The Ghost Ship of Sutton Hoo

By Denis Sivack

A November New York Times article about explorers finding a “lost world of wrecks” in the Bulgarian waters of the Black Sea with at least 44 wrecks prompted me to work with the information and pursue it.

Central to all the research is the University of Southampton’s Black Sea MAP (Maritime Archaeology Project), part of U of S’s Center for Maritime Archaeology (CMA) funded by the Expedition and Education Foundation (EEF). The Black Sea MAP is international in scope with key support and researchers from institutions in Bulgaria, Sweden, the USA (Connecticut) and Greece. Education and Documentation are central to its focus and its research ship is the “Stril Explorer” survey vessel, with the most advanced underwater survey systems and two high-speed Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) prepared to carry out HD 3D photogrammetry and video.

It is with this sophisticated equipment that the team has been able to produce such well-illuminated and detailed images of the submerged ships.

The great discovery was of a remarkably intact medieval ship of the 13th or 14th century which probably served the Venetian empire at a time when Venice and Genoa fought for control of the trade routes. This ship, a cocha, or “round ship,” was designed to carry more cargo and passengers than a warship. It had been ½ mile down in the dark, cold sea and preserved because water patterns of river flow over the denser sea water, keeping atmospheric oxygen from the depths of the wrecks.

Issues of artifact recovery, display, and possible excavation are more complex than simply fundraising, involving nations, and academic and cultural heritage issues which are still evolving. Exploration and education continue.

For Great Britain, once the ruler of the high seas, following the defeat of the Spanish Armada under Queen Elizabeth I, the great joy of its maritime history is a link between her father’s reign and that of their 20th century successor, Queen Elizabeth II. That link is the discovery of the Mary Rose.

The Mary Rose was a sailing warship of King Henry VIII and it was made in Portsmouth. It served for 34 years before sinking at war in 1545 near Portsmouth Harbor, with only theories at that time and now as to why it sank. In 1836, the wreck site was accidentally discovered by fishermen whose nets were damaged when caught on the craft, which was further checked by divers. In 1965, more serious searching by divers and archaeologists began. Over time, 19,000 artifacts have been removed from the Mary Rose wreck site. (With the later excavation, some 10,000 more were added.) A sonar scan by Harold Edgeton (of MIT and strobe flash fame) in 1967-68 revealed a buried structure. By 1971, storms uncovered more of the ship.

That discovery led to media attention and legal legislation to protect it as part of national heritage. The eventual recovery and conservation of the ship required much innovative engineering work with much of that being done in the early ‘80s. The hull of the recovered ship for years was saturated with water (later, with a polyethylene glycol – PEG – solution) as conservation work continued in an area open to visitors but separated from them by glass chambers.

That was how I saw the ship in what was probably the late ‘80s. By April 2013, the PEG spray was discontinued and controlled air drying began. A new museum has been built around the structure and it is now the Mary Rose Museum.

Another example of the recovery of a sunken warship is that of the Vasa, which sank in the Stockholm harbor in the 1600’s and spent 333 years on the sea bed before recovery. Keep in mind the Swedish interest and involvement in the Black Sea project.

While we have the actual recovered ships the Mary Rose and the Vasa and images of them from before their sailing and during and after their recovery, and while we have the spectacular 3D images of the still-under-the-sea Black Sea ship wrecks, I realized that I had not seen a ship from the Sutton Hoo ship burial site. I had seen the beautiful artifacts from the site in the British Museum, but there is no ship. We have what I will call “The Sutton Hoo Ghost Ship.”

The Sutton Hoo ship was not a wreck, nor was it beneath the sea. It was a dry land burial ship beneath a mound in East Anglia, having been hauled from the nearby River Deben, seven miles from the North Sea. The ship burial dates from the early 7th century, with its discovery being made in 1937 when the landowner, Edith Pretty, organized an excavation of the burial mounds on her property. The excavation was done in 1939. Details for and images of the then damaged and later reconstructed artifacts can easily be found online and in studies relating them to similar objects in Beowulf. Items include: a suite of metalwork dress fittings in gold and gems, a ceremonial helmet – helmets are a rare find – shield, sword, lyre, silver plate, and a whetstone attached to a scepter mounted with a stag ornament.

These are in the British Museum as part of one of its greatest contributions. Our ship is but a ghost.

There is nothing of the decayed wood, but we have the perfectly preserved form of the ship hull left in the compacted sand along with the iron planking rivets in their original places. The ship measured 27 meters (89 feet long) and had oar rests along the gunwales that may have accommodated forty oarsmen.

Because the center of the ship had been reworked to house the burial compartment with the body and objects, there is only conjecture as to whether the ship had been designed with sails. Included with this article are renderings by artists of how the ship may have appeared with sails and with oars for rowers. Illustrations also suggest what the burial ceremony and preparation of the ship prior to the burial may have looked like. British Museum photos show some of the excavation recovery work, though I believe much of the contemporary paperwork on the recovery process was damaged or destroyed in wartime – ironically a paper fatality while the earlier mentioned Mary Rose and Vasa went to their sea depths in war.

Author’s note:

A detailed account of photogrammetry and its part in art restoration and the detection of fakes was published in The New Yorker as I was writing this article. See “The Factory of Fakes” by Daniel Zalewski in the November 28, 2016 issue. The illustrations here are from the British Museum. The Fig. 7 illustration was found on a site but may have also come from the British Museum or another publication. Fig. 8 shows a silhouette of a Beowulf era man in the regalia from the Sutton Hoo ship. It may well have been our resident Viking, Steve Heinzerling, in his tuilik with norsaq and carving knife, carrying his stag’s scepter and entering cold storage for the best cut of venison.

Illustration Checklist:

  1. Sutton Hoo Site – River Deben Town of Woodbridge
  2. Excavation with Mrs. Pretty Looking On
  3. Sutton Hoo Ship Impression
  4. Sutton Hoo Ship Seen as Masted
  5. Sutton Hoo Ship Seen with Oars
  6. Sutton Hoo Drawing of Burial Preparation
  7. An Artist’s Interpretation of the Burial Preparation
  8. Capture Silhouette of Man Wearing Sutton Hoo Regalia

(Click on images for larger views.)


1 Response

  1. Shari Berkowitz says:

    I had dinner at the Vasa museum about 15 years ago. Worth the time if one visits Stockholm.

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