Ancient Cemetery in Suffolk Likely Hosted 7th Century Executions

sutton hoo is final resting place of nearly 40 bound, decapitated bodies

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The ancient site of Sutton Hoo has a large amount of bodies with broken necks or decapitations. Located near Woodbridge in Suffolk, England, the burial site dates back to the 7th century C.E. This week on Wondrium Shorts, dig into its “ghost bodies.”

Edith Pretty inherited a fortune in 1925 when her father died. She married and moved to Suffolk, buying a plot of land known as Sutton Hoo, which housed 18 strange earthen mounds. In 1937, curiosity overcame her and she commissioned an amateur archaeologist to excavate the mounds. The following year, when he found a ship burial dating back to the 7th century C.E., the British Museum got involved in the excavation, which took place over several phases spanning more than 50 years.

During the third phase of excavation, which occurred in the 1980s, a team of archaeologists discovered more remains between the main burial mounds. In her video series England: From the Fall of Rome to the Norman Conquest, Dr. Jennifer Paxton, Assistant Director of the University Honors Program at The Catholic University of America, explains the so-called “ghost bodies” and what they mean for Sutton Hoo.

Can You Dig It?

In 1939, just a year after amateur archaeologist Basil Brown discovered the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, World War II broke out. The team of professionals from the British Museum had only recently taken over, and the site had to be shut down as an active excavation.

“The effort was necessarily rushed because of the threat of impending war; it was, in effect, what’s known as a ‘rescue dig,’ where artefacts are recovered urgently so they can be protected, and a full study made later,” Dr. Paxton said. “Soon, stunning grave goods and treasures in gold, silver, and other precious stones and metals were being uncovered from the burial chambers.”

A hiatus of over 45 years ended in 1965 when archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford launched a second campaign to answer unsolved mysteries from the initial dig. However, it was the third phase of the excavation, in the 1980s, that brought about the strangest discovery of the site.

Crime and Punishment

“Once the main burial mounds had been excavated, the team started looking at the space between the mounds, and it turns out that there were lots of other graves,” Dr. Paxton said. “This was not just an assembly of high-status burial mounds, but really a whole cemetery complex. The presence of human bodies was detected because the sand was darker than in the surrounding area.

“These burials became known as ‘ghost bodies.'”

However, according to Dr. Paxton, the ghost bodies were buried without respect to the deceased. They were buried in contorted positions with bound ankles, broken necks, or decapitated heads. Archaeologists found 39 of these bodies in total at Sutton Hoo, which was also rife with Anglo-Saxon artifacts from the Early Middle Ages’ thriving cultural scene. While little has been proven about the origins of the ghost bodies, one hypothesis stands out.

“Scholars theorize that what we have is a place of execution,” Dr. Paxton said. “There were post-holes nearby, which could have been the site for a gallows. Interestingly, execution was not a punishment that was used in pagan times; it came in with the conversion to Christianity, when the church persuaded newly Christian kings to assume the authority of Old Testament rulers.”

Therefore, according to Dr. Paxton, the site may represent a transition between the old pagan world and the new Christian world. The bodies may have been criminals who were denied a Christian burial.

This article is part of our “Deeper Dive” series where we examine the stories behind our Wondrium Shorts on YouTube.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily