Odin's Head from Sutton Hoo © Trustees of the British Museum

Whetstone or Sceptre?

In the Sutton Hoo burial a number of peculiar objects were found. A reconstruction of one of the more enigmatic – the whetstone or sceptre – has yielded new information

As is well-known the ship-burial at Sutton Hoe yielded a vast amount of unique objects, the most enigmatic being the “sceptre” or whetstone.

Sutton Hoo Sceptre © Trustees of the British Museum
Sutton Hoo Sceptre © Trustees of the British Museum

In the official presentation on the website of British Museum in the highlights it is presented as a sceptre, however in inverted commas. The official presentation of the object reads:

“Stone sceptre or whetstone comprising a four-sided stone bar of hard, fine-grained grey stone. Each end of the bar tapers to form a ‘neck’, and ultimately terminates in a carved, lobed knob, roughly onion-shaped and originally painted red. Each knob is enclosed by a cage of copper alloy ridged strips. At one end (interpreted as the bottom), the cage consists of six strips and is attached to a cup-shaped piece of copper alloy. The cage at the other end (interpreted as the top) consists of eight copper alloy strips surmounted by an iron ring upon which is mounted a copper alloy stag Immediately below each knob are four human masks carved in relief, one on each of the stone bar’s four faces. Each mask is different; three are clearly bearded and five are either beardless or bearded with an exposed chin. The masks are approximately triangular in shape, ending in curved oval terminals. All faces of the stone are extremely smooth and show very little trace of wear.”

This description builds on the official report written by Rupert Bruce-Mitford in the three-volume work published in 1978. In it he gave his own understanding of the piece as “an impressive, non-functional piece … either an object of religious or the expression of royal power and authority”. The fundamental question, which he did not answer, was whether it should in the end be understood as a stele or a sceptre (or neither)

A new reconstruction carried out by Brian Ansell and Dave Roper has perhaps not yielded a conclusive result; but it has definitely brought new information to the on-going debate; as such it has also once more redeemed the value of experimental archaeology.

The reconstruction has shown that:

  • As a whetstone it is remarkably pristine; and anyway other whetstones are usually smaller and not decorated.
  • All the parts were carefully designed to be put together at the same time and must have been conceived and manufactured together.
  • One of the faces – B1 – does show some “wear” or deliberate de-construction of the otherwise achieved symmetry. The face presents itself with a mutilated “eye” akin to the asymmetry found in the eyebrows of the helmet, in the face enclosed in the bird-ornament on the shield and one of the figures on the purse-lid.

All these mutilated eyes cannot be a coincidence. The best explanation points to the myth of Odin who gave an eye to Mimer in return for a drink from the Well of Wisdom. Perhaps it is also pertinent that the possible face of Odin is at the bottom, rendered upside down. (It will be remembered that he hung thus for nine days in Yggdrasil). Hinted at by Cohen in 1966 in an otherwise muddled articles it seems to be vindicated now.

All this points to a revaluation of the whetstone as a graven image featuring a panoply of Gods (amongst which figured Odin); akin to those three or four- headed steles, hairpins and wooden sticks found in Germanic, Scandinavian or Slavic contexts from the same period.

Further the stone can stand on itself if placed on the saucer. Mitford, who tried it out with a less than perfect replica, which only weighed half of what the new perfect replica weighs, considered this one of the reasons why it must have been used as a sceptre. It now appears that the whetstone might as well have been used as a micro-stele rather than a staff or a sceptre – artefacts which by the way look different for instance on the bracteates.

However, it now appears – thanks to the reconstruction – that the whetstone does not necessarily have to have been held while being “used”. Rather, it might originally have stood on an “altar”, perhaps in one of those dedicated heathen sanctuaries or temples, which are busy surfacing in Scandinavian – Swedish – Archaeology (see for instance Uppåkra). (On the other hand – as the photo from British Museum shows – it is not an impossible artefact to hold. It weighs 3.048,2 gr)

Does this square all the controversies circling the object? Perhaps not; read for instance a brand – new (2013) research article which proposes the scepter functioned as a touchstone. Nevertheless it is a hypothesis, which fit the facts better as they have been revealed by the new reconstruction than the interpretation as a “royal sceptre”.

The story of the reconstruction is fully documented in a new book. In itself this is very worthwhile reading. To this has been added a careful, although a bit rambling, exposé of all the earlier explorations and reflections offered by historians, archaeologists and other scholars plus a valuable survey of what might be considered the context of sceptres, whetstones and four-headed Gods.

One might query some of the more farfetched “expeditions” into the context of Anglo-Saxon history and the Early Germanic and Scandinavian archaeology. However, the fact remains that as a documentation of the manufacturing of the recent replica the book is well worth a read.

cover-remaking the sutton hoo stoneRemaking the Sutton Hoo Stone: The Ansell-Roper Replica and its Context 
by Paul Mortimer (Editor) , Stephen Pollington (Editor)
Paperback: 196 pages
Publisher: Anglo-Saxon Books; 1st edition (September 14, 2013)
ISBN-10: 1898281696
ISBN-13: 978-1898281696


Recently British Museum developed a web-presentation of Sutton Hoo for Google’s Cultural Institute:
610 – 635 Sutton Hoo: Anglo-Saxon Spip Burial. One of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries ever made




Leave a Reply