Sutton Hoo – A Very Special Place

Tomorrow Netflix is showing ‘The Dig’, a film featuring the discovery of the early seventh-century, Anglo Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. The original dig was begun on 20th June 1938 when the owner of Tranmer House and Estate, Edith Pretty, invited a local, gifted yet amateur archaeologist, Basil Brown, to investigate the earth mounds on her property. The film stars Ralph Fiennes (incidentally born in Ipswich) as Basil Brown and Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty.

The Mounds with Tranmer House, home to Mrs Edith Pretty in the distance.
Mrs Pretty (1883-1942) by Cor Visser (1903-1982) Oil on canvas, 1939. Basil Brown from local newspaper clipping.

The following year, in September 1939, the ship burial and inhumation were discovered and found to be intact as the excavation proceeded.

A hand watercolour photographic panorama of the Sutton Hoo ship by Mercie Lack in 1939. From display on ground floor of Tranmer House.

When Basil Brown began digging Mound One he had no idea that the excavation would turn into one of the most dramatic events in British Archaeology.

Angela Care Evans ‘The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial’ (revised edition 1994)

The discovery of the ship burial and a magnificent collection of grave goods is considered to be one of the most significant finds of Anglo-Saxon art to date in Europe.

The Sutton Hoo Helmet. (Now on display in the lighter, brighter Room 41, but it was so busy when I last visited I was unable to get a better shot than this one from 2013 when it was in a temporary location!)

In a startling symbolic composition, a snake body provides the protective rim across the crown. Its beady garnet eyes and gaping mouth meet the beak of a fierce bird, whose wings make the eye-brows, whose body forms the nose and whose tail forms the moustache of the implacable human armoured face.

Martin Carver, ‘Sutton Hoo Burial Ground of Kings?'(1998)
Left. Polychrome jewellery hinged shoulder-clasps. Gold decorated with garnets, millefiore glass and gold wire filigree. Length: 12.7 cm, width: 5.4 cm, length: 5.1 cm (chain) length: 5.7 cm (pin). Centre and right. Purse lid. Gold frame set with cloisonné garnets and millefiori glass encloses a modern lid containing the original gold, garnet and millefiori plaques. Length 19 cm (frame). Mound 1, Sutton Hoo. British Museum, London.

Since 1997 the site at Sutton Hoo has belonged to the National Trust and is open to the public. Recently, in August 2019 a £4 million Visitor Centre was opened to mark the 80th year anniversary of the discovery. The site now includes a cafe/restaurant and shop joining the purpose-built High Hall, exhibition space.

The full size 27 metre long rusted steel sculpture of the Anglo-Saxon ship of Sutton Hoo.
Ship sculpture with the restaurant-cafe section of the new complex behind.

Last September, when Covid restrictions eased and visitors were allowed inside public spaces, my daughter and I went for a look. Of course, she remembered her first visit when we came down from Norwich in 2005 and it had been much, much quieter.

Visiting Sutton Hoo in 2005, and visiting again in 2020. New observation tower in background not open due to Covid.

After walking round the mounds we queued briefly, donned masks and signed in (Covid protocol) to see inside Mrs Pretty’s home, Tranmer House.

Edith May Dempster marries Lt. Colonel Frank Pretty in 1926.

Only parts of the ground floor were open and the space where 15 years ago my daughter and I enjoyed a delightful and memorable retelling of Beowulf (with puppets), is now a small exhibition space. A few photographs of Edith Pretty’s life and many photographs of the 1939 dig are on display.

Not just the great and the good had the opportunity to visit the dig. This photograph shows a party of young naval cadets at Sutton Hoo.

Before leaving, we noticed the queue for the High Hall had disappeared so following the same mask and signing-in routine we entered the exhibition to be greeted by a representation of an Anglo-Saxon, highborn warrior swooping down from the ceiling.

Left. Replica Sutton Hoo helmet by Ivor Lawton. Bronze, silver and tin. Right. The suspended welcoming exhibit.

As you progress through the exhibition many of the exhibits are high quality replicas such as the complete helmet of bronze, silver and tin by Ivor Lawton. There are a few early finds from Mound 17 (the warrior horseman and horse burial site) on display. These are similar to some of the artefacts excavated from Mound One.

Horse harness made of gilded bronze decorated with human faces and patterns of interlacing animals.
Left. Byzantine bucket. Bronze. 330 AD – 900 AD. Excavated from Mound 17, but made over 2000 miles away in a Mediterranean Byzantine workshop. The decoration depicts a hunting scene somewhere in North Africa with lions and a hunting dog. Right. Modern replica of the Byzantine bucket.

A look round Tranmer House and the displays in High Hall are interesting, but all the significant finds are in the British Museum in London. However, that’s not really the point of visiting Sutton Hoo. It is about experiencing the site, knowing the history and seeing the strange Burial Mounds set within the Suffolk countryside.

As I write only the estate walks are open due to the current lockdown restrictions.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

19 thoughts on “Sutton Hoo – A Very Special Place”

    1. Thank you. The site is just over the River Deben from Woodbridge where my parents’ used to live and it is slightly strange to see it receive the full National Trust ‘upgrade’.

  1. I remember seeing the Sutton Hoo finds at an exhibition at the British Museum years ago. It’s good to have them in a space where they can be interpreted even more successfully.

    1. Yes, I agree it is just a shame that they can’t have one or two of the star finds at Sutton Hoo. I guess it is a combination of security and preservation issues.

    1. And, thank you, and also I hope you enjoyed the film. Being a local I had mixed feelings, but it did make the watery parts of Suffolk look as beautiful as they are.

      1. I loved the film – little slow and I wish they’d show the treasure as well as you did in your blog but great acting and the countryside is beautiful.

      2. Absolutely agree with you about showing the treasure. And, I’ve seen plenty of other people making that comment. I mean if you didn’t already know what had been found, by the end of the film you still wouldn’t know! I guess everybody remotely interested went straight to Mr Google. Can’t understand this decision unless the filmmakers had run out of budget and couldn’t afford the British Museum’s commercial copyright fees.🙄

  2. Thanks for sharing this extraordinary historical experience Agnes. I used Sutton Hoo as an example of archaeological exploration with my junior History classes. They loved the actual stories behind the burials and the artefacts that were found. We used to have our own archaeological digs in the school ground with all the year 7 students, (150) involved. That is we created the site then dug it up and interpreted. We did not do a Saxon or Viking one but probably would have if the teacher leading the plans had stayed. She went off to the UK.

    1. Oh wow that must have been a fantastic experience for the youngsters. It is those unusual and practical learning adventures that really stick and sometimes set the seed for a student’s future career or even a lifelong passion. I can’t believe it, but I didn’t do Sutton Hoo at school although I am pleased to say that nowadays it is on the National Curriculum. Better late than never.

  3. Lovely post. I loved the film. My last (only) visit was 2002 (just looked back in my diaries) it was very busy and last year I’d decided to revisit when I next had an opportunity. Well, you know what happened then. Now I have booked to stay in Suffolk in October 2022 and (all being well, of course) will revisit after 20 years and see what’s changed. Are the BM not sending a treasure each season any more? Oh well, maybe I shall even get to BM again. Who knows?

    1. Regarding the BM and their temporary loans to Sutton Hoo, not sure as we visited between lockdowns and as we all know nothing is normal at present. Also, I must just say, I think booking Suffolk for October 2022 is a very savvy move.

      1. Thank you. I should point out though that is not the next holiday I’m booked for! Unfortunately, I’m expecting next month’s Norfolk to be cancelled. That was transferred from last March, of course. We must all keep safe.

      2. For Norfolk I will be travelling and staying alone, and hopefully will have had my first jab. It just needs the property to be open. Fingers crossed, indeed.

  4. Na het zien van de sfeervolle en menselijke film the dig weten we eens te meer hoe waardevol geschiedenisvondsten zijn en dat de conservering van erfgoed de levende herinnering vasthoudt;mooi menselijk verfilmd,ook met de persoonlijke verwikkelingen en vanaf nu enigszins verbazingwekkend hoe lang traditie in engeland hierarchische verhoudingen in stand hield;een prachtig tijdsbeeld!,Jan Hoekstra/Wormer/Nederland/30/12/2021

    1. Yes, I agree preserving our European heritage and indeed aspects of all humanity’s endeavours and heritage is valuable. There is something about the real, specific place that is special even if we just see the Mounds.
      Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      1. Aardig dat u reageert;temidden van cultuurbarbarij zijn er nog eilanden van humane civilisatie. Vriendelijke groet,Jan Hoekstra

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