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Purse lid from the Sutton Hoo ship burial

Purse lid from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, early 7th century, gold, garnet and millefiori, 19 x 8.3 cm (excluding hinges) (The British Museum)Purse lid from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, early 7th century, gold, garnet and millefiori, 19 x 8.3 cm (excluding hinges) © Trustees of the British Museum

Wealth, and its public display, was probably used to establish status in early Anglo-Saxon society much as it is today. The purse lid from Sutton Hoo is the richest of its kind yet found.

The lid was made to cover a leather pouch containing gold coins. It hung by three hinged straps from the waist belt, and was fastened by a gold buckle. The lid had totally decayed but was probably made of whalebone—a precious material in early Anglo-Saxon England. Seven gold, garnet cloisonné and millefiori glass plaques were set into it. These are made with a combination of very large garnets and small ones, deliberately used to pick out details of the imagery. This combination could link the purse-lid and the fine shoulder clasps, which were also found in the ship burial, to the workshop of a single master-craftsman. It is possible that he made the entire suite of gold and garnet fittings discovered in Mound 1 as a single commission.

Purse lid from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, early 7th century, gold, garnet and millefiori, 19 x 8.3 cm (excluding hinges) (The British Museum)Interlaced animals (detail), Purse lid from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, early 7th century, gold, garnet and millefiori, 19 x 8.3 cm (excluding hinges) © Trustees of the British Museum

The plaques include twinned images of a bird-of-prey swooping on a duck-like bird (above), and a man standing heroically between two beasts. These images must have had deep significance for the Anglo-Saxons, but it is impossible for us to interpret them. The fierce creatures are perhaps a powerful evocation of strength and courage, qualities that a successful leader of men must possess. Strikingly similar images of a man between beasts are known from Scandinavia. 


Suggested readings:

G. Williams, Treasures from Sutton Hoo, (London, British Museum Press, 2011).

A.C. Evans, The Sutton Hoo ship burial, revised edition (London, The British Museum Press, 1994).

R.L.S. Bruce-Mitford, The Sutton Hoo ship burial, vol. 2: arms, armour and regalia (London, The British Museum Press, 1978).

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© Trustees of the British Museum