On the left: a helmet made of iron and bronze found in a ship burial in Vendel, Sweden. 700 CE, Vendel Period (550-800 CE), now housed at the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm. And on the right: a reconstruction of the helmet

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
November 6, 2023

Sutton Hoo Helmet © Trustees of the British Museum

Detailed study of the wider contexts of the burials at Sutton Hoo and Vendel in Sweden – and not least the helmets – helps to redraw the map of 7th century Northern Europe

Helmet from Valsgarde Source: Wikipedia/Sven Rosborn

Helmet from Valsgarde Source: Wikipedia/Sven Rosborn

Since its discovery in 1939, the early seventh-century ship burial at Sutton Hoo has been compared to the ship-burials at Vendel and Valsgärde in Uppland, north of Stockholm. The presence of ships in the mounds, the weaponry and not least the helmets made the comparison an easy task. Since then the popular understanding has been that the cultural connections were a reflection of the fact that the Anglo-Saxons were immigrants from Scandinavia and that the king or chieftain in Sutton Hoo obviously wished to demonstrate his continued affinity to his Scandinavian roots.

But how were the two grave ensembles linked? Were the finds at Sutton Hoo derivative of the finds at Vendel and Välsgärde? Or was it the opposite way around? And why have no equivalent finds been made in Denmark and Southern Sweden, which in other contexts appear to have been important economic and military centres in the 7th century? And how may answers to these questions be linked to the understanding of Beowulf and vice-versa?

Sutton Hoo Helmet © Trustees of the British Museum

Sutton Hoo Helmet © Trustees of the British Museum

In a recent article, historian and archaeologist Alex Woolf from the University of St. Andrews, takes these age-old questions up for renewed reflection and evaluation. In so doing, he offers us a tantalising glimpse of a world much different from what the usual understanding purveys. At the same time he actually succeeds in presenting us with a view of the cultural connections across the North Sea and into the Baltic, which actually makes sense of the disparate sources and finds.

His approach is to list a number of facts, which are often forgotten:

1) Apart from the armoury and the boats, the Sutton Hoo and Vendel/Valsgärde burials do not share the same groups of artefacts. The Sutton Hoo burial also contains gold coins from Gaul, a Byzantine hanging Bowl, baptismal spoons etc. This is not the case with the Vendel Burials. Further the SH-ship is larger plus the armoury – and especially the helmet – shows better quality.

2) Vendel was never a power-centre; neither in a regional or anachronistic national (Swedish) sense. To be precise, Vendel was obviously located in the periphery right on the border of the boreal zone to the North, which was inhabited by the Sámi hunter-gatherers. Vendel was located in a frontier society as was Sutton Hoo.

3) Until the end of the 6th century both regions must be – as reflected in their burial practices – recognised as pioneer societies, characterised by communality and collaboration.

Roman ridge helmet (Berkasovo I) Muzej Vojvodine, Novi Sad (Serbia). Source: Wikipedia/Jebulon

Roman ridge helmet (Berkasovo I), early 4th century AD. Made of iron and sheathed in silver-gilt, it is decorated with glass gems. From the “Berkasovo treasure”, Muzej Vojvodine, Novi Sad (Serbia).Source: Wikipedia/Jebulon

4) However, by the early 7th century a plethora of burials and graves – in East Anglia as well as in Uppland – suddenly begins to demonstrate more complex societies through the deposition of social and economic markers in elaborately furnished graves. This, of course, peters out at the end of the 7th century in England, as the social complexity becomes more entrenched, and Christianity begins to set its mark. In Vendel and later Valsgärde and Uppsala, the practice continues.

This explains why elaborate burials are not found at the same time in Denmark, where investments seem to have been allocated elsewhere: to the building of huge halls at economic centres – Uppåkra, Gudme-Lundeborg, and Lejre – and the constant building and reinforcement of defensive structures like the earliest Danevirke (a wall constructed at the foot of Jutland from the late 5th century and onwards).

At this point, Alex Woolf does not refer back to the important work on centres and peripheries, which was carried out by the anthropologist, Jonathan Friedmann in the 1980’s [1]. And which was a major inspiration for Lotte Hedeager, who was one of the first archaeologists to write about the geo-political landscape of the 7th century (and who Alex Woolf duly cites) [2]. However, it is pertinent to remember that this theoretical approach helped us to understand how “centres” usually downplay their “culture” and instead reposition themselves as “natural powers”, while the peripheries have to work “culturally”  in order to demonstrate their significance. Hence the lack of spectacular 7th century graves in the Danish archipelago. It seems, there was no need for a king settled in the “centre of his world” = Lejre [3] to actually sacrifice a ship when being buried.

Late Roman ridge helmet (Berkasovo-type),

Late Roman ridge helmet (Berkasovo-type), found at Deurne, Netherlands. It is covered in silver-gilt sheathing and is inscribed to a cavalryman of the equites stablesiani c. AD 320. Source: Wikipedia/Michiel

Alex Woolf writes that “In the late sixth and seventh centuries, Uppland and East Anglia lay at opposite ends of a cultural world, which had its centre in Scania (Skåne or the southern-most tip of present Sweden) and the Danish Islands, almost certainly the original homeland of the Germanic-speaking people, and, in precisely this period, the core area of the emerging North-Germanic or Scandinavian dialect grouping” (p. 11).

In the long seventh century, there is ample evidence for a centralised Danish Kingdom or at least a stable political and hegemonic power-structure at this time, located right in the middle of two “peripheries”, the western coast of Sweden and the eastern coast of England; which also – as it happens – helps us to understand the localisation of the more memorable events in Beowulf in a Danish context, says Alex Woolf.

Finally Alex Woolf focus on the iconic helmets from Sutton Hoo and the burials in Vendel and Valsgärde (which the finds in the Staffordshire Hoard are busy completing).

Woolf begins by noticing that the helmets have their obvious roots in the parade helmets of the Late Roman Empire. However, he then proceeds to refer to the study by the archaeologist, Monica Akemade, who already in 1991 studied the helmets and the so-called pressbleche, they were covered with. Her conclusion was that the helmets from Sweden were in fact “relatively poor quality emulations” of the helmet found in Sutton Hoo; which however, according to Alex Woolf, cannot be considered the socio-economic and cultural centre of the North-Sea and Baltic late-iron-age “empire”. This centre was probably located in Denmark