The Sutton Hoo ship is about 27 metres long. So what does that look like?
And … why is it about 27 metres? Is it or isn’t it 27 metres long?
Let’s look at that length and draw a little sketch to scale.
Draw a line on the ground 27 metres long, then, let’s say that we pile up a mound about 2.5 metres tall above it and then we draw a man next to it. If that man was 6ft tall he would be about 1.8 metres (close to 2 metres). This is what our sketch would look like.
How big is that!
But what are the bits sticking up at the end of the mound?
It's the ship.
They are the front (called bow or stem) and the back (stern) of the ship. It is thought that they could have been left projecting above the ground to show people just how long this ship was and therefore, show how great was the chief or king that was buried in that ship. Many years after the king was buried, children or young people could be brought to look at those grave markers, to gaze at the mound … and wonder at the mighty man who lay beneath the ground, rather as we might do today when we look at the pyramids.
To measure a mound to discover its original size is a bit difficult as you have to know what the original ground level was.
Archaeologists started measuring Mound 1 from a line that they took to be 105ft above sea level. From this they could see that the original ground had not been absolutely flat, but had a natural bump about 2ft higher than surrounding ground, which the mound sat upon. The mound was roughly 100ft circular but was slightly longer from east to west. This is the way that the ship was pointing with its stern towards the river and the bow towards the sea. The top of the mound was flattened and about 9ft high (2.8m). The ship was sunken into the ground with possibly the tips of bow and stern above ground level. The ship had been carefully packed all around the outside with sand to support it and keep its shape. The interior of the ship was similarly filled.
Why about 27 metres?
The wooden stem and stern would have slowly rotted away as they were exposed to the weather and now we can only guess how long they were. We are accustomed to seeing Viking boats with carved dragon heads on their bow, but as far as we can tell the Sutton Hoo ship was not carved. It was more like the Nydam ship (Anglo-Saxon) which was plain. Not all Viking boats were carved. The most famous Viking ship is the Oseberg ship which was elaborately carved, but it had a special purpose so it probably was not typical even of Viking ships. An interesting detail about Nydam is that two shaped post carved with heads were found close to the ship and their exact purpose has been difficult to define for certain, so modern copies in lighter coloured timber have been made and placed upon the ship where they could have been used. They can be seen in photographs of the ship (see our page Ship).
As we will have to keep mentioning certain other craft it might be a good idea to write down some of their main dimensions so that we can see how they compare with each other.
Nydam. 23m x 4m. 15 pairs of oars. Date about 325
Sutton Hoo. 27m x 4.5m. 20 pairs of oars. Date about 625
Oseberg. 21.6 x 4.5m. A sailing ship. Date about 825
There are other ships and eventually, they will be mentioned elsewhere on the website.
On the old Whisstocks site (see Home page) there were some boat building sheds. They were big. They were occasionally used for community events such as the Maritime Woodbridge festival. This short video shows the inside of one of those old sheds and relates it to the length of the Anglo-Saxon ship.
If you want to know more about other early ships click on Ship at the top of the page then open Early Ships.