The Snape Ship Burial
The Snape Anglo-Saxon Cemetery, dating back to the 6th century AD, is located on Snape Common near Aldeburgh in Suffolk, Eastern England in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of East Anglia. It features a mix of inhumation and cremation burials, including a high-status ship burial within burial mounds. The first recorded excavation occurred in 1827, with a more comprehensive one in 1862 revealing significant artifacts like a glass claw beaker and the Snape Ring, now housed in The British Museum.
In the 20th century, the heathland became farmland, and today, the burial mounds are not accessible to the public. However, artifacts from the site are displayed at the Aldeburgh Museum. The cemetery is situated northeast of Snape village, near Friston, and is approximately 17 kilometers northeast of the renowned Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon ship burial. The area was originally part of acid Sandlings Heathland, used for sheep grazing. The A1094 road was built through the cemetery in the 19th century, and in the 1950s, much of the heath was converted to farmland. The acidic soil inhibited native tree growth, and before the 20th century pine woodland plantation, the River Alde, the sea, and the town of Iken would likely have been visible from the mounds.
The Snape Anglo-Saxon cemetery, spanning approximately 200 meters east to west and 70 meters north to south, featured a 1:1 ratio of cremation to inhumation burials. Unlike Spong Hill in Norfolk, Snape’s cremations and inhumations were intermixed and contemporary. The site included at least nine, possibly ten, tumuli or burial mounds.
The cemetery gained prominence for the ship burial uncovered in 1862 by Septimus Davidson. The ship, approximately 14 meters long and 3 meters wide, exhibited clinker-built riveted construction with Anglo-Saxon-style iron rivets. The watercolour painting by Davidson, a reliable source, depicted the ship’s structure. Positioned on an east-west axis, the ship once held a high-status burial, but it had been robbed by the 1863 excavation. Despite this, some grave goods remained, including two iron spearheads, the gold Snape Ring, a glass claw beaker, fragments of jasper, and a piece of blue glass. The ship burial’s artifacts led to a tentative dating of circa AD 550.
The best known artefact from the Anglo-Saxon burial is the Snape ring, which consists of a Roman onyx gemstone engraved with the figure of Bonus Eventus which has been set in a large hoop. After the original excavation the ring disappeared and was returned to Bruce-Mitford (and then the British Museum) by the granddaughter of the original excavator.
Filmer-Sankey disputed Rupert Bruce-Mitford’s analysis, arguing instead that the Snape Ring had been created in continental Europe, probably by Frankish craftsmen in the early-mid 6th century. Supporting this idea, he noted that it had close parallels in both form and decoration to Frankish jewellery of this date and that Germanic settings of Roman intaglios are common on the continent but otherwise unknown from Anglo-Saxon England.
The first recorded excavation at the site took place in 1827, when seven or eight gentlemen, reported to be Londoners, opened up several of the barrows at the site, discovering “quantities of gold rings, brooches, chains etc.” After their activities at Snape, they proceeded to dig up a tumulus on the other side of the River Alde, at Blaxhall Common. Little is known of their findings, but a letter recording the event was sent to The Field magazine in March 1863 by a man from Snape who was only a boy at the time of the original excavation. Nothing more is known of either the excavators or the artefacts that they unearthed. It is believed that the mounds were excavated for a second time in the mid-19th century by antiquarians working for the Ordnance Survey; no records of this investigation have been found.
In 1862, Septimus Davidson, a city solicitor and landowner, conducted a systematic excavation of the Snape Anglo-Saxon cemetery in eastern England. Despite lacking formal excavation training, Davidson, assisted by local surgeon Dr Nicholas Hele and two others, meticulously excavated the mounds on his land. They adopted a careful approach, starting with a central pit in each mound and recording artifact positions, including ship rivets, in situ. Although issues arose, such as a spade shattering a buried urn, the excavators produced consistent individual accounts. Davidson presented his findings to the Society of Antiquaries in 1863, while others published accounts in various publications.
Davidson reported discovering either nine or ten mounds, with five described as “large.” He excavated three of these large mounds, finding no evidence of a grave in two but uncovering the remains of a ship burial in the third. This ship burial, detailed in Davidson’s account, was the first of its kind recognized in England. Despite its novelty in Britain, similar ship burials had been reported in Scandinavia. Encouraged by the success, Davidson returned the following year, unearthing over forty vases and additional finds in a twelve-yard trench.
In the 1920s, a house called St. Margaret’s was constructed north of the Snape Anglo-Saxon cemetery, incorporating the mounds into its garden. Claims of urn discoveries during construction and tree planting remain uncorroborated. The heathland was ploughed during World War II and in 1951, affecting the cemetery with no reported finds. The importance of Snape cemetery declined after the 1939 Sutton Hoo ship burial excavation. In 1952, Rupert Bruce-Mitford began Snape’s rehabilitation in an academic paper. In 1970, a dowser found an urn west of the garden, and in 1972, a sewer trench revealed cremations. In 1982, resistivity surveys showed potential features. Renewed interest in Snape followed Sutton Hoo excavations in 1983. In 1985, trenches revealed only damaged cremation urns. From 1986 to 1988, an area adjacent to the original ship burial yielded 17 cremation and 21 inhumation burials. In 1989-1990, trenches aimed to determine cemetery limits. Filmer-Sankey’s overview in 1992 and final report in 2001 were published in academic papers and the East Anglian Archaeology Report series.