Over 75 years after its discovery, the Sutton Hoo ship burial still has new secrets to give up.
It was first excavated in 1939 and is known for the spectacular treasure it contained including gold and garnet jewellery, silverware, coins and ceremonial armour of broad geographical provenance.
Analysis of material from its central burial chamber has produced evidence of far-reaching 7th-century trade connections with the Middle East.
When the Anglo-Saxon princely grave was excavated in 1939, a number of lumps of black organic material were recovered, which were subsequently identified as ‘Stockholm Tar’. This was used as a water-proofing agent and timber preservative, and is know from other early medieval boat burials in Britain and Europe.
Now, however, a study by the British Museum and the University of Aberdeen, recently published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, has uncovered rather more exotic origins for the finds. Chemical analysis revealed that they are in fact fragments of bitumen, probably from the Middle East.
Archaeological finds of this material from the early medieval period or earlier are extremely rare in Britain, despite the abundance of natural sources here- and the Sutton Hoo fragments represent what is thought to be the first material evidence for Middle Eastern bitumen being traded into northern Europe in this period.
During the study, the chemical composition of the Sutton Hoo fragments was compared to bitumen samples from sites in Britain including Shropshire, Derbyshire, Gwynedd, Cornwall, Caithness and Dorset, as well as from Syria, Lebanon, and the Dead Sea region. This revealed that the pieces most likely came from the Syria Area.
This origin fits well with the provenance of some of the other finds in the ship burial, which include Levantine textiles, a Coptic bowl, and silver tableware from Byzantium, the team have reported.
Although the original form and purpose of the bitumen remains unknown, the researchers suggest it may have been deliberately placed in the burial chamber, perhaps representing the surviving component of an ornamental object, or included as a prestigious raw material.
The full paper is freely available to download at http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=info%3Adiu/10.1371/journal.pone.0166276
P. Burger et al. 2016. Identification, Geochemical Characterisation and Significance of Bitumen among the Grave Goods of the 7th Century Mound 1 Ship-Burial at Sutton Hoo (Suffolk, UK). PLoS ONE 11 (12): e0166276; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0166276