation led by Professor Martin Carver in the 1980s and early 1990s. Subsequently, further excavations took place led by John Newman of Suffolk County Council ahead of the development of the Sutton Hoo Visitor Centre. Together these many excavations, plus research on the environs and wider landscape, such as the work by Tom Williamson on the latter, have revealed details that put the Mound 1 discoveries in a rich and sophisticated context of communities on the path to Christian conversion and kingdom formation. Then let’s talk about literary scholars’ discussions of the burial site and its imagined intersections with later poetry? What of the historical debates regarding Christian conversion and kingdom formation? What about the detailed arguments regarding the iconography and parallels of the artefacts found? Treasure? What a screaming insult on the cognate disciplines of medieval literature, history, art-history, archaeology, numismatics and so many more than have contributed to the study of Sutton Hoo and the pre-Viking kingdom of East Anglia!
I guess if you wanted to defend the term, you could cite the fact that the British Museum is full of archaic and misleading terminology. The Elgin Marbles spring to mind. Yet this example serves my point, isolating the assemblage as a ‘treasure’ is an exercise in elite privilege that seeks to assert and fetishize artefacts over their context of discovery and the rich biographies of the artefacts themselves, their roles in mortuary practice, and the biography of place of which they formed an important part.
What’s in a name? Plenty. Calling the Sutton Hoo Mound 1 assemblage ‘treasure’ is not simply misleading and inaccurate, it is insidious and idiotic. More important than all of this, the public don’t need archaeologists to call it this, and they understand what a rich grave is and they have been exposed to this idea since 1939 for Sutton Hoo! The phrase must cease to be used, it must be annihilated from ‘popular parlance’. Sutton Hoo’s discoveries – Mound 1 and the rest – are exciting and fascinating. Let’s use powerful, rich and complex words and images to tell their story!