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23.06.2021

The Sutton Hoo helmet

The helmet from Sutton Hoo is an ornate Anglo-Saxon helmet found in 1939 during the excavation of a ship burial at Sutton Hoo. It was buried around 625 and is widely associated with King Redwald of East Anglia; its elaborate decoration may have given it a secondary function akin to a crown. The helmet was both a functional piece of armor that provided considerable protection if used in warfare and a decorative, prestigious piece of extravagant metal. It has been described as "the most iconic object" from "one of the most impressive archaeological discoveries ever made," and perhaps the most important Anglo-Saxon artifact known.

The image contains eyebrows, a nose, and a mustache, creating the image of a man joined to a dragon's head to become a soaring dragon with outspread wings. It became a symbol of the early Middle Ages and "archaeology in general." It was excavated as hundreds of rusty fragments and was first exhibited after an initial reconstruction in 1945-46 and then in its present form after a second reconstruction in 1970-71.

The helmet and other artifacts from the site were determined to be the property of Edith Pretty, the owner of the land on which they were found. She donated them to the British Museum, where the helmet is on permanent display in Room 41.

The helmet was buried among other regalia and implements of power as part of a furnished ship's burial, probably dating to the early seventh century. The ship was dragged from a nearby river onto a hill and lowered into a prepared trench. Inside it, the helmet was wrapped in cloth and placed to the left of the body's head. An oval mound was constructed around the ship. After a long time, the roof of the chamber collapsed under the weight of the mound, pushing the contents of the ship into the earth bed.

It is believed that the helmet was broken either by the collapse of the burial chamber or by another object falling on it. The fact that the helmet was broken means that it can be reconstructed. If the helmet had been broken before the iron had completely oxidized, leaving it still pliable, the helmet would have been crushed, leaving it in a distorted form similar to the helmets from Wendel and Walsgerde.

Attempts to determine the identity of the person buried in the ship's burial have continued unabated almost from the time the grave was excavated. The preferred candidate, with a few exceptions when the burial was thought to be later, was Redwald; his kingdom, East Anglia, is believed to have had its residence at Rendlesham, 4+1⁄4 miles (6.8 km) upriver from Sutton Hoo. The case for Redwald, far from being conclusive, is based on the dating of the burial, the abundance of wealth and objects identified as regalia, and, as befits a king who held two altars, the presence of both Christian and pagan influences.

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