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The Sutton Hoo helmet. Tin, iron, copper alloy, silver, gold, garnet. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Found in the Sutton Hoo Ship-burial Mound: 1, Suffolk, England. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

LONDON.- A new display of the British Museum’s unparalleled early medieval collections which include the famous Sutton Hoo treasure is scheduled to open in Room 41 in March 2014 made possible through a generous donation by Sir Paul and Lady Jill Ruddock. It is the first full refurbishment of the gallery since 1985, involving replacement of the flooring and roof, and renovation of the internal architecture. Marking 75 years since their discovery, the gallery’s centrepiece will be the finds from the Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk, one of the most spectacular and important discoveries in British archaeology. Excavated in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, this grave inside a 27m-long ship may have commemorated an Anglo-Saxon king who died in the early AD 600s. It remains the richest intact burial to survive from Europe. Many of its incredible treasures, like the helmet, gold buckle and whetstone have become icons not only of the British Museum, but of the Early Medieval as a whole. The project coincides with the BP exhibition: Vikings: life and legend in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery. 

Room 41 tells the story of a formative period in Europe’s history. This time of great change witnessed the end of the Western Roman Empire, the evolution of the Byzantine Empire, migrations of people across the Continent and the emergence of Christianity and Islam as major religions. By the end of the period covered in the gallery, the precursors of many modern states had developed. Europe as we know it today was beginning to take shape. 

The refurbished gallery gives an overview of the whole period, ranging across Europe and beyond – from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea and from North Africa to Scandinavia. The unique chronological and geographical breadth of the British Museum’s Early Medieval collections makes such an approach possible. 

As well as giving the Sutton Hoo ship burial greater prominence within the Museum, the repositioning also enables it to act as a gateway into the diverse cultures featured in the rest of the gallery. This material will be arranged around the perimeter of the room in cultural, geographical and chronological zones, comprising the Late Roman and Byzantine Empires, Celtic Britain and Ireland, migrating Germanic peoples, Northern and Eastern Europe, the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings. Outstanding treasures on display include the Lycurgus Cup, the Projecta Casket, the Kells Crozier, Domagnano Treasure, Cuerdale Hoard and Fuller Brooch to name but a few. The design, object selection and interpretation will be completely refreshed with the aim of developing a more coherent narrative for the collections, and to display star objects more effectively than ever before. The material includes stunning and extraordinary objects from a period that was anything but the Dark Ages. 

The new display will also feature material never before shown. These include Late Roman mosaics, a huge copper alloy necklace from the Baltic Sea region, and a gilded mount discovered by X-ray in a lump of organic material from a Viking woman’s grave, over a century after it was acquired. 

With so many different peoples spread across vast distances over a long period of time, key themes running through the gallery’s new narrative will contextualise the displayed material, highlighting how the different parts of the collections relate to each other across time and space. These themes include the enduring legacy of the Roman Empire; the movement of people, objects and ideas fuelling significant interchanges between cultures, empires and kingdoms; the emergence and impact of Christianity and Islam; and the central role of archaeology in enhancing our understanding of Early Medieval Europe. 

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The Sutton Hoo belt-buckle. Gold, hollow with cast ornament, Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Found in the Sutton Hoo Ship-burial Mound: 1, Suffolk, England. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

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The Franks Casket. Anglo-Saxon, first half of the 8th century AD, Northumbria, England. Scenes from Roman, Jewish, Christian and Germanic tradition. © The Trustees of the British Museum. 

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The Fuller Brooch. Anglo-Saxon, late 9th century AD. The earliest known personification of the Five Senses. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

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Lothair Crystal. From Lotharingia (Lorraine), possibly Aachen (in modern Germany), Carolingian, AD 855–869 © The Trustees of the British Museum.