One of the most significant finds in English archaeology, the ships and grave goods found on this windswept Suffolk coastline are of vital importance to an understanding of Anglo-Saxon history. With most of the finds on display in the British Museum, many people still ask if you can visit Sutton Hoo. Yes, the site is open to the public and is a fantastic place of mysterious mounds and glittering treasure. The story of its discovery story was made into a film and The Dig reached No. 1 on Netflix as soon as it was released. Archaeology hasn't been so popular since Indiana Jones first raided a temple and got chased by a rolling boulder.
The story behind The Dig is no work of fiction however, and although some inevitable artistic licence has been employed, the story behind the film is just as fascinating.
People are starting to ask questions: can you visit the site? Where is it? What can you see?
Although many of the finds are in the British Museum, the site is open to the public and having recently undergone a huge revamp, it is a fantastic place of mysterious mounds and glittering treasure, and is definitely worth a visit. My son and I visited on a freezing day in February last year.
HISTORY OF SUTTON HOO
The story of Sutton Hoo is the stuff all young archaeologists and treasure hunters dream of.
Mysterious mounds had been present on the land near Deben River for centuries, but it wasn’t until the landowner, Mrs Edith Pretty, had a chance encounter with a local historian at a flower festival in the late 1930s, that any investigation was undertaken. She had always had an interest in archaeology, and when she married and bought Tranmer House in the 1920s, the mounds were part of the grounds.
This photo of the ship being excavated in 1939 shows just how big it was and what an incredible find it was. Photograph © The Sutton Hoo Archive
Excavations began in 1938 by a local archaeologist, Basil Brown (played by Ralph Fiennes in the film) who was hired by Mrs Pretty. The first few mounds yielded little to excite attention, and Brown correctly concluded that they had fallen victim to grave robbers.
In May 1939, they started excavating Mound One, and swiftly realised the significance of what they had found.
Iron studs were identified as ship’s rivets and the impression of a ship soon emerged. At this point, news of the find had spread, and it was agreed that a more experienced archaeologist would take over the dig. Mrs Pretty was declared the legal owner of all of the treasures found, which she promptly donated to the British Museum; the single largest gift by a living donor ever recorded.
The outbreak of World War II saw the treasures hidden in Aldwych underground station in London for the duration, until peace was declared and work on investigation and analysis could begin in earnest.
There have been further excavations over the years, with some astonishing new finds, including a warrior buried with his horse and slightly newer graves of execution victims. Much of the area has been left for future archaeologists to uncover when there have been advances in technology.
The land and Tranmer House has been owned by the National Trust since the 1990s and there is now a large exhibition hall, café, walks and a shop near the site, with a viewing tower currently being built to look over the mounds.
WHY IS SUTTON HOO SO IMPORTANT?
Although no actual bodies have been found at Sutton Hoo, as their bones have long since disappeared into the acidic soil, there is evidence that they were there; both impressions and chemicals have remained and were found by the archaeologists. It is thought that the large ship burial was in fact King Raedwald, and this is what the National Trust exhibition focuses on.
There is no shortage of evidence for the royal nature of the burial’s incumbent. The ship was full size, and buried with it were all of the objects that a King would need in the afterlife, each loaded with significance. The ornate, hand-crafted, bejewelled weaponry shows he was a great warrior; the drinking horns, water buckets and Byzantine silverware showed he was a great host; the lyre that he was a man of culture.
The most significant find of course was the helmet, something that is now recognisable across the globe as the face of Anglo-Saxon Britain.
It was found in over 100 pieces and was painstakingly put back together by staff at the British Museum.
Made of iron with bronze decorative plates, it is exquisitely decorated with patterns, boars' heads and a flying dragon amongst other designs.
Helmets weren’t commonly worn by warriors until much later in the Medieval period, only by Kings in the 6th century, so it is logical to assume that this magnificent burial was that of a King.
There are only five Anglo-Saxon helmets that still survive, and this one is by far the most impressive.
The original can be seen at the British Museum, but there is a fantastic hand made replica here which positively glistens in the light, its empty, hooded eyes carrying a slight air of menace.
There is also one for kids to try on, less impressive perhaps but no less unnerving.
WHAT ARTEFACTS CAN YOU SEE AT SUTTON HOO?
The exhibits are a mixture of replicas and original pieces, with the replicas managing to show just how impressive some of these items were in their original state, which really brings the objects to life.
The first displays set the scene, with the arrival of Germanic people in England after the Romans, forming different groups and alliances, with leaders trying to extend their kingdoms or defend what they had. It was a time of both political and religious turmoil, with a new religion, Christianity, creeping up from the south. King Raedwald had died of old age, leaving his people vulnerable.
There is a short film which portrays two women cleaning his grave goods and discussing the arrival of the new religion, its premise of equality at death, and the conflict that belief has with the old pagan ways of the kings and warriors having the best afterlife. It was well done, and made easy for kids to understand the volatile times they had lived in.
The drinking horn, buckets, silver platters and large cauldron on its chain really conjure up the image of the huge halls where they would have feasted; the songs, tales of heroics, ribald laughter and deals made in the glow of a crackling fire create a very Tolkeinian atmosphere.
There are plenty of Anglo-Saxon costumes nearby for people to try on, for those who really want to get into the spirit of things, and most of the replicas can be handled and touched. It makes it a great experience for kids and really brings it to life.
We played the ancient board game of Hnefatafl, a pre-runner of chess. Played with two armies of uneven numbers, it was a Nordic and Celtic strategy game played from the 4th – 12th century. We played it twice, I lost both times…
The exhibition doesn’t just focus on the King; there is a very determined emphasis on the women in society, from the Queen and wise woman down to the more pedestrian. Women in this society had far more equality and respect than they did in later Medieval society, and could play a role of influence and decision making.
There are items which were found with female burials; bowls that still contain their ashes when they were thrown on a magnificent funeral pyre with their finest belongings, their cremated remains placed in bronze bowls.
Right underneath the exhibition hall a second cemetery was found, an earlier one than that with the burial mounds. It was here they found the cremated remains, and also small objects like an antler comb which was added after a cremation, perhaps a token from a loved one to a mother or wife. This original antler comb was placed in the grave after the cremation, rather than being burnt with the woman on the funeral pyre.
This pot contained the cremated remains of a high-status woman, who was also cremated with a cow, a horse, a goat and a dog.
There are objects which show that even after the Romans had departed, their influence lived on.
The incredible shoulder clasps that were found with the helmet were Roman in style, there is a bucket from North Africa which would have been used by the Romans and was clearly a treasured item to its later owner.
A Roman coin had been fashioned into a pendant; it could have been melted down and reused for gold but its worth lay in its Roman heritage and the prestige attached to it.
A Byzantine bucket was found in the cemetery now underneath the exhibition hall. It has hunting scenes from north Africa and shows a hunting dog and lions. High status buckets such as these were used in Roman baths.
The Anglo-Saxons themselves had master craftsmen who could fashion every day and ceremonial objects out of iron, gold, silver, bone, wood and leather. The intricate art of cloisonné was used to make beautiful and detailed pieces; a display case shows how such items were made, the tools and materials that were required and show just how intricate the work was. King Raedwald had a favourite craftsman whom he used to make several of his finest items, archaeologists have been able to recognise the work of a single individual in all of the many pieces.
Original pieces from the horseman’s grave are on display.
He was found in one the mounds, his horse sacrificed and buried next to him. Buried in a coffin made from a log, he had weapons and a beautiful harness buried with him, as well as some lamb chops for the afterlife.
There was a shield, spears, bucket, a purse filled with unpolished garnets, bowls and a knife found with him; this was the grave of an esteemed warrior. Near his grave goods are a replica sword and shield for people to lift to see the weight of these items. We both tried and we both struggled.
THE STORY BEHIND THE DIG
Tranmer House, the study inside and a portrait of Edith Pretty
Tranmer House is where Mrs Edith Pretty lived, and some of the rooms have been opened up to provide displays that focus on the excavation and the actual archaeology of the site. It tells her story, has objects and photographs from the original dig and you can look through her windows and see the same views she did, with the mounds rising in the distance.
There are pictures and words from the archaeologists, past and present, who have worked on the site, and a room filled with projectors playing black and white footage of early excavations.
There are artefacts connected to the excavations, such as the very first rivet that was found in 1939, and an old tape measure used on that first dig.
There are not many rooms in the house which are open to the public, so it doesn’t take too long to walk round. The house was definitely of less interest to my son, as however exciting the thought of archaeology and treasure hunting is to a child, the photos of measured trenches, gentle trowel work and endless patience don’t quite carry the excitement of the imagined Indiana Jones style thrill of discovery. We left the house with the door slamming behind us in the wind, and headed off to find the mounds.
SEEING THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE OF SUTTON HOO
Walking out of the door of Tranmer House, the newly laid path presents you with two options: a 30 minute walk following in the footsteps of the Anglo-Saxons when the ship made its final journey from the River Deben to the Royal Burial Ground, or a shorter walk of 15 minutes on a flat path, directly to the burials. Because it was blowing with gale force winds, and in fact we had been advised at the entrance not to go outside at all, we took the shorter route.
Leaning into the wind and scuttling past the trees in case they decided to blow down, we made our way to the Royal Burial Mound. The countryside here is lovely; a gently rolling landscape of springy green turf, wild heathland and in the distance, boats bobbing around in the river in front of the red roofs of the small town of Woodbridge. The mounds are easy to spot, although only one is back to its pre-excavation height, the others are now gentle curves, shadows of their former selves.
A viewing tower was in the process of being built, which overlooks the burial ground and will give people a chance to see the wider picture of the layout of the grounds, which include World War II anti-glider ditches, the Medieval field boundary and the sites of the graves of the executed victims.
Mound One, where the royal ship was buried, is marked with two curved pieces of metal which stick out of the top of the mound where the bow and stern of the ship were found.
We didn’t spend as long as we would have liked walking around the mounds. It is open landscape and with the winds howling around us and the cold biting at our fingers, we soon headed swiftly back to the warmth of the café and a hot chocolate. Next to the café is a large replica of the hull of the ship where the size and scale of it can be fully appreciated.
We both found Sutton Hoo to be fascinating, particularly the main exhibition of reproduced and original objects. As the most significant Anglo-Saxon site in England that can be visited, it is definitely worth taking a trip to Suffolk to see this site alone.
VISITING SUTTON HOO
How to get to Sutton Hoo
Postcode: IP12 3DJ
Public Transport: The nearest train station is Melton. It is a 25 minute walk to Sutton Hoo. The nearest bus stop is on the B1083 at the entrance to the Sutton Hoo site.
Parking: Parking is free in the National Trust car park
When is Sutton Hoo open?
November – February: Daily 10am – 4pm
March – October: Daily 10am – 5pm
How much does it cost to visit Sutton Hoo?
Free to National Trust members
Are there any facilities at Sutton Hoo?
Gift Shop, Picnic Tables, Café
The site is wheelchair and pushchair accessible (except for the actual mounds)