University of York: York academic leading project to reconstruct the famous Sutton Hoo ship

Professor Martin Carver has been tasked with overseeing the ambitious project, which will include the ship being rowed up the Humber and the River Ouse to York.

The original Sutton Hoo ship, which was 90ft long, was discovered in 1939 and remains one of the most remarkable Anglo-Saxon archaeological discoveries in British history.

Iron rivets

The wood of the ship had mainly rotted away, but its form is known from the impression left in the sand and the rows of iron rivets showing the location of the planks.

The ship is the largest and most prominent artefact of the burial, but until now has never been reconstructed. The priceless treasure it contained is displayed in the British Museum and dates the ship to the early Seventh Century.

Dragged half a mile from the banks of the River Deben, it was the burial of a warrior king, probably Raedwald of East Anglia who died in 624/5AD.

Life-long passion

The build will use oaks from East Anglia, some of which came down in last autumn’s storms. The keel has been laid and the planks will now be riveted in place to make the hull.

The reconstruction will be the culmination of a life-long passion for Professor Carver, who directed the excavations at Sutton from 1983 to 1992 and has written extensively on Sutton Hoo. He was appointed Chair of the Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company in August 2021 – tasked with raising £1.5m for the project and overseeing the ship’s construction.

Once the ship is launched she will be rowed on three great voyages into kingdoms contemporary with that of the East Angles: up the Thames into Wessex, up the Humber and Trent into Mercia and into Northumbria visiting York and the great monastic sites of the North.

Ancient rivers

Professor Carver, from the University’s Department of Archaeology, said: “A large part of this project are the trials of the finished ship. We want to put the rivers in the limelight, the motorways of the day. The voyages will take us past many of the great early settlements discovered by archaeologists in the last few decades.

“We hope our journeys will raise the profile of the formative years of England (previously the Dark Ages) and also of the recreation of rowing and the modern value of these ancient rivers to us. We will also try her under sail – but rowing was the main way of getting about before the Vikings came.

“The Humber is a ferocious stretch of water and it will be a real challenge for the crew, while I’m hoping the Ouse will be much more gentle. It will be quite a sight as she is rowed through the centre of York, it will be an amazing spectacle.”

“The reconstruction and trials would show what travel was like in the seventh century and so put more flesh on the bones of this key period of British history.

The ship was the most important machine in their lives, for carrying cargos, warriors and kings. It would have been extremely elegant and decorated with carved and painted Anglo Saxon ornament. The ancient craftsmen surely lavished the same creative genius on the ship as they famously did on the weapons and regalia made for Raedwald.”

Sponsoring

Professor Carver hopes that students from the University of York will get involved in the project, learning how to build an Anglo-Saxon ship and researching, boats, rivers and seafaring. The general public is already sponsoring parts of the ship, such as individual planks and rivets.

“The recent Netflix film The Dig was tremendous in raising the profile of this incredibly important ship and we hope our reconstruction and subsequent river journeys will only add to the public’s interest and inspire a new generation,“ Professor Carver added.

“People may say it is just a vanity project, but that’s not so: its main purpose is research, to discover what the real ship looked like, what it could do. But if it also celebrates the nautical ingenuity of Britain’s distant past – that is all to the good. We will create an authentic and tangible object, attractive and evocative to children and adults, to the well-informed and the newcomers to history alike.”

“We now have a fantastic opportunity to bring this amazing royal ship to life.”

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