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.

The Vikings – but I’m an Anglo-Saxon

Purse-lid-detailLiving in East Anglia we are well aware that over a 1000 years ago Scandinavian longboats could be sighted rowing up the marshy waterways to invade our islands.

Sutton Hoo
Introducing my daughter to our Anglo-Saxon heritage at Sutton Hoo,
Nr Woodbridge, Suffolk.
Ship mound in the background.

I grew up in a village called Danbury, and went to the local school in the nearby town of Maldon (Maeldune) on the River Blackwater. “Maeldune” is the Saxon spelling of Maldon and means “a cross on the hill”. At school we learnt about the local area’s Saxon heritage supported by archaeological finds and the ‘Battle of Maldon‘ as recounted in the ‘Anglo Saxon Chronicles’ and the Anglo Saxon poem ‘The Battle of Maldon’. The battle took place in AD991 between the Saxons living around the River Blackwater and the Vikings who raided in their famous longboats.

River Deben Sutton Hoo
View down to the River Deben from the Sutton Hoo ship burial site. Yes, that’s correct the Anglo-Saxons dragged the king’s longboat from the river and up the hill before burying it in a mound.

Last week I went to the British Museums’s Exhibition about the Vikings. Known as a ‘blockbuster’ exhibition with all the accompanying publicity we knew it would be busy even with the ‘timed’ entry (vigorously policed by the staff) – and it was. The first two rooms were dark and overcrowded with tiny pieces mounted in minimal, sparse arrangements. I know one of the agendas pursued by the curators was to dampen down the ‘Vikings as raiders’ legacy and present a more rounded version of Viking culture, but once you’ve seen a couple of oversized brooches they really aren’t that exciting. And, there wasn’t a single example of jewellery to compare with the Anglo-Saxon pieces found at the early 7th-century ship burial at Sutton Hoo. (Incidentally available to see for free in a new gallery display in the main part of the BM.)

Sutton Hoo shoulder clasps
Polychrome jewellery hinged shoulder-clasp from Mound 1, Sutton Hoo.
Gold decorated with garnets, millefiore glass and gold wire filigree. 48 mm

Nevertheless, I quickly glanced my way through these rooms until I opened the door into the main new exhibition hall. And, there it was, the boat, Roskilde 6 (archaeologists’ site nomenclature). Firstly, none of the press photos do it justice. The ship’s size (37 metres long) is the longest longboat discovered so far and the metal re-construction is beautiful encouraging you to mentally extend the few original surviving wooden planks of the Roskilde 6.

Press photograph © Rebecca Reid, The London Evening Standard.
Press photograph © Rebecca Reid, The London Evening Standard.

But most stunning and evocative was the way you could stand at one end and see the whole boat stretching away across the North Sea as the wave filled view gradually changed from dark and menacing into a gentle evening sunset. I was quite transfixed by the arrangement and the clever use of video. It wasn’t like a fairground trick, but a gentle prompt to your historical imagination. All of a sudden I was considerably impressed by the Vikings’ skill and energy for exploration.

Sutton Hoo purse lid
Sutton Hoo – the purse lid. The gold frame is set with cloisonné garnets and millefiori glass and encloses a modern lid containing the original gold, garnet and millefiori plaques. Length 19.0 cm

Sorry – I did ask – but it was strictly no photography, but here’s the magnificent purse lid from the early 7th century, Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. (Smaller longboat than the Viking one, only 27 metres, but you can see it’s all part of the Northern European cultural continuum.)