A Close Look at Beowulf-Era Helmets & Swords, Courtesy of the British Museum

Even if a stu­dent assigned Beowulf is, at first, dis­mayed by its lan­guage, that same stu­dent may well be cap­ti­vat­ed by its set­ting. While that myth­i­cal but some­how both glo­ri­ous­ly and dankly real­is­tic realm of kings and drag­ons, mead halls and bog mon­sters may feel famil­iar to fan­ta­sy enthu­si­asts, it’s also strange on a deep­er lev­el; this sto­ry, any mod­ern read­er will feel, is in no sense a prod­uct of our own time. In order to con­crete­ly envi­sion both the action of that epic and the cul­ture that gave rise to it, it helps to exam­ine arti­facts from around the same place and time in his­to­ry. To find such things, we need look no fur­ther than Sut­ton Hoo.

Beowulf is set in the fifth and sixth cen­turies; Sut­ton Hoo is an archae­o­log­i­cal site whose con­tents date from the sixth to sev­enth cen­turies. Locat­ed “in the east­ern part of Eng­land, in a coun­ty called Suf­folk, which at that time was part of the East Anglian king­dom in Anglo-Sax­on Eng­land,” it con­sists of “a grave made in the mid­dle of a 27-meter-long ship that was buried beneath a gigan­tic earth mound, and inside a bur­ial cham­ber that was placed in the mid­dle of the ship were laid out some amaz­ing trea­sures drawn from all over the known world at that time.” So says Sue Brun­ning, cura­tor of the Euro­pean ear­ly medieval col­lec­tions at the British Muse­um, in one Cura­tor’s Cor­ner videos that pro­vide close-up views and expla­na­tions of a cou­ple of par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant Sut­ton Hoo arti­facts.

This hel­met and sword (with oth­er Anglo-Sax­on swords also brought out for com­par­i­son) are asso­ci­at­ed with King Ræd­wald of East Anglia. Beowulf, you’ll remem­ber, opens with the funer­al of the Dan­ish king Scyld Scef­ing, and takes place entire­ly in Scan­di­navia. But the sim­i­lar­i­ty between the elab­o­rate orna­men­ta­tion on the Sut­ton Hoo arti­facts and that on com­pa­ra­ble objects unearthed in east­ern Swe­den sug­gests a con­nec­tion between those regions in that era, and Beowulf itself may have been com­posed in East Anglia. It takes some imag­i­na­tion to pic­ture this sev­en­teen-cen­tu­ry-old hel­met and sword intact and in their prime, but how­ev­er they looked, one sure­ly would­n’t have turned down the extra con­fi­dence they’d have pro­vid­ed in a show­down with Gren­del.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A Vin­tage Short Film about the Samu­rai Sword, Nar­rat­ed by George Takei (1969)

Archae­ol­o­gists Dis­cov­er a 2,000-Year-Old Roman Glass Bowl in Per­fect Con­di­tion

An Artist Vis­its Stone­henge in 1573 and Paints a Charm­ing Water­col­or Paint­ing of the Ancient Ruins

Bronze Age Britons Turned Bones of Dead Rel­a­tives into Musi­cal Instru­ments & Orna­ments

Hear Beowulf and Gawain and the Green Knight Read in Their Orig­i­nal Old and Mid­dle Eng­lish by an MIT Medieval­ist

The British Muse­um Puts 1.9 Mil­lion Works of Art Online

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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