An Oxford Historian
Snape - England's Other Ship Burial
Updated: Jun 29, 2021
Although Sutton Hoo dominates the popular imagination of Anglo-Saxon ship burials, there is another prime example excavated substantially earlier - The Snape Ship Burial. Less rich in grave-goods, it still provides a fascinating look into Middle Anglo-Saxon burial practices. Here's a very brief overview of the site, along with some resources for further reading.
Ship burials in England are an infrequent occurrence. Unlike their frequency in Scandinavian, especially at Old Upsala, there are only really two major sites in England. Both, interestingly, are located in East Anglia. The two ship burials at Sutton Hoo is by far the most famous examples, one of which may well represent the burial-place of Raedwald, king of East Anglia. Less impressive in scale and pomp is the other major example - the ship burial found at Snape.
Snape has a relatively long history as an archaeological site. An excavation in 1827 is recorded, and a later more extensive excavation in 1862 turned up substantially more evidence. This early date is remarkable - pre-dating the Sutton Hoo excavation considerably, Snape was the first known example of a ship burial in England. A 1952 re-examination of the evidence by Bruce-Mitford brought some interesting questions about the site back into the light. From 1985 a further archaeological excavation took place looking more broadly at the entire cemetery, resulting in the 2001 site publication that remains the definitive publication on the site.
The Snape Village website actually has access to the two major academic papers discussed here, Bruce-Mitford's 1952 report and the later 2001 EAA report, and can be found here: http://snapevillage.info/history/burial/ . Big respect to them for helping provide resources for local history, free and online - that's what we're all about here at AnOxfordHistorian.
Grave 1 in the larger Snape cemetery contains a ship measuring 14 metres in length, and was archaeologically identifiable primarily from the presence of iron clench nails.
Now, it's worth noting that at least two more graves at the Snape cemetery with possible boats in were identified in the latest round of excavation (Graves 4 and 47) (Filmer-Sankey and Pestles 2001, p. 199). These are, however, substantially smaller than Grave 1.
In an apparent attempt to reuse pre-historic landscape symbols (and, by extension, to harness pre-existing symbols of power and legitimacy?), the ship is buried under a Bronze-Age barrow (Filmer-Sankey and Pestles 2001, p. 19).
Beyond the obvious ship, two particularly notable finds were extracted from the site. This infrequency of finds stands in strong contrast to Sutton Hoo, where the sheer frequency of grave finds is remarkable - this is likely the result fo earlier grave-robbing. The first is an impressive finger ring, gold with a central black stone, into which is carved a male figure. This is widely believed to have been Roman in origin - re-using Roman items (and indeed sites and buildings) was relatively common among the Anglo-Saxons, in an apparent attempt to capitalise on ideas of imperium and power. Specifically, a Continental source seems clear (Filmer-Sankey and Pestles 2001, p. 196).
There is also an ornate glass claw-beaker. This Bruce-Mitford dates to the latter half of the 6thC, and it is clearly an impressive image of status and wealth (Bruce-Mitford 1952, p.19).
Alongside these two were found spears, and a mass of fabric that has been interpreted to perhaps represent the remains of a cloak (Filmer-Sankey and Pestles 2001, p. 19).
Bruce-Mitford suggests a possible date for the burial between AD 635-650 (Bruce-Mitford 1952, p. 20). This fits well within the broader narattive of 'Princely Burials', an apparent late 6th/ early 7th century trend for burying individuals with a large number of rich objects and with great pomp: Sutton Hoo is our prime example, but also Taplow and Prittlewell. However, the more recent Filmer-Sankey and Pestles investigation pushed the date of the second half of the sixth century, perhaps at the very beginning of a period of 'Princely Burials' (Filmer-Sankey and Pestles 2001, p. 196).
While a high status to the individual is therefore clear, their exact identity remains unknown: just as with Sutton Hoo, the body itself had degraded away before it was excavated. However, given the expenditure of labour involved with a ship burial of this scale, and especially the presence of a likely Continental ring, a royal explanation is possible.
But why burial in a boat specifically? Well, it's notable that the two 'Princely' examples we have in England are from East Anglia, the closest physical area to Scandinavia, with suggested trade and culture links. Are the examples here an adoption of Scandinavian traditions? Various models for the symbolism of ship burial have been suggested; is it a symbol of military might and previous battle victory, is it a religious vessel to the afterlife? While a lot remains unclear, Snape is a prime example of Middle Saxon funerary archaeology, and should not be forgotten when compared to the splendour of Sutton Hoo.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bruce-Mitford, R. L. S., 'The Snape Boat Grave', Proceedings of The Suffolk Institute of Archaeology & History 26/1 (1952), pp. 1-26.
Filmer-Sankey, W. and Pestles, T. The Snape Anglo-Saxon Cemetery: Excavations and Surveys 1824-1992 (Ipswich, 2001)