Sutton Hoo and Europe galleries exert magnetic pull in British Museum display

By Rachel Teskey | 24 April 2014

Gallery Review: The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300-1100, British Museum, London

A photo of an ancient brown helmet on a pole
© Trustees of the British Museum
It is 75 years since the ancestral treasures of Sutton Hoo were unearthed: one of the most significant archaeological discoveries ever made in Britain. Two Anglo-Saxon cemeteries were excavated at the site, including the famous ship burial which had lain undisturbed for over 1,300 years.

The splendid finds from Sutton Hoo have been on show at the British Museum for decades. But with the displays unchanged since the 1980s, they were easily overlooked. Now, fully refurbished, the Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery is fresh, bright and bustling.

A photo of a long tall carving of an ancient greek figure in a robe carrying various items
The archangel Michael, half of a diptych; ivory (Early Byzantine, circa 525-550). Constantinople, Turkey© Trustees of the British Museum
The magnificent Sutton Hoo grave goods are repositioned at the heart of the space, acting as a gateway through which to explore the diverse cultures of Europe from AD 300-1100. The gallery tells the story of this formative period in Europe’s history, encompassing vast areas stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea and from North Africa to Scandinavia.

Far from the ‘Dark Ages’, this was a time when art and learning flourished, and when new religions and nation states began to emerge.

As you enter the gallery, the famed Sutton Hoo helmet exerts a magnetic draw. An accompanying reconstruction allows you to appreciate the exquisite detail, including the mysterious flying beast on the face of the helmet, its body forming the nose-piece and its wings, picked out by garnets, flaring out above the eye sockets.

There is much else to appreciate besides, with a host of other artefacts from the burial on display in this central case. From the unassuming lump of rusting metal that was once a coat of chain mail to silver platters from the Mediterranean and tiny plaques - gilded and inlaid with semi-precious stones - which would have adorned a lyre. Key themes from the burial, including trade, craftsmanship and rich iconography, are drawn out.

These themes radiate out from the central display throughout the gallery. The space is arranged loosely by geography and chronology, taking in a roll call of cultures including Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Franks, Ostrogoths and Visigoths, Vandals, Celts and the Late Roman and Byzantine Empires.

A photo of a large gold and red cup with a carving of a mythological man on one side
The Lycurgus Cup (late Roman, 4th century). Glass drinking-cup covered with various scenes representing the death of King Lycurgus; rim mounted with silver-gilt band of leaf ornament, plus silver-gilt foot with open-work vine leaves© Trustees of the British Museum
Around the gallery, objects are given space to breathe, and their stories shine through. One stunning example is the Franks Casket, dating to around AD 700.

Made from whalebone and inscribed with Runic and Latin scripts, its intricate decoration features an astounding range of influences. One side pairs the Germanic legend of Weland - a smith who was punished by the king and took revenge by killing the king’s sons and turning their skulls into drinking cups - with a depiction of the three kings bringing their gifts to the baby Jesus.

The other side shows the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, alongside the historic capture of Jerusalem by the Emperor Titus. This one object encapsulates the central concepts of this period and of the exhibition: connections and exchange of ideas across Europe; the continuing legacy of the Roman Empire; superb craftsmanship and the burgeoning of new religions.

Other objects are simpler, but capture the spirit of the age in the same way: a Roman bread stamp decorated with a menorah, probably used to indicate that bread was kosher, or a drinking horn, traditional in shape and decoration but made from Italian blue glass.

A photo of a piece of silver ancient jewellery against a black background
Silver-gilt radiate-headed brooch (early 7th century). Lombardic. Tuscany, Italy© Trustees of the British Museum
The gallery packs in a huge variety of objects, some never displayed before, and often shown in creative ways. Highlights include the Cuerdale Hoard, a hoard of 40kg of Viking silver, spread out in a spectacular display, and the Late Roman Lycurgus Cup.

This extraordinary vessel is a feat of technology and artistry, which is cleverly lit to showcase its special properties – when light is shone through the cup, particles of gold and silver in the glass cause the cup to turn from opaque green to translucent red.

This is an ambitious redisplay, not only in terms of its scope in space and time, but also in its aim to change how we think about the period. The gallery’s reopening coincides with the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition and the two complement each other perfectly, sharing a new perspective on the European cultures of the time.

This was not an age of decline and raiding warriors but a continuation of the connections and craftsmanship of the Roman Empire, coupled with a blossoming of new identities and ideas.

  • Room 41, British Museum. Open 10am-5.30pm (8.30pm Friday). Admission free. Follow the museum on Twitter @britishmuseum‎.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of an ornate golden piece of jewellery against a black background
The Sutton Hoo belt-buckle (Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century). Gold, hollow with cast ornament. Found in the Sutton Hoo Ship-burial Mound, Suffolk© Trustees of the British Museum
A photo of a circular plate with a gold trim and pictures of people within it in blue
The Lothair Crystal (9th century). Rock crystal; disc; engraved with eight episodes from the Story of Susanna. Carolingian, Germany© Trustees of the British Museum
A photo of a circular gold carving which looks a bit like a clock
Reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo shield using original gold, garnet, copper alloy and iron fittings and modern replica fittings on a modern lime wood shield board (early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century)© Trustees of the British Museum
A photo of an ornate carved piece of jewellery against a black background
The Sutton Hoo Purse-Lid (early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century). Gold, cloisonné garnet and millefiori glass© Trustees of the British Museum
More exhibition reviews:

Britain: One Million Years of Human History sparks the superlatives at the Natural History Museum

I Cheer A Dead Man's Sweetheart: A show about the life of painting at De La Warr Pavilion

Somewhat Abstract offers painting, sculpture and more visual 'crack' in Nottingham
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