Investigation 5

A personal account – Paul Constantine


The buried ship

The Naval Architect Paul Handley began his work by asking many questions about the ship and its burial. He conducted a number of investigations to get to the root of the circumstances and these enquiries will form the basis of some of the aspects he covered. The core details are available in The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, Rupert Bruce-Mitford, but they are reviewed here for those with access to the book. In some cases references will be included here to aid checking. Some additional information has been provided by Mr


Burying the hull

This is a generalised description of the burying of the ship.

The hull was buried in a purpose-dug trench approximately 2ft of clearance in places, but it varied. The hull had contacted the ends of the trench. The void around the outside of the ship was backfilled with sand and the interior was also filled. The hull had a list towards the starboard side and during its time in the ground its back was broken. A mound weighing between 2-300 tons was raised over the ship after burial. The tasks of digging the hole for the ship or bringing together the material for the mound should not be underestimated. There is more precise detail below.

North-South-East & West. Port & Starboard

These terms can cause confusion.

The port side of the ship was the north side. The starboard side of the ship was the south side.

Stern is towards the West. (river)

Bow is towards the East. (sea)


When looking at photographs in Volume 1 it helps to remember that the sun tracks from east to west across the south. This will cast a shadow on the south side, but illuminate the northern side of the excavation. It is sometimes possible to estimate the time of day that pictures were taken by the length of the shadows. At midday the shadows of vertical objects are at their shortest. In some case, it is also possible to see the shape of some objects by the shape of their shadows.


The Mound

Dimensions are imperial – feet and inches.

To measure a mound to discover its original size is a bit difficult as you have to know what the original ground level was. Archaeologists started measuring Mound 1 (there are other mounds so they are numbered) from a height that they took to be 105ft above sea level. From this they could see that the original ground had not been absolutely flat, but had a natural bump about 2ft higher than surrounding ground, which the mound sat upon. The mound was roughly 100ft circular, but was slightly longer from east to west. This is the way that the ship was pointing with its stern towards the river and the bow towards the sea. The top of the mound was flattened and about 9ft high (2.8m). The ship was sunk into the ground with possibly the tips of bow and stern above ground level. The ship had been carefully packed all around the outside with sand to support it and keep its shape. The interior of the ship was similarly filled.

The burial chamber eventually collapsed and the void was filled by material subsiding from the mound material above. The timing of the chamber collapse is open to discussion. Some people highlight potential evidence for an early collapse, but others favour different factors that could indicate the chamber remained intact for a longer period of time.


C. W. Phillips took over the excavation in 1939. He worked closely with Lt Cmdr. Hutchison.


Trench and Ship

Clearance around the edges of the ship

The ship lay west (stern) to east (bow). Phillips noted Pg.164 the sharpness of the sides of the trench. He had expected to find a sloping ramp into the end of the trench down which the ship had been taken, but he was surprised to find that this was not the case. Vol. 1 says that he was ‘already preoccupied with the problem of how the ship was manoeuvred into its trench.’ He said ‘it was found that the ship fitted in very closely with only a matter of a few inches to spare.’ Later he says, ‘the ship had been lowered into the trench coffin-wise’ Pg. 168. ‘The close fit (gunwale level) observed at the west end of the trench was maintained along each side, and the only large space was at the east end where the ship’s bow failed to reach the end of the trench by some 6ft.’ This 6ft was later corrected to a smaller distance. The ship had actually touched both ends of the trench at one time.

                A good photograph by Phillips Pg. 290 shows that Hutchison dug away a very large area around this end of the ship trying to establish what was happening on the outside of the ship. In doing so he left the trench-sand infill in place to try to support the area he was undercutting. It can be seen to be very broad. Basically Brown/Phillips (plus helpers) were the only people who were there at a time when the gunwales of the ship could be checked against the level of the ground to which they had excavated. They never state that the trench cross-section was roughly rectangular, but it becomes evident that it was not a narrow, close-fitting ‘U’ shape. The sharp-sided trench could not be seen at gunwale level later, after the war (see below).


The ship in relation to its trench

When the ship was excavated in the 1960s its impression had been severely damaged during the war and the upper parts had eroded away Pg. 169 ‘the edges of the Phillips excavation eroded inwards removing material 4 or 5ft back.’ The excavation teams were looking at an impression at about plank 6 level, just below the provisional waterline. Pgs. 291 photo. They were able to say that the hull had tipped over towards the northern side of the trench. Pg. 251 ‘... ship was close against the north face of its trench with considerably more free space to the south side (right side)‘ This showed that this happened when to ship was put into the trench rather than later.

Fig 194. Page 271. Outline of the ship in the trench

The line representing the edge outside the ship image shows the shape of the ground at that level at about the time of the burial. It is a very jagged line. This line is effectively a random sample of the trench side recorded in 1967 at plank 6 level (see below).  It could be said that no matter where the ground was recorded in relation to the hull it would have always been a jagged line. This is an indicator of how inaccurately the trench was made to fit the ship. It is evident that the mammoth task of digging a hole of this dimensions was not easy. Near-enough was good enough. 

Backfilling around the ship in the trench

Pg. 271 has a section explaining: ‘In 1967 the position of the edge of the ship trench was recorded to port and starboard opposite each rib position. The trench edge is marked by surveyors arrows in Fig, 202’ (a rather dark, full page photograph by Peter Warren on Pg. 281), where small flags can be seen standing well away from the hull impression). A diagram Pg. 271 (stern on the left) shows how the outline of the trench varies greatly in its width. (see above). Backfilling is considered on page 292.


Pg. 289 Section 6 written by Valerie H. Fenwick

This begins: ‘The exact relationship of the ship, its trench and the Anglo-Saxon ground level was never studied in 1939.’ In at least a full page of text Mrs Fenwick explains how it was necessary to reassess Phillips’ interpretation made in 1939, especially about what was Anglo-Saxon ground level.

Pg. 293. A series of 11 sections across the boat on the following 2 pages are described and these extracts, describing the width of the trench infill, are taken from some of them. ‘Section C. ‘a space of about 3ft on either side of the ship at rib 4. Section D. The tolerance allowed by the Anglo-Saxon excavators would seem to be about 2ft-6ins. Section E. the tolerance allowed at gunwale level seems to have been about 2ft-6ins.’

Caution. This may be referring to the ‘gunwale level’ at strake 6?


Possible conclusions

On this issue of the size of the ship within its trench it would seem that the trench was not a beautifully smooth-sided hole that was going to fit the ship’s hull accurately as we might imagine. It was rather roughly dug and this includes the bottom of the trench, as will be seen when examining the keel. It was a reasonably close fit at ground level, but not at the lower levels. The success of the backfilling on the outside of the ship must have been very variable. The interior was much more accessible. Any photographs including the backfilled areas outside the craft, even when these areas are quite broad, show that the filling is complete, compacted and with no voids.

There is speculation at several points in Vol. 1 about how the ship could have been lowered.


Hull Distortion. Discussion/Explanation

Backfilled soil is about 3x less compacted than the existing ground soil around it. The ship stood on very uneven, natural ground.

1. The keel would probably have been well supported though unevenness in the bottom of the trench could have heeled the boat and probably broke its keel.

2. Backfilling around the exterior of the hull in the narrow gap at gunwale level would not initially have produced solid compaction and therefore originally provided less support.

3. With the passage of time rainwater would enter the soil and seep downwards. Its weight would increase soil/sand compaction in the lower half of the hull inside and outside increasing support.


Possible conclusions

It is likely that the lower portion of the central section of the hull that has been well supported by increasing soil compaction would be close to retaining its original shape. The rounded hull form recorded in 1939 in Fig. 185 is probably reasonably accurate.

  • The closer to the surface the hull comes, the greater the chance of hull distortion due to reducing soil compaction and the weight of the mound pressing down and pushing outwards.
  • The projecting stem/stern exposed to surface oxygen and moisture would rot away within 50 – 100 years or possibly sooner, allowing some planks to become detached.
  • Gunwales, Stem (Bow) and Stern could be pushed outwards in areas of reduced compaction. If the planks became detached from the supporting stern they would be free to be moved outwards.
  • Moisture and pressure would eventually compress the timber into a thin layer and its original thickness would be lost. Organic material would be leeched away to be replaced by the minerals in the sandy soil. The minerals formed a thin external crust (described as being of a meringue-like consistency) recording the shape of the original material e.g. Ribs.
  • The dimensions would be those of the outside of the ship, but excavators would be looking at the inside surfaces

This is only the beginning of the questions about the ship that were explored.