It is possible to look at what was found at Sutton Hoo and not have to investigate any further. However, there are some people who want to know more and so, by digging deeper, these pages try to explain some of the underlying issues involved, without getting so technical that the story is lost.
Questions ......... Why here?
Looking at Lands
In the Netherlands, I once stood looking at a map plaque that commemorated a significant sea voyage. I did not know where it was. It represented the journey as seen from a medieval perspective, so the accuracy of the coastline was not to the standard that I was accustomed to. It showed the area as it might have been thought of in the mind of a mariner of that time. It had lines and little castles on the land. It had fish in the sea and ships under sail. The words were not in English and some of the letters were unfamiliar to me, like CHVRT. I then suddenly realised that the area on the map was well known to me, but I just had not recognised it because of the orientation of the land and sea that it showed. North was not where I expected North to be - at the top. North was to the right hand side, as in my sketch on the right. Could you recognise it? To help you, the Tower of London is on the map.
Now we live in different times that have benefitted from all the developments in map and chart making since medieval times.
The surveyors and mathematicians responsible for our maps have been proved correct by space age observations that have confirmed or adjusted any small details to make our pictures of the earth more truly accurate. We know exactly what the earth looks like. Additionally we have come to accept that when we represent the land on paper or on a screen, we usually show it as ‘North-Up’, that is, with the north at the top. My difficulty in understanding the Netherlands plaque stemmed mainly from it not being North-Up, but by being rotated ninety degrees.
World maps and the Centres of the World
The most common medieval maps (over a thousand of them) are usually called Mappa Mundi (latin =(Mappa) cloth/chart … of the (Mundi) world) and on the largest one in Hereford Cathedral (see illustration left) made around 1300AD the British Isles is positioned towards the bottom left corner because the map is East-Up, making North to the left. There was a convention called the Tripartite plan that such maps should have Asia in the top half and the lower half should have Europe to the left and Africa to the right. If you can see it on this illustration, you will see that its shape is nothing like we know it to be today. The distortions come from the compressions of trying to fit everything into the circular shape. This is because the focus of this Christian view of the world was Jerusalem, so it was placed in the centre. This location stems from the mind of the map’s makers. When we look at maps today we also may have a subconscious ‘central location’ that we need to relate it to. European maps that include the Mediterranean Sea are easy to identify, but if a country is extracted to stand alone it may be more difficult to recognise unless it has a distinct shape such as Italy. But here is another factor that must be borne in mind, Italy as we might think of it today did not come about until roughly 1870 and 50 years before that it was a complex of much smaller states. The boundaries in the land have developed and changed. The Mappa represents towns and cities mainly with illustrations of castles or cathedrals, reinforcing its Christian origins. There is also an interesting three-dimensional version of the Mappa in the Cathedral.
There are other early maps, but there is no guarantee that most ordinary people in earlier times were aware of them, or even
what was on them. The maps would have been kept in libraries that were only entered by privileged people or those who could read. Most would be in religious buildings. One map is known as the Anglo-Saxon 'Cotton' map. Cotton has nothing to do with the cloth; it refers to the library it came from, which became the basis for the British Museum. It dates from about 1025 which is 400 years after the Sutton Hoo ship, but it was a copy of earlier maps. It can be seen that the British Isles is much more recogniseable down in the bottom left corner. The writing on the map shows that it is intended to be seen in this orientation, but as it has East at the top, like the Mappa Mundi, so it is wrong for us, who only know North-Up. This map puts Africa on the right and the red lines are the rivers. We prefer them to be blue. The green parts are mountains that we usually colour brown.
All this demonstrates to us that we have our own map-view of the world, but it is different from the view that earlier people had.
We have some other adjustments to make if we are to understand them.
Smaller 'Countries' and 'Kingdoms'
Italy is not alone in having developed its political boundaries. It is generally true that the further back we go in history the smaller the ‘countries’ become. If we think of ‘England’ today we immediately have an image extending north to Scotland and west to Wales, but if we go back to the time of King Alfred (roughly 850AD) this was not a unified area. The Anglo-Saxons before that time had managed to bring together numerous smaller areas into about 4 major ones called Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. This is the shape of Mercia that had a powerful ruler called Penda at about the time of the Sutton Hoo ship. This land covered the heart of what has become 'England', but its shape will be unfamiliar to most people today. This map is North-Up.
Things have changed
When we try to imagine Vikings (from about 800AD) coming from Denmark, Sweden or Norway we
can fall into the trap of visualising these countries as they are today rather than as they were then. Things have changed. Our current political boundaries are only an approximate guide to what began as mainly tribal groups held together first by language and customs (including their beliefs) and then were gradually shaped by conquest, trade and agreements (often cemented by marriages). This is the stage in history of almost tribal groupings, that applies to the period we are considering when we think of the Sutton Hoo ship (about 600AD) and what came immediately before it and after it. Would you recognise the map on the right? It is East-Up and shows the area as it was about 600AD. Low lying swampy land is dotted. Two 'lands' are named Deira and Lindsey. You might not know them, but Lindsey became Lincolnshire. Deira is the eastern part of Yorkshire. Rendlesham is marked because it was reported by Bede to be the place where Raedwald had his seat of power. We are still looking for his Mead Hall, that we might think of as being his palace. It is close to Sutton Hoo.
Written material from this time is almost non-existent.
A narrative reasonably near to 650AD is that of the poem Beowulf that was probably written down somewhere in what we think of as England. It had Christian writers recording what was probably an old song-story about Pagan people, mainly located in what we could now call the South-West Baltic area. We would imagine this to be at the centre of our map of the events. The story includes references to families from about 10 different tribes. Some of them Erulians, Hathobards and Brondings give us little clue to as to the location of their lands, because they have been swallowed up by the expansion of other groups between then and now. Others, like the Jutes and the Frisians may sound a little more familiar, but we can immediately begin to fall into the modern trap of thinking that the Frisians lived solely in the Frisian Islands of today, instead of actually inhabiting areas of the Netherlands and West Germany as they did then. The Franks were also West Germans, but moved by conquest into an area that had always been known as Gaul until about 500AD. Gaul became France as a result, but not of course, with its current boundaries. One of the Baltic tribes was called the Wulfings; the tribe at Sutton Hoo were known as the Wuffingas or Wuffings.
This is a Dutch map over a thousand years after Sutton Hoo.
It shows that the shape of the lands was better understood and
The chronology implicit in the poem suggests that Beowulf took account of the earth being a globe. It is North-Up. It can help
was born in 495AD and later in 533AD he became king of the Geats us see where the earlier lands were in relation to each other.
We don’t know exactly where Geat-land is, or ever was, but his interaction
with other historical figures Danes, Swedes, Franks and Frisians can be confirmed sufficiently for us to understand that some happenings (though not dragon slaying) are based on real events that have been woven into the mythical adventure story. The Danes of the poem occupied a land that included part of what we think of as Sweden. The Swede’s land (the dominant tribe were the Svear so we might think of it as Svearland) included parts of what we now call Finland. The fundamental reason for this unity of peoples living on ‘divided’ land areas is that transport, commerce and communication were by water. 'Lands' were most easily brought together by the vehicle of the time, which was the ship. This is why the Hebrides, the Isle of Mann (until 1266), Orkney and Shetland (until 1468) together with parts of Sutherland and Caithness on the current Scottish mainland were Norwegian provinces. Today we have the opposite situation; our lands are unified by land transport and divided by water, so the boundaries of the countries have changed.
Dominant cultures with maritime abilities have often tried to set up colonies in other lands. The Greeks had colonies is Spain, France, Sicily and Turkey. The Normans, quite amazingly, held Sicily, half of Italy and a large chunk of the Holy Land. Britain's colonies circled the globe and perhaps the most influential in our present day were the ones in New England. The Anglo-Saxons were little different from the Vikings who came after them, who sailed to Iceland, Greenland and America. The dominant warrior cultures of this Early Medieval time sought out prized fertile land, bordering seas, or sheltered estuaries and river valleys. The area surrounding the River Deben would be perfect. They were prepared to colonise, for this provided more land and reduced the need to engage in family conflict between siblings and relatives back at home over a limited amount of land. It has been suggested by Professor Sune Lindqvist that the Sutton Hoo burial was for a man who was a descendant of the royal house of Uppsala in Sweden (or Svearland).
If we drew a map to cover the core of the culture that dominated the people who lived and died in the area around Sutton Hoo, the centre the map that we might imagine would be the Baltic rather than Suffolk.
This was where what we might call a Scandinavian culture was centred. The Wuffings occupied a colony away
from the cultural centre or motherland and the link back to that centre was with ships. The Sutton Hoo ship was built
using predominantly Scandinavian construction methods and few Roman ones.
The people who travelled in the ship belonged to a Scandinavian society. Their names, their dress, their language, their beliefs and their customs stemmed from the places we now call Sweden, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. The place that they lived in East Angle-land was an outlying colony of this Scandinavian homeland.
This map (above) shows the centre of their power base. Fertile valleys for crop growing and keeping animals surround their transport highways, the sheltered rivers. Their Mead Hall was at the junction of the rivers at a place named after Rendil. The ship was buried on high ground overlooking the Deben at the widest inland area of water where a ship of this size could easily be turned around. The river would have been broader and shallower at the edges, as it would not have been walled. Places where the higher ground approached the deeper stream of the river would have been the best places to land ships and boats. From this secure place access to the sea was easy to travel to other settlements and to cross the sea, to visit similar places on the other side.
Did you know? The first map or Chart at the top of the page represents the bottom half of the North Sea, still called the West Sea by people in Denmark.
On the map, England and the Thames estuary are at the top and the large estuaries in the southern Netherlands are at the bottom.
The wonderful Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer was able to paint with almost photographic detail in
the mid-1650s. On several paintings he had maps on the wall behind the subjects. One particular
painting he used more than once, which suggests that he had a copy himself. It is best seen in a
picture called Officer and Laughing Girl which is in the Frick Collection in New York. A section of
the picture is shown here
The map in the picture was drawn by Balthazaar van Berckenrode and published by Willem Blaeu in
the early 1620s. Find the picture and look at the map. It appears to be an almost imaginary land, but
it isn't. As with my first illustration it is a place that you should recognise ... but it isn't North-Up.
When you reorientate it to what we expect today it should make sense, in exactly the same way as
my earlier illustration.
Did you know? That most maps are Political. Like the Mappa Mundi that showed Jerusalem as the
centre of the world, because that was the message that the Christian mapmaker was trying to send to
anyone who saw it. Maps are often coloured to show how much land belongs to which state.
Today, when new tribes of Amazonian indians are contacted and shown satellite images on
Google Earth they can recognise the boundaries of their territory and this can be used to register
their claim to what they see as their land.