Daily Archives: 3 May 2019

Parergon 36.1 preview: Sutton Hoo and assemblage theory

The latest issue of the ANZAMEMS journal is out and Parergon 36.1 is winging its way to members’ mailboxes. We’ve asked the contributors to give us some additional insights into their research and the inspirations for their articles. In this post, Georgina Pitt talks about her piece, “The Enigmatic Sutton Hoo Ship Burial: Fresh Insights from Assemblage Theory,” DOI: 10.1353/pgn.2019.0000


Replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet

It was the Sutton Hoo helmet, which is astonishingly beautiful (in replica) and yet so very intimidating, which first intrigued me and got me hooked on Sutton Hoo. This sumptuous ship-burial was undeniably a momentous event for its community — the extraordinary wealth of the grave-goods and the meticulous planning of the burial attest to that. This burial meant something profound to its community, and that meaning subsisted in the East Anglian community’s memory and sense of identity for a long time, because there was no attempt to rob the burial site for nearly a millennium. What was this all about? Why did they invest so much in this burial? Why did its power endure so that it lay undisturbed for so long, notwithstanding the retrievable wealth deposited in it?

This ship-burial is both an historical event and an archaeological site: the richest earliest medieval grave discovered intact and its grave–goods preserved, but we have no extant documentary explanation for it. The documentary record is silent but the material record gives exuberant voice. It seemed to me, reading the literature on Sutton Hoo, that historians had found the task of explaining the event too difficult in the absence of a contemporary text to analyse. There was no anchor point from which to safely venture an opinion on why the East Anglian community chose to invest so much wealth and labour in this burial. Yet there are useful clues in Bede, even though he never mentions Sutton Hoo. On the other hand, the material record is a familiar anchor point for archaeologists, and the archaeological evidence abundant and carefully recorded, but archaeologists give a variety of explanations for the ship-burial; they can’t all be right.

It seemed to me that this ship-burial offered the perfect opportunity for interdisciplinarity. My background is in law; I was a commercial litigation lawyer for twenty years. I thought there would be a challenge in teasing out the clues in Bede and using a new theoretical lens (assemblage theory) to make sense of the evidence, to explore whether there was an alternative explanation compatible with the evidence. This was a challenge to be relished.
My particular interest is in issues of political power, identity, and community in the early medieval period. There is fluidity in each of these interlocking concepts in this period, wriggle-room for individuals and groups to re-invent themselves and to articulate different identities, negotiate different relationships. I think that the Sutton Hoo ship-burial is just such an exercise in negotiating identity, community and power. The Sutton Hoo ship-burial provides valuable insights into how early medieval people could manipulate material culture to construct and advertise identity, to define and cohere a community, and to instantiate and transfer political power.

Contributor bio:

I am a PhD candidate, and my doctoral research on Alfred the Great similarly focuses on issues of political power, identity and community. This is my first publication, although I am co-author (with Emeritus Professor Andrew Lynch) of the essay ‘Emotional Literatures of War’ in the forthcoming Routledge History of Emotions in Europe 1100-1700. Can I finish this blog with a shout-out? Heartfelt thanks to my two anonymous reviewers, whose careful reading and thoughtful remarks prompted many improvements to this article.

Parergon can be accessed via Project MUSE (From Volume 1 (1983)), Australian Public Affairs – Full Text (from 1994), and Humanities Full Text (from 2008). For more information on the current issue and on submitting manuscripts for consideration, please visit https://parergon.org/

Image credit: Mark Ramsay [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]