Building a replica of the Sutton Hoo royal burial ship
Just across the river Deben from the Longshed are the ancient burial mounds of Sutton Hoo, where the first King of England, Raedwald, was interred in a burial ship with many great treasures very nearly 1400 years ago in 625 AD. This huge ship, which was over 27 metres or 90 feet long – was dragged up the hill to a final resting place where it lay undisturbed for over 1300 years, until it was excavated in 1939 just before the second World War.
You can see archive film of the excavation. Most of King Raedwald’s treasures are now in the British Museum, but you can see other artefacts and reproductions at the National Trust site at Sutton Hoo, as well as a re-creation of the burial chamber on the ship.
Nothing was left of the ship except the ghost of an impression in the sand and a number of iron rivets which lay in rows where the wood had disappeared.
Much is already known about the ship – but much is unknown too. To find out more The Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company (SHSC), our sister charity, has commissioned research and held an international Symposium on the hull shape, materials and construction methods. Using this information they will build an authentic reconstruction of the ship in the Longshed. Founded on 5 years research and preparatory work the SHSC was set up in 2016 with a prime purpose to create an interpretation of this Anglo-Saxon ship that provides the best possible means of testing and understanding how the ship could have been used under different conditions.
Why build a replica ship?
This project will gain new insights into the craftsmanship and seamanship of the Anglo-Saxons as well as their lives, culture and trade between East Anglia and neighbouring countries.
After the build the SHSC will carry out sea-trials, to test how the boat was propelled (by oars and/or sail), what it could have been used for, what it may have carried, under what conditions was it safe and therefore where it might have been used.
The final stage of the project will see history re-enacted as the ship is hauled up the hill to Sutton Hoo, just across the river from the Longshed, where it will become part of the National Trust heritage site.
You can see in the picture below how elegant – and how big – our ship is, in this digital image from Southampton University.
We have a unique opportunity now to build this ship; we have the space, the drive and the vision. We want to contribute more to the scientific understanding of our Anglo-Saxon heritage and develop skills and interests in our community. We want to row it!
The build will be overseen by academic and ship building experts, but the work will be organised to enable local volunteers to be involved in all stages, either through active participation in the build process or activities such as recording, interpretation or guiding. SHSC will employ professional shipwrights for the critical parts of the build. There will also be opportunities for apprentices students to work on the project.
SHSC are working with the National Trust and WRT – who will be responsible for guiding, exhibitions, education programmes and talks.
In October 2018, SHSC held and international Symposium to confirm they are on the right track to begin the build and to answer many remaining questions about materials, building methods and design details.
In the picture below (from the International Symposium in the Longshed) Vibeke Bischoff from the Viking Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, is explaining how she constructs a 3D model before beginning the main build of a Viking ship. Our ship pre-dated the Viking boats by 200 years.
Below is a picture of the lines plan of the Sutton Hoo ship’s hull.
This image from the Albaola museum in Spain shows some of the processes involved in choosing trees to build a ship – in this case a replica of a 17th century whaling ship. The men are holding up cut-outs of the part of the ship they want to make from the tree.
Anglo-Saxons didn’t have saws, like the ones in the illustration. All the planks had to be split from the logs. This is a lengthier process but split planks are stronger weight for weight as they follow the natural grain of the wood.
SHSC also need to be able to reproduce the rivets that held the ship together; the original ones were from bog iron, which we cannot get in the quantities we need – there will be 3000 rivets altogether – so we are working on getting the right substitute. And we need to know more about cordage, thwarts, tholes, oars, anchors and so on…..the list is very long.
The SHSC expect to start work in the Longshed in Spring 2019, you can find more information on the Ship’s Company website.
You can help take this project further by making a donation using the Donate link on the SHSC website.