Wednesday 18 December 2019


The Saxon super yacht

Britain’s greatest archaeological find is about to yield new treasure, Simon de Bruxelles reports

By Simon de Bruxelles

An autumn mist drifts up the Deben estuary, shrouding the riverside village of Woodbridge and its boatyard filled with all manner of craft small and large, old and new.

None of them is as large or as iconic as the ship that will soon be taking shape in the Longshed alongside the tidal estuary connecting Woodbridge to the North Sea seven miles away. Across the river a wooded hill conceals the mound beneath which Britain’s greatest archaeological treasure was unearthed in the weeks before the start of World War Two. Sutton Hoo, the burial place of a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon king, is best known for its golden treasures now on display in the British Museum.

The Sutton Hoo helmet in the British Museum

But there was another less visible treasure hidden in the sandy soil that will shortly be resurrected: the imprint of the wooden longship in which an Anglo-Saxon king was sent on his way to the other world.

At this time of year as dusk begins to fall it is not hard to imagine a giant longship emerging from the mist, propelled by rows of oarsmen.

Modern boats crowd the River Deben near the Sutton Hoo burial site in Woodbridge

We are fortunate that the excavation in 1939 was conducted by Basil Brown, a self-trained archaeologist whose painstaking work ensured the ghost ship was properly recorded rather than destroyed in the rush to find gold. It was Brown who was the first to realise that the heavily corroded cast iron rivets they were uncovering were part of a ship and that they marked out its shape like a giant connect-the-dots puzzle. There were more than 3,000 of them arranged in eerily straight lines.

It is the rivets which provided the clue as to how the vessel was constructed as no boat built within 200 years either side has survived in Britain.

Archaeologist Basil Brown (facing) and Charles Philips in the trench not long after the discovery in 1939

The keel, the ribs and the planks which formed the hull had completely vanished leaving only their outlines from which archaeologists have been able to draw the blueprint for the replica. When the hole was backfilled it was in a rush. Many of the labourers were to go off to war. The mounds themselves, owned by Edith Pretty, the widow who commissioned Basil Brown, were taken over by the War Office and used for training the crews of Bren gun carriers. The weight of the armoured vehicles damaged what was left of the ship’s outline. Fortunately detailed black and white photographs taken during the excavation record the rivets looking like currants in a cake mix.


Building an Anglo Saxon longship is major under-taking. Nothing like it has been built in Britain since the early seventh century and working out how to do it has meant studying traditional ship-building techniques from Scandinavia to New Zealand.

The man in charge is boat builder Tim Kirk, a weather beaten 57 year old who reconstructed the wheel of Woodbridge’s ancient tidal mill and is halfway through a degree in archaeology. Kirk acknowledges the magnitude of the challenge is different to anything he has taken on. His team of volunteer boatbuilders are determined to use exactly the same materials and techniques as the original Saxon shipwrights. That means cutting more than 90 planks between eight and 20 feet long and one-and-a-half inches thick using axes rather than saws. And they will need to build it using green oak rather than seasoned timber so the trees will be effectively felled to order.

Shipwright Tim Kirk of the Sutton Hoo Ship's company in his workshop in Woodbridge

The days when England was covered in mighty oaks have long gone. Scouts scouring the country for trees have found themselves in indirect competition with Notre Dame cathedral, one of the largest restoration projects currently being undertaken in Europe. The oaks they need do not have to be particularly old – maybe 150 to 200 years, but they do need to be straight and tall with as few knots as possible which means very particular growing conditions. The keel will require a piece of timber at least 50ft long. The volunteers think they may have found one on Exmoor. Other trees will come from Windsor Great Park. A 20ft trunk in the Longshed is evidence that even once they have felled and transported the tree there is no guarantee it will be suitable. The trunk has been split in two vertically but it is twisted internally making it impossible to carve into straight pieces.

David Pryor in the workshop of the Sutton Hoo Ship's company

For all their ship-building prowess, the Anglo-Saxons were deficient in one technology at least. Tim Kirk said: “There’s no evidence for the Saxons using saws. The Romans did, the Egyptians did, the Vikings did, the Normans did, but the Saxons didn’t. If they’d used them we have found some trace or even the tool marks in the impressions in the sand. Instead the impressions that we found were of axes. The trunk would be split in half then in quarters, eighths and sixteenths and then converted with an axe down to inch and a quarter thickness.” The carpentry needs to be meticulous and the planks have to be straight in order to keep a watertight seam.” The planks will be secured to the ribs of the ship using wooden pegs known as treenails and to each other with the iron rivets, the only part of the boat to have survived. In order to ensure the seams are watertight the planks would have been caulked using wool and pine tar.

David Steptoe of the Sutton Hoo Ship's company uses a bearding axe

The axe Mike Pratt is using to shape a beam for a full-size model of the cross section was forged in Sweden to a design used by the Saxons. It is an 18-inch long bearded finishing axe and it is as sharp as a razor blade. Mike is carefully taking slices off the pale pink timber as though carving a large ham. It is not heavy labour but it is repetitive and the beam will take several days of sustained slicing to get it into usable shape.


This brings us to another challenge facing the volunteers of the Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company: they come from a variety of backgrounds from retired police ballistics expert to former musical instrument-restorer more used to working on Stradivarius violins than Saxon longboats. One thing they have in common is white hair and the fact most are long past retirement age. The violin restorer Pete Clay, 73, said: “We need some younger chaps in their 60s.”

Pete Clay is the director of the Sutton Hoo Ship's company

Alec Newland, the youngest volunteer by far, is in his early 20s and has impressed his colleagues by his dedication to living as an Anglo-Saxon. He spent the summer underneath a woollen flysheet cooking his food using a metal bucket and armfuls of twigs. He is said to be “very good” with an axe.

As the Anglo Saxon ship-builders are unlikely to have used pencils and paper, the project would have been masterminded by the head shipwright. It may have been scaled up from a much smaller model using an ell (an Anglo Saxon unit of measurement  – about 45 inches) measuring stick. Work on the planks which need to be cut fresh can only really begin once the keel and 26 ribs which provide the internal structure are in place. Kirk reckons that with the right tools and a bit more experience it will be possible for two men to cut a plank in two days. But before that can happen they have to decide what to do about the rivets.

More than 3,000 rivets will be needed to complete the reconstruction – these are two of the reproductions

This is a fundamental decision that goes to the heart of the project. The original rivets, now black lumps of oxidation kept in a storeroom at the British Museum, were made from “bog iron” something that is nowadays difficult to find in any quantity. The impure iron ore would have been harvested from swamps and melted down to form iron. It was used for ship building by the Romans and the Vikings as it is malleable and silicates (impurities in the bog iron) in the ore provided a degree of protection against corrosion.

A team from Denmark building a replica of a later Viking-era longship sent away a sample of a rivet made from bog iron for metallurgical testing in the hope of replicating the original material. Kirk said: “You have to literally go to a bog and pick up handfuls of red iron oxide, take it back to where you want to convert it, dry it out and then heat it up. It must have been a tremendous undertaking to actually find enough.

Rod Daniel of the Sutton Hoo Ship's company works on on a large section of green oak

“The Danes found enough bog iron to make some rivets and sent them for analysis. When the analysis came back it came with the question ‘why have you sent us modern steel?’. The combination of moisture and heat had actually turned the bog iron into something closer to modern steel.”

The Danes decided in the end to use copper nails which have the advantage of not rusting in sea water even if they are not strictly speaking authentic. The Sutton Hoo shipbuilders are still undecided. Kirk said: “We can’t use the original material, the original iron, because we can’t get it so we have to use either blacksmith made nails of wrought iron or modern galvanised steel nails which, from a health and safety point of view, are a nightmare. I used them in a previous boat building project. They are so hard the shock from the blow on the nail gave me tennis elbow in both elbows for three months afterwards.”


The Sutton Hoo longship is believed to have been at least 30 years-old when it was buried. The rivets had been attacked by tannins from the oak and the subsequent corrosion would have enlarged the holes causing leakage. There was evidence that leaky nail holes had been repaired using woollen grommets. Price is also an issue. The team is crowd-funding the six-inch long rivets by asking people to donate £20 each but a blacksmith asked for a quote said each one would take a day to make and cost £360. They will need at least 3,200 of them.

Philip Leech (left) and Andrew Fitzgerald of the Sutton Hoo Ship's company with the Sandmen remains at the burial site near Woodbridge

The entire project is being under-written by the Oxford-based Institute for Digital Archaeology which three years ago built a replica of the Palmyra Arch which had been blown up by ISIS. The replica created using the last scanning and 3-D carving technology was erected in Trafalgar Square and unveiled by the then Mayor of London Boris Johnson. The replica has since become a fixture at events hosted by UNESCO from Washington to Dubai. Roger Michel, the IDA’s executive director, estimates that the super yacht of the Saxon era will cost in the region of £100,000. He is scouting for timber in Northumberland having heard of oaks planted by Nelson’s far sighted second in command at Trafalgar, Admiral Collingwood, which were never needed for ship building because the age of wooden warships had passed by the time they were mature.

Which brings us, via a somewhat circuitous route, to New Zealand. Michel studied Anglo Saxon literature at Oxford under the tutelage of the late Professor Eric Stanley, the last surviving colleague of JRR Tolkein. Ten years ago Michel translated Beowulf, the epic Anglo Saxon poem which opens with a ship burial similar to that at Sutton Hoo, into Maori. He was assisted by his friend the diplomat George Fergusson whose father, a former governor general of New Zealand, had been instrumental in encouraging a revival of the Maori language and culture which had previously been suppressed. One consequence was a spate of projects to build traditional Maori war canoes known as Wakas some of which are very similar to the Sutton Hoo longship, at least in shape and the fact they were powered by dozens of rowers.

Members of the Sutton Hoo Ship's company at their boat yard

Michel is keen to introduce the two traditions separated by half a world when Auckland hosts the America’s Cup next year. He is sponsoring a symposium on traditional boat building in Oxford to which Maori boat builders will be invited. He has also persuaded UNESCO to consider recognising traditional boat building as “intangible cultural heritage” giving it a status it previously lacked.


Although the Sutton Hoo ship resembles a Viking longship it differs in significant respects. It will only be when the boat is on the water that it will be possible to determine its capabilities. The Vikings sailed to Iceland and North America. They used sails but there is no evidence the Sutton Hoo boat ever had a mast. The Viking boats also had a feature known as a meginhufr or “strong plank” which gave extra stability as the ship heeled and a stronger construction above the waterline. The equivalent on a modern boat is known as a chine.

The mid-section of the Sutton Hoo boat is also missing the tholes, the iron pins on which oars would have pivoted, that are present before and aft. Archaeologists don’t know if they were ever present or if they were removed to construct the burial chamber where the king and his treasure were laid to rest. These details could mean the difference between a royal barge which glided gracefully up and down the Deben estuary carrying the king and his entourage in regal splendour and a sea-going warship.

Director Jacq Barnard in the workshop

Kirk said: “What the Sutton Hoo ship was used for during its working life is a completely open question. It’s not really suitable for loading livestock onto for instance. I don’t have any doubt that it could have crossed the Channel under oars even but it would have needed the right conditions.”

Andrew Fitzgerald, director of the Ship’s Company, a charity, asked: “Where did a ship that was three times the size of anything else on the water actually come from? It couldn’t have been a one-off design, it had to have evolved from something.”

Construction of the longship is expected to take two and a quarter years. Volunteer boatbuilders are already being recruited and trained. The aim is to test the design to the limits though hopefully not to destruction.

David Steptoe of the Sutton Hoo Ship's company

The original longboat is believed to have been used for the funeral of King Raedwald, the first English king to convert to Christianity, who reigned between c599 and c624. His kingdom of East Anglia included modern day Norfolk and Suffolk and part of Cambridgeshire. He is believed to have been converted to Christianity some time after the arrival in Britain of Augustin the first archbishop of Canturbury who had been sent from Rome by Pope Gregory I in 597. Raedwald’s queen was pagan and the royal household kept two altars, one dedicated to the Christian god and one dedicated to the pagan gods who arrived with the Saxons after the departure of the Romans from Britain.

Hedging his bets may also have extended to his funeral as no body was ever found in the Sutton Hoo longship. It may have decomposed so completely that no trace was left like the wooden ship itself, or maybe he was buried and his grave remains to be discovered. Raising the spirit of the Sutton Hoo ship may help answer these questions.

The plans for the building of a replica of the Sutton Hoo burial ship


Photographs David Bebber for Tortoise, Getty Images, British Museum


Further reading

Beowulf. The great classic of Anglo Saxon literature begins with the burial of a king in a ship laden with treasure, like the one unearthed at Sutton Hoo. The poem written in Old English survives in just one manuscript which is housed in the British Library. It was written down at least three hundred years after the story it relates which takes place in the sixth century. Beowulf, a young warrior, defeats Grendel, a troll-like monster with enormous strength. He then confronts Grendel’s mother who is enraged by the death of her son. The story ends 50 years later with the funeral of Beowulf who, by now a king, has been killed fighting a fire-breathing dragon with his bare hands.

The Dig. John Preston’s highly-praised historical novel is a fictionalised account of the excavations at Sutton Hoo in the two years immediately preceding the outbreak of the Second World War. Preston’s aunt Peggy Piggott was one of the excavators of the site and the novel is based at least in part on her recollections. The book is currently being filmed by Netflix for a series starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes.

Digging up Britain: Ten Discoveries, a Million Years of History. The archaeologist and author Mike Pitts takes readers on a journey through the past revealing the stories of the archaeologists who uncovered it as well as the strange lives of Britain’s earliest inhabitants, from the stone age to the Viking era. He speaks to the men and women behind the most important discoveries of the last decade and shares their insights into the lives of our ancestors.