Hidden Histories

Snape Boat Burial

The Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Snape is home to only the second intact late Antique / Early Medieval boat burial in England. Originally excavated in 1862 it has been dated to 550-575+/- A.D. It was the first ancient dated vessel ever found in England and excavated in the whole of Europe.

The 54 feet long, 9 feet 7 inches wide boat sat in its barrow measuring 85 feet wide. The intact boat in Grave 1 was not the only boat excavated at Snape; where two or possibly three other graves also contained logboats or parts of a boat within them [1].

Analysis of the size of Grave 1 and the local topography indicate that it would have been visible from the sea, from over 7 km away, with the boat itself needing to be dragged some 2.5 km from the river.

The site of the Snape Boat Burial.
The Snape Glass claw beaker.

The identification of boats with burials in this context is strong evidence for a cult of Freyr whose magic ship Skidbladnir is the best of ships in Norse mythology [2]. Freyr, in his role as solar god, has been described as ruler of rains and of the shining sun, which he created. More importantly his ‘sun-ship represents the movement of the sun across the sky and the underworld’ [3].

The East-West cemetery at Snape is approximately 200 metres by 70 metres. The two largest cemeteries in Suffolk, at Lackford and Eye, produced 530 and 130 cremations respectively; with the site at Snape estimated to have held 1,200 cremations.

Grave 51 carries some exclusivity and solar symbolism in its decoration, dating to the late 4th to first half 5th Century. The radiate sun symbols are similar to the solar designs that appear on cremation vessels in Villanovan, Italy [4]. Apollo, the son of Zeus is the God of light, music, art, prophecy, and the Sun, which was born at Midwinter.

Cremation urn pot stamps – solar and ocular symbolism. After: Filmer-Sankey, W & Pestell, T (2001).

Small selected samples of wood have been used across the Snape cemetery, perhaps related to specific ritual intentions. The wood oak has had many religious and mystical connotations and is known to have had ritual associations with the Germanic predecessor to Thor, Donar who was affiliated with Groves and oak woods in particular [5]. These traditions may of course relate to Yggdrasill, the World Tree which bridged the nine worlds of Norse cosmology acting as a central pillar between the heavenly realms, Midgard, the ‘home to men’ and the underworld, a bridge between the dead and the Gods [6].

Grave 51. Shouldered urn with diagonal grooved fylfot motifs.

Charcoal from a variety of woods has been found to be carefully prepared and chosen for over thirty graves. Branches of charred oak were carefully arranged in Grave 9; additionally, a charred container was deliberately selected in Grave 3 to be placed over a body being part of a boat, made of oak heartwood. Oak also appears to have been ritually placed under and around the log boat in Grave 4 [7]. The symbolic transformational parallels between the heat of the Sun and the process of fire are obvious. At Snape, the remains of a cremation pyre is the first one to be identified and recorded in detail in the whole of late Antique / Early Medieval England.

The Snape Boat Burial. © Midnight Blue Owl.


1. Filmer-Sankey, W & Pestell, T. (2001) Snape Anglo-Saxon Cemetery: Excavations and Surveys 1824–1992. East Anglian Archaeology 95. Suffolk County Council, Ipswich.

2. Filmer-Sankey, W & Pestell, T. (2001) Ibid.

3. Wang, L. (2017) Freyja and Freyr: Successors of the sun, on the absence of the sun in Nordic saga literature. MA thesis, Department of Linguistics and Scandinavian Studies, Universitetet I Oslo.

4. Dechelette, J. (1909) Le culte du soleil aux temps prehistoriques. Revue Archeoloogique.

5. Todd, M. (1987, 2nd ed.) The Northern Barbarians 100BC-AD 300. Oxford.

6. Davidson, H.R. E. (1993) The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. Routledge, London.

7. Filmer-Sankey, W & Pestell, T. (2001) Ibid