Named after the nearby parish of Sutton, the place-name Sutton Hoo is likely derived from a combination of the Old English sut + tun, meaning south farmstead or village, and hoh, which describes a hill shaped like a heel spur. The location of Sutton Hoo is on the river Deben and would have been an entryway into the kingdom of East Anglia. There is evidence that the area surrounding Sutton Hoo has been occupied since the Neolithic age.
Sutton Hoo is the site of eighteen Anglo-Saxon burial mounds and the location of the discovery of a massive collection of Anglo-Saxon artifacts. The site was uncovered in 1939 after a local landowner, Edith Pretty, asked Basil Brown, an archeologist from the Ipswich Museum, to investigate the burial mounds on her property. The majority of the burial mounds had been robbed, mostly during the Tudor era, but a few mounds survived untouched. Most notably, one of the untouched burial mounds held the remains of an Anglo-Saxon ship measuring 89 feet in length that had been used as a burial chamber and contained a substantial amount of Anglo-Saxon artifacts. It is unknown who was buried in the ship; however, it is commonly believed that the most likely candidate is King Rædwald, who was an Anglo-Saxon king from approximately 599 to 624. He was also the first king to convert to Christianity in the East Angles, although it was not an entirely successful endeavor as he also maintained a pagan altar after his conversion.
The ship itself dates from the early 600s. The burial mound contained weaponry, intricate jewelry and clothing decorations, Frankish gold coins, three hanging bowls, ornate silverware from the Byzantine Empire, and, most famously, an iron helmet that has been painstakingly reconstructed. The reconstructed helmet, and a fully-formed replica, are now on display at the British Museum alongside other artifacts from the burial mound; the site itself is a part of the National Trust. Similar ship burial sites have also been found in Sweden.
The excavation of Sutton Hoo has changed previously held views of Anglo-Saxon society. Rather than support the idea of a crude society trapped in the Dark Ages, the diversity of the items found suggests an extensive trade network, while the artistry and complexity of the artifacts proposes a level of wealth and sophistication not previously associated with the Anglo-Saxons. Furthermore, many of the artifacts found are reminiscent of the great hall described in the poem Beowulf, emphasizing the importance of a lord’s hospitality in Anglo-Saxon culture and giving us a glimpse into the world of the Anglo-Saxons.