Archaeology and Culture

The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

The ship at Sutton Hoo under excavation:

The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

In 1939, a seventh-century ship burial was excavated at Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge in Suffolk. Its significance to the study of Beowulf is the interesting mix of Christian and pagan practices involved in the burial that mirrors a similar mix in beliefs in the poem. Effectively, some of the artifacts breathe life into the events of Beowulf while the poem helps explain the contents of Sutton Hoo. Together, archaeology and literature paint a detailed picture of Anglo-Saxon culture.

Politics and Warfare

Warfare, or the threat of warfare, is a regular part of Anglo-Saxon life. From the number of feuds and stories of clan fealty throughout Beowulf, this is clear. Other Anglo-Saxon texts, such as The Battle of Maldon, Cynewulf and Cyneheard, and The Battle at Finnsburh are essentially of the Germanic `heroic lay' tradition commemorating the heroic efforts of individual warriors, their strategies and fates.

Þæt wæs god cyning!

   What makes Beowulf significantly different from these other works is not the portrayal of warfare, but the exaltation of peace and peace-keeping through the rule of powerful kings.

Beowulf opens by demonstrating the power of those kings. Scyld Scefing, who was so strong to have taken many mead benches and was offered much tributary gold kept the peace because no other tribe dared face him. Sheer military might is a major peacekeeper in such troubled times.

Of the most prevalent virtues of kingship is the responsible distribution of weapons and treasure. The treasures bestowed upon Beowulf by Hroðgar following the defeat of Grendel an example of the proper distribution of treasure to a warrior who has proven himself worthy to a king (*XV, *XXVI).

   Hroðgar's exemplary story of Heremod, the Danish king who failed to reward his retainers with gold and soon lost their loyalty, serves as an example to Beowulf on how not to become a bad king.

   The loyalty of followers, and the connexions between that loyalty, success in battle and in gold are intimate. While Beowulf expounds this relationship, it gives reason for the veritable treasure horde found at Sutton Hoo.

Belt Buckle Sinc eaðe mæg,
gold on grunde gumcynnes gehwone
oferhigan, hyde se ðe wylle.

   James Campbell observes these cylces of power in Beowulf. He sees how treasure must feed the tribe's capacity for war, and how war requires the supply and flow of treasure - victory breeds thirst for revenge, and feud brings upon feud. Looking at the intricate beauty of the treasures involved, he has few doubts that those ancient warriors would live and die for such treasures.

The source of the technology involved in creating the treasures of the Anglo-Saxons - clearly evidenced in the famous belt buckle at Sutton Hoo - is still unclear. Worn openly, they serve as a symbol of one warrior's worthiness to his tribe.

Eoforlic scionon
ofer hleorbergan gehroden golde,
fah ond fyrheard ferhwearde heold
guþmod grimmon.

Benty Grange helmet

The boar was a symbol of protection -- ferocity in battle -- for the anglo-Saxons. Beowulf wears a shining helmet that is in the audiences' imagination not unlike the one found at Benty Grange, Derbys.
With textual descriptions matching arms, armour, and other artifacts so well, scholars who argue that the poem's composition is in the seventh century, about the time of the Sutton Hoo burial, have a strong case, considering this evidence.

Oft seldan hwær æfter leodhryre
lytle hwile bongar bugeð.

Sword hilt    Swords (particularly their hilts) are as intricately decorated by the Anglo-Saxons as their jewellery. As tools of war, they are the gifts that most symbolize the worthiness of a warrior to a clan.

The swords themselves have their own stories to tell. Some are given names such as `Hrunting', Unferð's sword, or `Nægling', Beowulf's sword. They are often heirlooms passed down from father to son, from king to retainer, or captured in battle. The runes or decorations on the hilts may represent a story, such as the sword of Eotens that Beowulf retrieves from Grendel's lair and appears to tell the story of his origins (*XXIIII).

   While swords may be a symbol of worthiness and power, they can also incite fury for revenge. Beowulf's prediction of disaster for the marriage between Freawaru and Ingeld is based on the importance of swords to the honour of individual warriors and their clan (*XXXVIII-XXXX).

`Heald þu nu, hruse, nu hæleð ne moston, eorla æhte!'

The poem begins with the gilded Heorot -- a palace only possible through many years of peace of tribesman collecting treasures -- and ends with Beowulf's death in front of the dragon's barrow where a long dead tribe had buried their treasure. The poem describes a culture so deeply connected to its material goods that they bury it along with their dead. There is an understanding that with the gold goes a balance of power, and when a powerful (read rich) leader dies, to redistribute his gold irresponsibly would be an imbalance of power. The Geats' reburial of the gold in Beowulf's funeral mound indicates a kind of despair: the gold can do them no good without a king to distribute it.

Select Bibliography

Bjork, R.E., Niles, J.D. A Beowulf Handbook. University of Nebraska Press. 1997.

Campbell J. et. al. The Anglo Saxons. Penguin Books, 1991.

Garmonsway, G.N. et. al. Beowulf and its Analogues. JM Dent & Sons Ltd. 1968.

Pollington, S. The Warrior's Way. Blandford Press. 1989.