Sutton Hoo part 5
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Part 5


The Saxon Ship

f you have read this far, you will have learnt how the great Sutton Hoo Saxon ship was found and the main characters involved in its discovery. Not all have been named because they come into their own at a later stage. This section devotes itself to the technical details of the ship and construction. Ship burials were not a new phenomenon in the area because in 1862 a similar mound was excavated at Snape about 15 Km distant. It was a smaller ship and was not in the same state of preservation as the Sutton Hoo discovery. The Snape ship was constructed in the same manner but comprehensively ransacked. Where as the Snape ship was thought to be approximately 15 metres in length, the Sutton Hoo ship when measured, exceeded 27 metres in length and 4.5 metres in width. By all standards, a huge ship. As mentioned earlier, the only protection the ship cast seemed to be afforded was the thin covering of sandy soil deliberately left over it with the help of sacking and paper. There seemed to be no attempt to build a roof over the site in 1939. 

The Cast

y the process of diffusion and time, the timbers rotted and the by-products of oxidation diffused into the surrounding sand. The effects created a soft fossil like cast that showed the rivet positions. By gently removing the protective top layer of soil and following the lines of rivets, the full glory of the ship became apparent. To avoid crushing the delicate craft, poles were extended across the beam and a swings suspended down from them. This technique allowed the delicate operation to progress with minimum damage.


hat was amazing was the fact that the cast was so good that the construction of the vessel was almost self evident. The rivet positions showed the ship to be what is today called clinker built. The planks were overlapped and riveted together. The ends of the plank runs were butted together. The Ship consisted of 26 bulkheads which possibly fitted after the general shaping of the planking was complete. Usual ship construction is to build the frame and plank afterwards. There is evidence to show that the strengthening bulkheads were carved to fit the planks rather than the other way round.


A view from the top showing the full length of the ship and the position of the rivets and plank runs. This is from the drawing of the casts made at the time.


For a massive top view of this ship ( 550k ) select this link

Sutton Hoo Ship ( top view )

This shows the location of the bulkheads, rivets and rowlocks.


A load of rowlocks

he keel may have been constructed using a central flat piece of timber and the bow and stern carved or bent from other pieces and riveted together. Excavations also show that the bulkheads may have been riveted to the planks with wooden dowels. An interesting discovery was the rowlocks or rowing supports for the oars. These indicated that they were made by cutting a branch with side shoot to form a natural securing point and riveted to the widened strake or toprail to form a continuous set of rowing positions. the survey suggests that this ship was propelled by 40 oarsmen or 20 each side.

Planks and sails

he position of the cast shows that the ship had a 9 plank runs each side and the bow and stern curved steeply upwards as the breakwater. The bow and stern were of similar curved shape but the stern strengthened with 3 closely placed bulkheads which would have been fitted to accommodate the extra stress incurred by the starboard oar like rudder. No or little evidence has remained of the rudder mounting or the rudder itself. It is possible that it was removed before being transported to the burial site. No evidence remains that confirms that this ship had ever been used under sail. No mounting points or blocks were found that would show sail use. another indicator is the continuous run of rowlocks which seem to confirm the above evidence. The shallow draught of this ship, due to its wide beam, would make it a bit of a handful in rough seas. The estimated unloaded waterline would leave about 1 metre of draught. Rowing position is interesting. would the Saxon crew have rowed standing up or sit on sea chests as the Vikings did?. There are some examples of repairs having been made to this ship by the double sets of rivets in various places. Leaks were normally sealed by riveting another piece of wood over the hole.

What Kind of Ship Is This?

he very size of this vessel leaves a few questions about its purpose and where it would have been used. A good indication may be gleaned from the side view of the ship. See how very long it is compared to draught available unloaded. I would doubt it was ever used in open seas although it would be possible in calm weather. If fully loaded, the water would have been lapping the gunwales in any more than a slight swell. Another suggestion that it was a carrier of goods used primarily in the estuaries of East Anglia. The final and least plausible is that it was a royal barge for some eminent East Anglian king. Whatever the use of this ship, it became the subject of a Saxon burial ritual.

Don't Bury A Good One

hat makes me think that it was not a royal barge was the repair work that had been carried out on it. If you look at the graphic below that I have prepared from the original drawings taken at the time of discovery, you will see that the ship must have been used for a number of years and subject to an accident or two. If you also view the graphic of the skeleton of the riveting, you get the impression that this vessel was built to last - and in fact had done so. This evidence seems to exclude it being built for one particular person. This leads us to the conclusion that it was a normal working vessel near the end of its life that was chosen to be buried along with a East Anglian king or official of exceeding importance. Who this might have been will be discussed later. Even in those days, there was a limit to what they were prepared to do to honour their dead kings.


Part of the mid section of the ship showing the riveting that indicates that this ship had been repaired. The question is whether the ship was new or just at the end of its life before being buried.



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copyright Glen Ray Crack - Battle - East Sussex - United Kingdom
Submitted 10th January 1998
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