Mysterious lumps found at the bottom of a 7th-century burial ship have turned out to be bitumen from the Middle East. But how did they get there?
Sutton Hoo in East Anglia is one of the most important archaeological sites in England. The weapons, clothing and other objects buried in the Anglo-Saxon cemeteries show that trade networks in the 6th and 7th century reached as far away as Europe and Asia. Now new research conducted at the British Museum and University of Aberdeen reveals that trading even resulted in a solid form of oil known as bitumen making its way all the way to England from what is now Syria.
The graves at Sutton Hoo vary in size but one of them contains the “phantom” of a boat – the outline remains of a vessel probably used to ceremonially bury a warrior and many of his worldly goods, including his famous helmet. Alongside the body were found several small, centimetre-sized lumps of tar.
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