Sutton Hoo, on the east coast of Suffolk high above the River Deben estuary must be one of the most important and fascinating archaeological sites in Britain. Our visit was one of the highlights of our East Anglian adventure. The site is mainly one of archaeological interest rather than art history as the gold, silver and enamel treasures are now in the British Museum. We came to Sutton Hoo, not only through my Art History at University, but also via the recent film, The Dig, starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan.
The story, briefly, is that of local amateur archaeologist, Basil Brown, being invited by recently widowed Edith Pretty to investigate the grassy mounds on her land finds evidence of a early medieval ship. At the outbreak of the Second World War Brown discovers an immensely important ship burial, one of only three in Britain, containing some artifacts from the seventh century. Tension follows between Brown and the professional experts from London, but in the end a well recorded dig follows, revealing the royal burial site, the remains of the ship and an Anglo Saxon treasure trove. The coroner deemed the trove belonged to Edith Pretty, but She donated the entire collection of treasures to the nation and the British museum.
The romanticism of this story conceals what a fundamental perception changing discovery this was. Our view of the Anglo Saxons changed during the twentieth century from Dark Age culture-less invading hordes to a very sophisticated society setting the scene for the establishment of what we know as England. Look for the thirteen serpents intertwined in the gold buckle revealing the skill of the goldsmith.
The reconstructed helmet is the iconic artefact for the site, assumed to be that of King Rædwald, who died in 625 AD, and one of the most powerful kings of the area. Ship burials we’re known all around the North Sea countries and reserved for the great and powerful monarchs. Buried with the king would be great treasures to show the pagan gods how important the dead king was and to please them in order to protect him in the afterlife.
Many of these have been robbed but what Brown uncovered was a vast treasure of gold jewellery, gold and enamel shoulder clasps and objects made of glass and garnets. The objects which reveal not only the skills and creativity of the Anglo Saxons but also their trading knowledge of the world are the presence of Byzantine silver bowls.
Sutton Hoo has benefitted from a £4m programme which has included a new visitor centre and viewing platform to see the burial ground from above. There are seventeen mounds in the Royal Burial ground, many of them robbed but include another ship burial and very significantly the rich burial of an influential woman, revealing something of Anglo Saxon culture. Not an easy place to get to the visitor is rewarded with a great story and some 100 hectares of pleasant Suffolk heathland to wander in. The glimpses of the estuary allow your mind to drift back to this very important funeral procession some 1400 years ago.