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Sceptre from the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo

600/650

British Museum

British Museum
London, United Kingdom

This curious object is one of the most extraordinary objects to survive from the Anglo-Saxon period. It is a huge, four-sided whetstone, skilfully carved from a hard, fine-grained stone to give a perfectly smooth surface. Whetstones were tools used to sharpen knife and weapon blades, but this one’s elaborate form suggests a ceremonial function.

The whetstone’s significance is now a mystery, but several features hint that it was an emblem of power. Its design resembles Roman sceptres, owned by holders of high offices. At either end the stone is carved with sombre faces, each one different. These may represent gods or ancestors whose brooding presence may have symbolised or empowered the dynasty to which the dead man belonged. A finely-modelled stag, carrying a full set of antlers, crowns the whetstone. In the early Germanic world, the stag was a symbol of strength and speed, and with its regal bearing it was considered the ‘king’ of the forest. As such it would be a fitting attribute for a powerful ruler.

The whetstone’s surfaces show no clear signs of use, although one of this size could have been used to keep a sword-blade sharp. Perhaps it was a symbol, representing a ruler’s responsibility to always keep his warrior’s weapons sharp in order to protect their kingdom.

Details

  • Title: Sceptre from the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo
  • Date Created: 600/650
  • Physical Dimensions: Length: 58.30cm (Stone bar only); Length: 82.00cm (incl metal fittings); Width: 5.10cm (max); Weight: 2.40kg (Stone bar only); Weight: 3048.20g (incl metal fittings (excl. 2 separate strips))
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: painted; carved; relief
  • Registration number: 1939,1010.160
  • Place: Excavated/Findspot Sutton Hoo
  • Period/culture: Early Anglo-Saxon
  • Material: stone; copper alloy
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Donated by Pretty, Edith M

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