Beowulf and Sutton Hoo -Sources for a lost world

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” ~ Philip Pullman

I was recently asked to visit my daughter’s class and talk to them about archaeology and what we can find out about past cultures from the physical remains that are left behind. The class is also reading Beowulf as part of their topic on the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings in Britain which will run for the whole term.

I immediately plunged into further research on Beowulf and two archaeological sites which I hope will be useful; namely the ship burial at Sutton Hoo and the Coppergate dig in York which uncovered part of Viking Jorvik, the largest excavated Viking settlement in the British Isles.

I picked these because the culture of Beowulf would appear to be closely tied to the archaeological site of Sutton Hoo with references made in the poem to artefacts that were very similar to those found at the site and I thought it would be useful to talk about how literary works can be used in conjunction with archaeology and other evidence such as place names and language to build an image of a particular historical community. I also wanted to contrast a high status burial site with a more every day settlement site which was also several centuries later in date but still reflective of the time that we popularly consider to be ‘Dark Age’ or ‘Early Medieval’, that shadowy pre-Conquest period that tends to be neglected by popular history in favour of the Plantagenets and gawdy Tudors.

I am passionate about children studying this period of history and in getting them to ‘feel’ something when they read Beowulf and really make a connection with the DNA that formed most of them and their communities.


I read an article in The Telegraph about a study made by Oxford University into tribal groups in post-Roman Britain and current DNA analysis of rural populations in the UK. The results were striking because the study confirmed that regional ‘tribal’ groupings have barely changed since the C6th – 1415 years later most communities are still made up of people who share the same tribal ancestry as each other and stem from the migrations of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from Scandinavia which took place from the mid C5th, most probably in waves of migrations across the North Sea, moving westward across the heart of England. The Celtic tribes fled or were pushed West to Ireland and the ancient Britons concentrated in Scotland. Interestingly, ‘Viking’ DNA was hardly evident which the study interpreted to mean that Vikings did not intermarry with the Anglo-Saxon population but remained in isolated pockets of settlement though it would be worth asking to what extent there was distinct ‘Viking’ DNA in Scandinavia by the time of their migrations South and whether all Anglo-Saxon DNA doesn’t broadly fit into a Nordic/ Germanic super-group with the same shared culture and belief systems and possibly with associated character traits.

I need to add Gaelic/ Celtic DNA from my Irish grandfather into my personal mix and can only trace one branch of my family tree back to 17th Gloucestershire but as far as I am able to establish it is most likely that my DNA is largely Anglo-Saxon in origin and that this is also true for the majority of the population of England.

This study reinforces the belief that I have long held that most of the native population of British Isles has a direct ancestral link to the culture of Beowulf and that it has been marginalized for too long in both history and literary studies in the UK.

I am probably highly influenced as a sub-conscious level by my love of Tolkien’s works which I grew up with from the age of six as my ancestors would have grown up with the narrative story of Beowulf in their cultural make-up. Tolkien set out to create a ‘mythology of England’ in his writing and he drew heavily from the Norse sagas, Germanic myths and from Beowulf to create his characters and their world. Core themes and characters relate directly to myths and legends that would have been familiar to the Anglo-Saxons. Dragon hoards, barrow-wights, horse lords and warrior kings with mythical swords are all straight out of the Anglo-Saxon word hoard. Cursed magical rings, dwarves and elves and dark magic all feature in the myths of Asgard and the Norse gods too. The concept of ‘wyrd’ or fate runs through Tolkien’s writing and the sense that his characters are fated to follow their destinies to the end.

Tolkien’s 1936 lecture on Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics was hugely important in re-assessing the literary worth of the poem as a work of art rather than primarily a historical document and coupled with the timely discovery of the the Sutton Hoo site just three years later in 1939, it seemed that the Anglo-Saxons wanted to be found just at the point when modern day Germany would take the world into a very dark and dangerous place. The Third Reich built it’s propaganda on a controversial interpretation of an Ayran mythological past and borrowed Norse symbols and Wagnar’s mythic operas to legitimize its claims of greatness.



The combined ‘treasures’ of Beowulf and Sutton Hoo gave the world examples of the very best of ancient Germanic/ Nordic achievement though they still struggle to change the cultural dominance of Classical antiquity and the massive imposition of the Norman Conquest on the intellectual mindset of the nation. We are still looking South to Rome a thousand years after the Conquest rather than North to our Scandinavian ancestors.

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You can’t ‘romanticize’ the Anglo-Saxons, despite the epic nature of the Beowulf narrative and the beauty of the grave goods; the most highly skilled work to be found anywhere in C7th Europe. It is a culture which speaks of toughness to the bone but there is much to admire there and to feel a connection with.

It has to do with climate, I think, in part. There is a dogged determination to achieve something in the face of the northern climate which breeds a race who battle the elements to light a BBQ in a force 12 gale on August Bank Holiday and enjoy moaning about it. Beowulf would understand the need to spend 5 hours getting into work on the only day of the year when it snowed only to turn around and leave half way through the afternoon in order to get home and tell everyone what a terrible day you had when secretly a part of you thrilled at the whole ‘saga’. There is an ‘Englishness’ to much of Beowulf despite the Scandinavian setting. It’s all about being cold and wrapped in layers of damp clothing and fearing what lies beyond the door in the endless darkness of winter. It’s about mirk and gloom and watery fenland which are still called ‘grendals’ today in East Anglian dialect. It’s about the companionship of sitting with other miserably cold people in a mead-hall and sharing the warmth and the smoky air and drinking too much in order to forget how tough everything is for a few hours.

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They say that there is an intrinsic melancholy to Nordic people which displays itself in brooding looks, depression and alcoholism. I don’t think this is exclusively ‘Nordic’ but probably broadly ‘northern’ as the Celts have it too, wrapped up with an ability for self-destructive urges and occasional glimpses of doomed heroism and artistic flowerings which usually end in early death or suicide.

Perhaps we are in danger of diluting this essential ‘northerness’ with access to central heating and indoor shopping centres and in order to re-connect to our ancestors we need to go camping for the weekend or have the boiler brake down for a few days but it wouldn’t take much for us to get back into the psychological head-space of the people who composed and listened to and shared the story of Beowulf’s adventures or to those who laid their king’s regalia out beside his massive ship with symbolic treasures and covered over all that beauty for all time in a final mark of respect for their ‘good cyninga’.

I don’t think you can connect to Beowulf without hearing someone recite passages of it in Old English. I’ve never formally studied it but I love the patterns of the letters on the page, the sound of it rolled around the mouth like Whiskey and spoken out loud and the deep emotional response that listening to it engenders within me. I can’t explain it rationally and don’t want to. It’s about feeling something right at the base of my brain that speaks to a race memory, shared culture, the thrill of a strange world that is just accessible enough to reach out to.

So what makes Beowulf so important as a literary work? Everybody likes a hero and an adventure story. It is about the eternal battle of light and darkness, good and evil, society and chaos. Beowulf comes to the aid of a people who are traumatised by the monster Grendal. He offers the standard Anglo-Saxon response – single combat with the foe. Glory or death. He uses cunning to lie in wait for Grendal and rips his arm off as a throphy to hang up in the hall beams and establishes his claims to heroic status through his actions.

Of course this is all too easy so the second portion of the story sees the next trial by combat in the form of Grendal’s terrible mother, the Sea-Hag who comes to the hall for revenge. Beowulf removes the action to her underwater cave where he uses a magical sword to slay her. The final portion of the book takes place some fifty years later when Beowulf has proved himself to be a great king to his people and grown in wisdom. This time his people are threatened by a fire-breathing dragon who has been disturbed by a thieving slave and comes to destroy human society. Again Beowulf and one loyal supporter take on the dragon in his lair but Beowulf is mortally wounded in the encounter and sacrifices himself for the good of his people, ending with his spectacular funeral pyre on the headland and the undying love and respect of his people which is transmitted through the poem as a lasting tribute for all time.

There is a clear structure of three separate ‘trials’ or tests which the hero must endure in order to fulfill his destiny and a narrative arc as we follow Beowulf from young warrior to hero to wise ruler and finally watch him depart for his journey into the afterlife. The descriptive passages are superb, often cinematic in the detail and full of life and colour. The action is straight forward and carries the impetus of the story along at a good pace. No lists of ships and stalling like the Illiad, epic though the conflict between Achilles and Hector is.

The word hoard is also another wonderful literary device. There is great resonance and impact in language which beats with such a strong rhythm and uses alliteration to such powerful purpose. It is hard to read Beowulf without the hairs on the back of your neck standing up at some point. It is performance poetry at its best – visceral, compelling, involving and beautiful to imagine. Words should conjure up an image hoard for the listener or the reader and Beowulf certainly achieves that for anyone with a pulse.

The imagery in the language is so strong that even inanimate objects hold a ‘life’ within them. The great hall, Heorot, is a symbol of the order of good kingship, of protection and community and the bonds of ‘comitatus’ upon which Anglo-Saxon society depended. Tolkien echoes this in his description of the Golden Hall of Meduseld in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Theodon’s leadership and care for his people carries a similar weight to that of Beowulf and might be projected onto the historical figure of Raedwald, King of the East Angles who is the most probable candidate for the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Objects have a symbolic resonance which increases the impact of the imagery.

mead hall.jpg


Tolkien said that  mortality was the most important theme running through the narrative “an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die.” The same could be said for all great works of literature. Death is the most pressing issue for humanity, the inevitable conclusion of all effort and achievement, all wealth or renown, every new birth, every young love, every dynasty. All human destiny or wyrd leads ultimately to death but the mortality which separates us from the gods also adds a unique savour and pathos to life. Like the famous metaphor of the sparrow’s flight through the lighted hall before it vanishes into the infinite darkness beyond, it is that glorious and fleeting moment of light and warmth and colour that it experiences during the flight that focus all eyes upon it.

Beyond the literary value of the poem, Beowulf is also a valuable source of information about the thought processes and society of the people it represents and for the people who kept the oral tradition of reciting it alive for hundreds of years. Generation after generation passed the story down until it was finally committed to paper. The only surviving manuscript to hold the text was probably written around 1000AD by two monastic scribes and may have been housed at Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire, near the border between Wessex and Mercia, as the other works that are bound with Beowulf were all contained in that particular monastic collection. There could have been earlier manuscripts that it was copied from, we will probably never know. The fact remains that its survival is miraculous. The manuscript that is now a treasured artefact in the British Library only just survived a devastating fire which consumed many other priceless treasures in the 1700s and the pages are charred with the flames that may have eaten up other wonderful epic works that are now lost for all time.

The flame flickered and almost went out completely but amazingly it survived, rather like that other beacon of the Anglo-Saxon world, the Venerable Bede, who was the only monk to survive an outbreak of plague at his monastery at Jarrow and went on to write his ‘Historia Ecclesiastica’ which remains a major source for the history of the period.

There are parallels with Sutton Hoo. Some of the other barrows were looted for their treasures, perhaps the ship burial would never have been excavated without the driving force of Mrs Pretty and her spiritualist convictions. The Blitz could have destroyed the artefacts or they could have been stolen and hidden away in a private collection but they were meant to be found and meant to survive. Wyrd at work in the world of humans again.


The finds at Sutton Hoo display a high degree of technical skill and also wide trading links with Europe, Scandinavia and the Byzantine Empire in the East. Some historians believe that the system of sending young nobles to be ‘fostered’ in Scandinavia may be a factor in the variety of the grave goods – they brought treasures back with them or were rewarded for their service with precious objects which became heirlooms of their house. They may also have been symbolic gifts from other tribal leaders to cement alliances or war booty.

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This blog from the British Museum gives an interesting insight into the symbolism contained within the objects and how we can attempt to interpret the intricate patterns of interwoven shapes and what these meant to the people who wore them.


We are dealing with a complex culture and multi-faceted meanings which can only be guessed at in many cases.

The British Museum collection provides striking evidence of the culture of the Anglo-Saxon world of Beowulf but also throws up controversies over how this culture can be interpreted. Although no physical remains were found at the Sutton Hoo burial, soil samples indicate the presence of phosphates which suggest that a body was placed with the grave goods. The spoons found with the inscription of ‘Saulus’ may indicate a Christian presence but they do not prove that the burial was Christian or that the occupant had converted. Many historians think that Pagan and Christian rubbed along beside each other, as interwoven as the serpents on the elaborate belt buckle found in the burial. Families were often a fusion of both traditions with one spouse converted and the other holding to the old ways for several generations. The finds can be interpreted in widely different ways depending on the argument you want to put forward.

Some historians maintain that the burial was a cenotaph, an empty tomb, and that the person who ordered it was hedging his bets, keeping one foot in the Pagan world and the other in the Christian.

This fusion is clearly in evidence in the written form of Beowulf too. The insertion of Genesis-inspired passages about the creation of the world and references to God the father seem at odds with a world of mead halls and heroes but in other ways they also probably reflect a rather mixed-up acceptance of both strains of religious thought.  The Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’ is another example of this mixture of cultures. Talking trees and dream visions and the obvious similarities between Yggdrasil, the world tree upon which Odin hung as an ordeal and the passion of Christ on the wooden cross are hardly surprising. Michael wood’s excellent documentary ‘In Search of Beowulf’ alludes to the poem and suggests that the tree is almost like one of Christ’s war-band. Loyal to its lord but doomed to be the instrument of his torture and death. It is a very emotionally charged image and shrouded in mystery like the whole age.

Beowulf could have incorporated Christian ideas slowly over time or these might have occurred at the time that it was committed to paper by monks. Michael Wood also comments on the popularity of epic tales being read during feasts in monasteries and that some within the church disapproved of this. They wanted the works of the church fathers or the Bible to be the exclusive ‘entertainment’ available to the monks so perhaps by removing the Gods and replacing them with the one God the monks were trying to keep the story alive and adapt it to a new monastic setting as well.

I really enjoy all the questions that arise from this period of migration and conversion and multi-culturalism as it mirrors our own age in so many ways. Many of us are atheists or agnostics yet celebrate Christmas and Easter with a bewildering fusion of Christian, Pagan and consumerist influences. Our festive decorations feature everything from Latin inscriptions, nativity images, fairies, deer and crackers to Darth Vadar and mobile phone baubles. Chocolate eggs and Pagan bunnies hung on Nordic twig trees rub up alongside crosses and empty tombs.

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I feel sure that this will provide future archaeologists with a perplexing array of evidence to digest in just the same way as Sutton Hoo and Beowulf lead to a myriad of interpretations and that this reflects the many influences on contemporary culture in much the same way as the physical and literary remnants of the Anglo-Saxon Age do for their world.







3 Responses to “Beowulf and Sutton Hoo -Sources for a lost world”

  1. giaconda Says:

    Reblogged this on murreyandblue.


  2. zaramuseums Says:

    Reblogged this on zaramuseums.


  3. Dorthy Says:

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