Swords of Kingdoms: a real life Game of Thrones at Sutton Hoo this summer

From the Staffordshire Hoard, a hilt collar from an ornate seax (a type of Anglo-Saxon sword).

From the Staffordshire Hoard, a hilt collar from an ornate seax (a type of Anglo-Saxon sword). - Credit: The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent City Council

Visitors to National Trust Sutton Hoo this summer have a rare opportunity to see two of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made, on display together in what's being described as a celebration of 'a golden age of Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship'. 

Swords of Kingdoms: The Staffordshire Hoard at Sutton Hoo opens at the Suffolk site on May 19 until October 30. On display are original Anglo-Saxon objects uncovered in the excavation of the ceremonial burial ship at Sutton Hoo in 1939 - and event famously retold in the recent feature film The Dig - on loan from the British Museum. Alongside them are treasures from the astonishing Staffordshire Hoard discovered 70 years later and further Anglo-Saxon finds from across East Anglia on loan from Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

The shoulder clasp from Sutton Hoo, Mound One

The shoulder clasp from Sutton Hoo, Mound One under a magnifying glass to show the intricate cloisonne work. - Credit: O&R Photography

Gold and garnet pryamid fittings from Sutton Hoo, Mound One

Gold and garnet pryamid fittings from Sutton Hoo, Mound One - Credit: O&R Photography

The Staffordshire Hoard is the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver ever found and is of a quality rarely seen. It was unearthed by a metal detectorist in a farmer’s field in 2009 and this is the first time that objects from the hoard have been on display in the region. The finds are predominantly weaponry fittings, estimated to have come from between 100 – 150 different swords, whose owners would have commanded some of the great battles waged by warring kingdoms in 7th century Anglo-Saxon England, a time of great change politically, religiously and culturally. 

Swords of Kingdoms is thought to be a homecoming for some of the items which showcase the very pinnacle of Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship. Shared signature details and the quality of the craftsmanship suggest that some of the objects on display from the Staffordshire Hoard may have been made in the same East Anglian workshops that also served royal Sutton Hoo. Visitors can see exquisite gold and garnet cloisonné and filigree decorative work adorning weaponry fittings, once wielded by some of the 7th century’s finest warriors.

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As well as objects which were originally part of swords, the exhibition also includes the fittings from a seax found as part of the Staffordshire Hoard. A seax is a long fighting or hunting knife and this is one of the finest surviving examples, possibly made for East Anglian royalty. The zoomorphic interlace designs across the seax collars bear a striking resemblance to the design of the Sutton Hoo shoulder clasps, one of which is also on display as part of the exhibition. The origins of some of the materials, such as precious stones like garnets from India and Sri Lanka, also reveal much about the busy trading routes that existed between Anglo-Saxon England and the rest of known world. 

Sword pommel in gold with garnet cloisonne from the Staffordshire Hoard

Sword pommel in gold with garnet cloisonne from the Staffordshire Hoard - Credit: O&R Photography

Gold hilt collar with filigree decoration from the Staffordshire Hoard.

Gold hilt collar with filigree decoration from the Staffordshire Hoard. - Credit: The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent City Council

Laura Howarth, Sutton Hoo’s archaeology and engagement manager says: “Every object tells a story. Whilst you can immerse yourself marvelling at the stories and skills behind each of the objects on display, Swords of Kingdoms is also a special opportunity to unite objects from different collections and weave a golden web of connecting threads which together speak of the 7th century warrior elite and a period of great change. Some chapters of each story may be lost to us today, but it is fascinating to wonder and imagine this golden and garnet adorned age.” 

The exhibition has been curated in partnership with Chris Fern, an expert in the Staffordshire Hoard. Chris says: “The Staffordshire Hoard is a collection of Anglo-Saxon treasure from the battlefield. There are golden warrior objects from swords, war-saddles, a royal helmet and a great war cross. Like the related treasures of Sutton Hoo, they show us a distant age that mixed pagan magic with new Christian beliefs. This was a time when kingdoms across Britain battled for supremacy, when kings fought and slayed each other. A bit like Game of Thrones, but real."

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As well as objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, several original items from the famous 1939 dig are returning to Sutton Hoo on loan from the British Museum. Among those items will be the gold and garnet cloisonné sword pyramids discovered by archaeologist Peggy Piggott which were the first items of gold found. The discovery of these sword pyramids changed the whole character of the 1939 excavation as further treasures then began to emerge from the ship’s burial chamber. 

Gold mount with horse head terminals, decorated with gold filigree from the Staffordshire Hoard.

Gold mount with horse head terminals, decorated with gold filigree from the Staffordshire Hoard. The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent City Council - Credit: The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent City Council 

“Although some of the objects on display now bear their own ‘battle scars’ of damage inflicted during systematic object dismantling in the 7th century or from lying buried over centuries, others glitter as if freshly forged," says Laura. "The intricacy, complexity of design and skill of the Anglo-Saxons goldsmiths is truly breathtaking and this is such a special and significant occasion to be able to see some of their finest work on display at Sutton Hoo.” 

The exhibition, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and New Anglia LEP, and sees 60 original Anglo-Saxon objects on display, on loan from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, the British Museum and Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery. 

The Swords of Kingdoms exhibition runs at Sutton Hoo until October 30. Tickets must be booked.

The Swords of Kingdoms exhibition runs at Sutton Hoo until October 30. Tickets must be booked. - Credit: O&R Photography

Swords of Kingdoms: The Staffordshire Hoard at Sutton Hoo runs from May 19 until October 30 2022. Due to popularity of the site, tickets to Sutton Hoo need to be booked in advance via nationaltrust.org.uk/suttonhoo. Entry to Swords of Kingdoms is via a timed ticket included in the site entry ticket, which is free for National Trust members.