The British Museum in London, England is one of the most famous museums in the world. Housing over 8 million unique objects from hundreds of different cultures, it is, and always has been, free to the public. It’s also one of my favourite museums and one I’ve had the opportunity to visit many times. With so many galleries to write about, it’s almost impossible to choose just one, but my favourite collection, and the one to which I always return, is the European Medieval collection, particularly the treasures of the Sutton Hoo burial.
Sutton Hoo is in Suffolk, England, where the discovery in 1939 of a 7th century burial ship changed our understanding of early English culture. The burial items, hidden beneath a mound of soil for hundreds of years, consisted of a wooden long ship with a central chamber for a body. In this chamber weapons, gold coins, drinking horns, gold and silver brooches, shields and other items were excavated; all necessary to aid the deceased in the next life. There was no sign of a body at the excavation, but further soil analysis demonstrated that a person had been buried with the goods but had decayed in the highly acidic soil.
Located on the upper level of the museum, the Sutton Hoo collection is in Gallery 41 along with other objects from early medieval Europe. The room is spacious, well-lit, and organised by subject i.e. early Christian art, personal adornment, feasting etc... Many objects are from burials and, along with Sutton Hoo, items from the lesser-known Anglo-Saxon Taplow Burial are also on display.
The gallery can be accessed a few different ways, but I recommend entering from room 40, Medieval Europe 1050 – 1500 (just off the Great Court) for maximum impact. Entering the room, you immediately come face-to-face with the famous Sutton Hoo mask. Possibly belonging to a King of East Anglia, the helmet was made of iron with panels of bronze depicting warriors, dragons with interlacing patterns placed over top. It’s believed the mask was made to be worn (the nose has breathing holes and traces of leather were found in the interior) but possibly only upon arrival at a battle, to instill awe and fear in an enemy. Look closely at the face and you’ll see a flying creature, possibly a dragon, its wings the eyebrows and its body the nose, finishing in a tail the shape of the moustache. Red garnets lined the top of the helmet’s eye holes, making the creature’s wings appear on fire. Running along the top of the helmet from front to back is a snake, its face meeting the dragon’s. Their teeth are bared, suggesting a battle. Just behind the original mask reconstruction, to the left, is a modern reconstruction, showing the ways the decorative panels would have hung. The details of the snake and dragon (and moustache!) are clearer.
Take a few steps back from the reconstructed helmet to admire the entire Sutton Hoo case. The glass has been etched with the shape of the original ship. At 27m long, the original ship would fit in room 41 with it’s bow and stern just poking into the next rooms. On the opposite side of the reconstructed helmet are personal objects. One of these, the Sutton Hoo Purse Lid, displays the importance and wealth of the owner. It was made to open a leather coin pouch and would have hung from a belt. Constructed of gold and garnet enamel, the purse lid depicts creatures that would have had significance to people of that time. On either side are images of a man surrounded by two wolves, as well as images of an eagle attacking its prey. A few steps to the right are objects associated with feasting. Of particular note are the beautiful drinking horns. The horns themselves are reproductions, but the silver-gilt horn fittings are worth a closer look.
Keep moving right until you reach one of the most beautiful objects in the collection, the Great Gold Buckle. Weighing just over 400g, this elaborately decorated gold buckle is one of the greatest medieval metal-working achievements of the time. Made from several different pieces, the creator goldsmith combined these pieces to form a hinged box with a triple-lock system. There are 13 different creatures depicted on the buckle, including birds of prey, snakes, and other long-limbed animals. While it looks confusing at first, each creature has been created using a slightly different metalworking techniques, making them all individually visible.
There are so many stunning items in this collection, and one could spend the entire day staring at all of the intricate designs, but for the sake of time, there is at least one last object that must be seen in Gallery 41. Facing the original Sutton Hoo helmet, take a step back and turn to your left, to the far wall (Anglo-Saxon England AD 450-650). In the centre of the display is a square-headed silver gild brooch, made in the early 600s. This is typical of brooches worn at the time, but my favourite thing about this brooch is the tiny moustachioed face peeking out from the designs just above the bottom circle.
These are just a few of the many amazing objects presented in Gallery 41, all presented with both aesthetics and education in mind. If you’d like to take a virtual tour of the collection for yourself, select the following link and wander at your leisure!
Virtual Tour of Gallery 41: http://ow.ly/iO7j30l0PYF