In Praise of Sutton Hoo Woo

All right, I admit it, I am writing this post mostly as an excuse to use the phrase “Sutton Hoo woo.” It’s a lovely phrase. Try saying it. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

See, wasn’t that satisfying?

More seriously, though, we’ve all heard psychics claiming that they have worked with the police and provided material assistance in finding missing persons and dead bodies and in solving cases. In every instance, these claims have proved to be dubious, at best. We’ve also heard of dowsers claiming to have found…well, all sorts of things using their magic sticks.

The excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial may be an instance where fringe beliefs actually did contribute to the discovery of a great treasure and human remains (sort of). Now, right off the bat, I should make two things clear: in the first place, it’s unclear to what extent unconventional beliefs contributed to England’s greatest archaeological discovery. Secondly, I’m not saying that anything extraordinary actually happened. Ghosts and magic sticks didn’t actually lead to the discovery, but the belief in ghosts and magic sticks may have acted as a catalyst. I guess what I’m saying is that someone who is a bit of a woo can also be a Big Damn Hero.

In this case, our Big Damn Hero is the delightfully named Mrs. Pretty. Edith May Pretty was the daughter of a wealthy northern industrialist. In 1926, she married Col. Frank Pretty, and the two of them bought Sutton Hoo House, a large Edwardian mansion near Woodbridge in Suffolk. In 1930, Mrs. Pretty found herself pregnant at the age of 47. Four years later, her husband died.

After her husband’s death, Mrs. Pretty became interested in spiritualism, frequently travelling to London to consult with a spiritualist medium. According to Joseph Allen McCullough, Mrs. Pretty “claimed to have strange dreams and visions of the place, including a vivid dream where an Anglo-Saxon funeral procession buried the body of their king inside a ship in the largest of the mounds.”  According to the video below, it was a friend of Mrs. Pretty’s who saw the ghosts:

Mrs. Pretty also had a nephew who was a dowser. He said there was treasure under Mound 1. Armed with this supernatural information, Mrs. Pretty decided to hire herself an archaeologist. She consulted with Guy Maynard, curator of the Ipswich Museum, who suggested Basil Brown, a self-taught but conscientious and successful excavator. She paid him 30 shillings a week and provided him with accommodation in the chauffeur’s cottage and the assistance of two estate workers (one of whom was named Tom Sawyer).

Based (allegedly) on the supernatural insights she had gained, Mrs. Pretty suggested that Brown excavate Mound 1.  Brown did begin to excavate Mound 1 (using a long probe designed by Mrs. Pretty), but concluded, logically if erroneously, that Mound 1 had been looted. Instead he turned to Mounds 2, 3 and 4. Mounds 3 and 4 were cremation burials that had been looted. Mound 2–one of the largest mounds–produced a number of scattered rivets. It was a ship burial, but it too had been looted.

The next year (1939), Mrs. Pretty again suggested that Brown excavate Mound 1. He did so, with extraordinary results. As with Mound 2, he found ship rivets, but in Mound 1, they were still in place. The dark coloration of the sandy soil also showed the outline of an enormous ship (larger than any other Migration Era or Viking Age ship yet discovered).  At this point, the Office of Works and the British Museum got involved, even though they had other things to worry about: the Office of Works was busy building airstrips, and the British Museum was busy crating up its treasures and sending them to the London Underground for safekeeping in anticipation of WWII. Consequently, the initial excavation was a rather hurried affair, but worth it. Mound 1 proved to be an unlooted, probably royal Anglo-Saxon ship burial:

The ship

The helmet

Recreation of helmet made by Tower of London armourers


Shoulder clasp

No body or bones were actually found, but in subsequent excavations, phosphate traces were found in the soil, suggesting that a body had once lain there. The soil is highly acidic; almost no wood from the ship survived either.

After the treasures were unearthed, a coroner’s inquest was held to decide who was the rightful owner: the crown or Mrs. Pretty. The court decided that the treasure belonged to Mrs. Pretty. Martin Carver, who led the most recent excavations at Sutton Hoo, describes what happened after the inquest:

Charles Phillips [who led the British Museum excavation] mentions family pressure to keep the jewellery, but Mrs. Pretty’s own position is less certain. Her spiritualist counsellor soon came to stay with her, and Phillips took a stroll with him that evening on the heath, volunteering his opinion that a presentation of all the finds to the nation “would be a splendid gesture” (Carver, p. 22)

Ultimately, Mrs. Pretty did donate the treasure to the British Museum, “thus making the most generous donation to the Museum ever made in the lifetime of a donor. Mrs Pretty was offered the honour of Dame of the British Empire, which she declined” (Carver, p. 22). The treasure was then taken to the London Underground for the duration of the war.

So, how much influence did spiritualism and dowsing have in the discovery of the ship burial? I have no idea. Certainly, some of the claims seem exaggerated. Carver downplays the influence: “whatever her sensitivity to the attentions of solicitous phantoms, Mrs Pretty was no stranger to scientific archaelogy” (p. 4). She had visited the pyramids in Egypt, and her father had gotten permission to excavate the remains of a Cistercian Abbey near their family home in Cheshire:

She would have been aware of the responsibilities of excavating burial mounds, and had already refused to allow enthusiastic amateurs to try their hand. In her case a keen eye and an educated curiosity would have encouraged investigation as surely as any interest in the other world. (Carver, p. 4)

More importantly, there is nothing mystic about the discovery: Mrs. Pretty lived on an estate that had big, honking mounds in the back yard. No one knew exactly what they were, but the idea that they were burials was hardly outlandish. And with pagan burials comes treasure. There had been rumors of treasure for centuries. Certainly the looters thought there was treasure. Nor is the interest in Mound 1 particularly surprising. It’s really big (admittedly, so is Mound 2).

Still, it seems likely that Mrs. Pretty’s interest in spiritualism and her faith in her nephew’s dowsing may have played some role in her decision to hire someone to excavate, and her spiritualist medium may have encouraged her to donate the treasure to the British Museum.

Edith May Pretty: First Class Woo.  Big Damn Hero.



Bruce-Mitford, Rupert. The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial: A Handbook. London: British Museum, 1972.

Carver, Martin. Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

10 Responses to In Praise of Sutton Hoo Woo

  1. Bob says:

    I honestly get a little gooey inside when I think about Mrs. Pretty’s selflessness and generosity. What a national treasure she was!


  2. Pacal says:

    The Sutton Hoo burial is one of the most interesting Archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.

    What was also fascinating was the debate over the lack of a corpse. It was thought that the grave was a pagan cenotaph which maked the burial of a mid 7th century King of Anglia, (later called East Anglia). There was a number of possible candidates such as Sigeberht and Eorpwald sons of Raedwald; Sigeberht abdicated, entered a monastry but was then killed in battle along with his successor Ecgric c. 640 C.E. Ecgric was another candidate.

    The mixture of Pagan and Christian elements in the burial was thought to come from a period in which Paganism was still powerful so that although the king’s body was thought to have had a Christian burial elsewhere and then this cenotaph was erected to satisfy the Pagans. Since St. Augustine, (Another St. Augustine.) had arrived in 575 C.E., in Kent, Christianity had been steadily expanding in Anglo-Saxon England. however Pagaism retained a lot of political and cultural power in Anglo_Saxon England so the Kings had to proceed carefully in the Christianizing of their Kingdoms. So it was thought that a mid 7th century Anglo-Saxon King of Anglia would have a sort of dual burial. The finding of some Christian items in the burial at Sutton Hoo were thought to prove this dual burial aspect with the Sutton Hoo burial being a cenotaph.

    When the site was re-excavated more than 50 years later it was discovered that the burial was a bit older than previously thought. Further of course was the discovery that there was probably a body in the burial that had been destroyed by the acidic soil. In the excavations around Sutton Hoo it was discovered many bodies, in burials, (Some of them likely some sort of human sacrifice), that also showed complete or nearly complete bone destruction. The bodies were discovered by noticing differences in the colour of the soil produced by the decay of the bones. A few human bones were also discovered along with animal remains.

    This led to a reappraisal of who was buried at the Sutton Hoo burial. King of Anglia from 616-625 C.E., was the forminable Raedwald, who managed to get most of the other English kings to accept him has, at least, their nominal overlord. Because Raedwald seems to have died a Pagan it was not considered likely that he was buried at Sutton Hoo given that the burial seems to have been a cenotaph. however now that it appears that it was not a cenotaph, (It is my understanding that more than just phospherous was found but other stuff like calcium indicating a body), then the likelyhood that it was Raedwald increases dramatically.In fact the mixture of Christian and Pagan elements with the pagan predominating. In fact Bede in his book The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, says:

    “Indeed his [Eorpwald] father Raedwald had long before been initiated into the mysteries of the Christian faith in Kent, but in vain; for on his return home, he was seduced by hias wife and by certain evil teachers and perverted from the sincerity of his faith, so that his last state ws worst than his first. After the manner of the ancient Samaritans, he seemed to be serving both Christ and the gods whom he previously served; in the same temple he had one alter for the Christian sacrifice and another small alter on which to offer victims to devils.” (Book 2, ch. 15, p. 98 – Oxford University Press)

    So Raedwald is the favoured candidate for burial at Sutton Hoo.
    It is of interest that apparantly all the other burials at Sutton Hoo were looted. It appears that there was an attempt to rob the Sutton Hoo burial but it missed the burial, apparantly because the mound had been modified after the burial so that the nburial was not located where the theives thought it was.

    It is of interest that although there are similar burials in Scandanavia at the time with very similar motifs, designs to the Pagan grave goods, those Scandanavian grave goods are not up to the quality of the Sutton Hoo grave goods. Perhaps the employment of skilled local and “British”, craftsmen was involved? The similarity with Scandinavian grave goods is esspecially strong with grave goods from royal burials at Uppsala Sweden. This leads to the suspicion that the royal dynsty of Anglia, (Called the Wufflings), came from Sweden.

    All in all a very interesting find.

  3. Eve says:

    You’re right: for a long time there was disagreement about whether Mound 1 was a cenotaph or a burial. I was surprised to discover that two of the excavators (Phillips and Stuart Piggott) argued at the inquest that a body had probably once been there. And, although the reference is eluding me at the moment, there was someone else, not involved in the investigation, who looked at the finds and immediately suggested Raedwald.

    Although most people now agree that Mound 1 was Raedwald’s grave, I always root for Sigeberht because Sigeberht is the Anglo-Saxon version of my last name (it means “victory bright”).

    As I recall, the objects with Christian associations all come from abroad. The big silver plate with a cross on it is from Constantinople, I believe, so I’ve never understood how they would necessarily shed light on the religious proclivities of the dead guy. The Vikings had Christian stuff long before they converted. Granted, Raedwald probably got his treasures through trade rather than pillage, but there’s no reason a pagan wouldn’t like a pretty silver plate just because it had a cross.

    The “sand bodies” you mention are freaky. They’re strangely detailed and three-dimensional.

    There are very close associations between Sutton Hoo and the Vendel and Valsgarde finds. One of the objects at Sutton Hoo was stamped with the same die as one of the Swedish objects.

    There was another unlooted grave at Sutton Hoo.(Mound 17), but it was not as rich. Mound 2 may have been as rich as Mound 2, but it had been thoroughly looted. As I understand it, in the later Middle Ages, there was some digging on one edge of Mound 1 (for a boundary,I think). That is what changed the shape of the mound. Based on the diagrams I’ve seen, the would-be robbers just barely missed the burial chamber.

    In 2000, when the National Trust was preparing a Visitor’s Center, another cemetery was discovered. The mounds had been completely worn down through cultivation.

    • Pacal says:

      Actually it wasn’t just the fact that there were grave goods with crosses etc., found at Sutton Hoo that made people wonder if it was some sort of “mixed” burial but the type of goods. The two spoons with Paul in Greek and Saul with Frankish letters fit the dark age profile of a baptismal gift. And given the quote from Bede concerning Raedwald, if it is Raedwald in the grave the idea that he was “trying to have it all”, makes a certain sense.

      If it is Sigeberht then he must have become a Pagan before he died, (Again?), or his pagan relatives decided to give him a Pagan funeral anyway, given that the cenotaph theory is now very unlikely. Maybe he to “wanted to have it all”.

      Thanks for the correction. I had forgotton about mound 17 being unlooted.

      What do you think of the idea that the Wufflings came from Sweden?

      • Eve says:

        That’s true about the spoons, but I wasn’t sure they were a baptismal gift TO the grave’s occupant.

        I know Sigeberht isn’t likely, as he seems to have taken his Christianity quite seriously–it would just be cool if it were him.

        I’m not really sure there is enough information to draw a conclusion about the Wuffinga/Sweden connection. Certainly, the similarities between the Sutton Hoo and Vendel/Valsgarde finds suggest some connection, but whether that means that the Wuffingas originated in Sweden, I don’t know. Maybe they had trade connections or marital ties (Raedwald’s queen was an unnamed pagan).

        I know there are claims that the Wuffingas were descended from/related to the Geatas, Beowulf’s tribe (or more accurately–since Beowulf is fictional–Hygelac’s tribe). That seems a bit speculative. It might explain why the Geatas are mentioned more in Anglo-Saxon sources than in Old Norse sources though (if I’m remembering that correctly).

  4. Pacal says:

    I made an error concerning the excavations. It was not more than 50 years after the original dig (1938-1939), but 1965-1971, and 1983-1992. Although it does appear that the 1983-1992 dig is indeed the one that found very suggestive evidence, I would argue deffinitive, of an actual body.

  5. Eve says:

    I’m still reading Carver’s book (Carver led the 1983-92 excavations), but I thought they didn’t focus much on Mound 1, which had been fairly thoroughly explored and published by Bruce-Mitford. They did do a thorough soil analysis on Mound 2 (there’s a picture in the book of a section of ground with little divots in a neat grid). They compared those samples with a chemical analysis done on the sand bodies, and they matched very closely. In another part of the chamber, they found high concentrations of iron and copper, suggesting that metal objects had once been there.

  6. anilbalan says:

    Great stuff – I’ve always found this interesting.

  7. […] Humanities [14:00] – In Praise of Sutton Hoo Woo. – Dr. Sam Newton. – Skeptical […]

  8. […] Per contro, è interessante notare una cosa: la credenza nello spiritismo di Edith con ogni probabilità influenzò la sua decisione di donare allo Stato i reperti trovati,  un gesto generoso che ne ha permesso lo studio scientifico e la fruizione completa da parte del pubblico. Più che di fantasmi e di bacchette, questa storia ci parla del ruolo che le convinzioni pseudoscientifiche possono giocare nelle azioni umane. Se non altro, al contrario di quanto avviene troppo spesso, nella vicenda di Sutton Hoo giocarono un ruolo positivo. […]

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