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Sutton Hoo ship burial

Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, c. 700 (British Museum, London) Multiple bronze, gold and silver objects of Anglo Saxon origin, found in Suffolk, England, including: a helmet, sceptre, sword, hanging bowl, bowls and spoons, shoulder clasps, a belt buckle, and purse lid. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(light piano music) - [Dr. Zucker] We're on the second floor of the British Museum in London and in the center of one of the English history galleries is an enormous glass case filled with the artifacts from Sutton Hoo. And one of the areas of focus holds just a few objects that you can barely see until you get up close. - [Dr. Harris] These beautifully crafted gold, garnet, and glass objects were found in a burial that dates probably from the early seventh century. This is the period we call Anglo-Saxon and this was a burial site of a very important person. England at this time was divided into a series of kingdoms and the incredible wealth displayed in this burial seemed to indicate that this was a royal burial. Today, we think it may have been King Raedwald. The most famous pieces are a purse lid and two gorgeous shoulder clasps. - [Dr. Zucker] They're usually adjoined by a spectacular belt buckle but that's been borrowed for an exhibition at the British Library, which we get to go see tomorrow. - [Dr. Harris] Let's look closely at the purse lid first. - [Dr. Zucker] We should mention that this a reconstruction. The gold, the garnets, the glass is all original but the white background would've originally been bone or perhaps walrus ivory. So what we're seeing is the most intricate, most detailed knotting of forms, where line intertwines, where animals and humans and abstract line create these spectacular patterns but they're so minute that I can barely see them with my eyes. - [Dr. Harris] What we're looking at is something that art historians often call an interlacing animal style, which is typical of Anglo-Saxon England. The designs along the top are abstract interlacing but along the bottom, we see figures and animals. On the corners, symmetrical designs, a human figure with animals that are sometimes described as wolves on either side of the figure. - [Dr. Zucker] And in the center, a bird of prey often described as an eagle which seems to be attacking a smaller bird, perhaps a duck. The craftsmanship is stunning. Not only do you see inlaid garnet but you also see a glass technique called millefiori, an Italian word which means a thousand flowers. You'd take canes of glass and bundle them together, warm them so they fuse, and you can slice them into these thin, beautiful patterned fields. - [Dr. Harris] We also have the technique of cloisonne, gold strands that enclose glass or garnets. - [Dr. Zucker] And you see this exquisite use of garnet and millefiore in other objects that were found at Sutton Hoo as well, including an unparalleled set of what we think were shoulder clasps. - [Dr. Harris] We think these held armor in place. The large rectangular field is filled with stepped rhomboids, these squared shapes that, if you look very closely, have stepped edges. - [Dr. Zucker] What the jeweler has done is to take gold leaf, gold foil, and just stamp it with a pattern and to place that behind the garnet so that while the garnet is not faceted, it still reflects light in the most extraordinary way. - [Dr. Harris] And we see very fine working of gold called granulation. - [Dr. Zucker] Here the jeweler has used a complex technique to fuse tiny granules of gold in very precise ways to the surface of the clasp itself. - [Dr. Harris] We see interlaced serpents. We can just make out their eyes and their heads and their tails. - [Dr. Zucker] The eyes are easy to recognize because those are little bits of inset blue glass. This interlacing is very familiar to people who have looked at slightly later medieval manuscripts. So all of this was found at a place called Sutton Hoo in the ancient kingdom of East Anglia. What the archeologists found were the imprint of a large ship, a ship that had actually been used and had been hulled up from an estuary close by for this important ceremonial burial. No trace of the body and almost no trace of the ship remains we think because of the acidic soil but the gold survived. - [Dr. Harris] The word Anglo-Saxon refers to this period between Roman rule and then the Norman invasion in 1066. And the word Anglo-Saxon comes from the Angles and the Saxons, people who migrated to the island of Great Britain in the sixth century. - [Dr. Zucker] From what we would now consider northern Germany and perhaps southern Denmark. - [Dr. Harris] And some of the grave goods that were discovered at Sutton Hoo may indicate the earliest Christianity here in England. - [Dr. Zucker] For example, some of the bowls that were found have crosses engraved into them. - [Dr. Harris] And two spoons are inscribed with the names Paul and Saul, that is Paul from the New Testament. - [Dr. Zucker] And the finds are extraordinary in their own right. But they also tell us a lot about this culture. They remind us that Britain was not an isolated island and that there was extensive trade. We have garnets from Sri Lanka. There's even an enormous silver platter that was made a hundred years earlier in the Byzantine Empire. - [Dr. Harris] We've even found bitumen in the tomb, which has recently been shown to come from Syria. So we're talking about a world where the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and as far north as Britain were all interconnected. - [Dr. Zucker] This is among the most sophisticated jewelry that was produced in the early medieval period anywhere in Europe. (light piano music)