I rarely get asked to comment by the media about my own research, but thanks in no small part to my hard work with this blog, it seems that my expertise in early Anglo-Saxon burial practice is being recognised to a small degree in relation to the current media storm surrounding Sutton Hoo following the release of The Dig. Having reviewed the film, I identified issues with the depiction of the landscape and monuments, I then evaluated how the themes of time, memory and mortality were explored in the film in which archaeology is portrayed as a medium for bridging past to present to future through mortuary investigations. Following on from this, I was interviewed by Esther Addley of The Guardian regarding the popularity of the Netflix film which allowed me to comment on the popular and positive engagement of the public with both film and the site and finds.
What I hadn’t expected was any follow-up interest from the media. But this happened and late last week I was approached by journalist Owen Jarus for comment on a piece he was writing on who was buried beneath Mound 1: was it really King Raedwald as argued by many experts? The final piece is now out and I’m delighted to see the range of experts and their views on this issue represented. This is not a question I think is the most important about the Sutton Hoo burial ground, but it has fascinated folks since the rich burial chamber in a 27m-long ship was excavated in the summer of 1939. It was intriguing to read how different researchers – archaeologists, historians and numismatists – tackle this issue. I particularly liked the divergent perspectives of Tom Williamson and Sue Brunning. Like Sue, I come out as one of the most sceptical about who was buried in Mound 1.
Here’s a link to the article: Who was buried at Sutton Hoo by Owen Jarus.
For those interested, here is what I said to Owen in full:
King Rædwald is often cited as a leading candidate for the ship burial. In your opinion what are the chances that the burial is for him?
Rædwald is often proclaimed as the likely occupant of the ship-burial from Mound 1, based on the tradition going back to Henry Munro Chadwick’s publication of 1940. I think there remains a possibility this is correct, although his sons (including Eorpwald) are also candidates, or indeed another member of the early Anglo-Saxon royal dynasty unknown to our slender historical sources. I think the balance of evidence suggests the burial site is connected to the East Anglian royal dynasty and I think this is as far as we can and should go with this question. In the 1990s an argument was put forward that the burial site might belong to the rival East Saxon royal dynasty, and that still remains a possibility we shouldn’t discount out of hand.
Do you think that there are any candidates more likely than Rædwald?
Well, phosphate analysis argued there was indeed likely an occupant whose bones were destroyed by the soil conditions long before the 1939 excavations, but calcined bones (human or animal, we don’t know) were also found in the Antasasius Dish to the east of the area where the proposed inhumed (unburned body) lay. So there might have been 1 inhumed individual in the burial, 2 individuals (one inhumed, one cremated), or perhaps others too whose bones were also destroyed by the acidic soil conditions and not detected by the excavators in 1939 or 1965.
I don’t think it matters so much who was buried in the burial chamber. There is a popular interest in pinning historical personages onto archaeological evidence, but it is now a side question to our primary research focus. The story of the grave is exciting, rich and complex, and this relies more on exploring the grave as the result of a multi-staged ritual performance that had both similarities and stark differences form the other burial mounds excavated in the cemetery and elsewhere in southern and eastern England. The same issue applies to the more recent late 6th-century burial chamber from Prittlewell, Essex – ‘the Prittlewell Prince’. This is a story of emerging elite dynasties, experimenting with their identities in life and death, claiming authority, power and identities set against their (sometimes partial, sometimes temporary) conversion to Christianity and with far-flung connections across these islands and across Scandinavia, mainland Europe and the Mediterranean.
This goes to show yet again, regardless of what one feels about the film, it has created a lot of positive interest in archaeologists and the archaeology of early Anglo-Saxon England. In addition to the National Trust and British Museum blogs and videos, some great videos exploring the ‘real story’ behind the discovery have been released by, among others, Dr Chloe Duckworth, Dig it with Raven, and Behind the Trowel.