Building a replica of the Sutton Hoo royal burial ship
Just across the river Deben from the Whisstocks boatyard site 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 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 we are going to research and build an authentic reconstruction of the ship in the Longshed –which was designed specifically to be big enough to accommodate the build.
Why build a replica ship?
Building it, and trials on the water, will help establish just why it existed
We would like to know if it ever had a sail
We want to add to human and scientific knowledge
We want to understand our history better
We want to learn about the techniques used by the people who built the original ship
We want to have the opportunity to row it!
Why build it in Woodbridge?
We want to understand how Woodbridge was part of a wider community
Woodbridge has a famous maritime history that should be celebrated
We want to add to skills, learning and employment and volunteering opportunities locally, especially amongst the young and people who are not working.
We want to see and feel the ghost ship that has so long been a mystery
What sort of ship do we want to build?
We want a ship…
that can be trialled on river and sea – not a museum piece
that is as close to what the original ship would have been as we can possibly make it using ancient and modern ship building techniques
where progress is accurately recorded
that generates public interest and is built over a reasonable timescale so that people can watch it progress
Who is going to do it?
The Ship’s Company overseeing the build is a group, both academic and practical including experts in marine archaeology and ship architecture. These top rank professionals are working alongside local enthusiasts who have spent many years researching the Sutton Hoo ship and other ancient ships from different parts of Northern Europe.
The Ship’s Company has close relationships with the Woodbridge Riverside Trust and the National Trust at Sutton Hoo. It also has links to the Scandinavian teams for example in Roskilde, who have most experience in building longships somewhat similar to ours.
The physical process of building the ship will be overseen by experienced professional shipwrights and other experts in wooden boats and ancient woodworking techniques.
What will we test when the ship is built?
How fast and far will it go in different conditions?
Is it safe in open water?
How many people are needed to crew it?
How much cargo can it carry?
Can it cross the North Sea?
How special was it to the people who built it using comparative Saxon research?
How far have we got?
We have formed The Sutton Hoo Ships Company as a registered charity and appointed a number of Trustees who meet regularly and oversee the project.
We have commissioned a naval architect using powerful computer modelling based on photographs and measurements recorded when the burial mound was first excavated in 1939, to establish the lines of the ship. We needed to do this modelling because when it was buried and in later centuries, the shape of the ship will have changed with the pressure of the soil that formed the mound above it. The computer models mean that we can test the design in advance to see what it will weigh using different materials and what space there is for internal fittings and people. Most importantly the models will show how the reconstructed ship will float and how stable we can expect it to be in a rough sea.
We also need to be able to reproduce the rivets that held it 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 pretty long.
The Ship’s Company expect to start work in the Longshed in Autumn 2018, you can find more information on the Ship’s Company website http://saxonship.org
You can help take this project further by making a donation using the Donate link on our Home Page.