SUTTON HOO: THE REAL STORY BEHIND NETFLIX'S 'THE DIG'

One of the most significant finds in English archaeology has now been made into a film starring Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan and Lily James. The Dig reached No. 1 on Netflix as soon as it was released, and archaeology hasn't seemed so exciting 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.

Old photo of the original dig at Sutton Hoo

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 begain 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.


 An old photo of Basil Brown
Basil Brown

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.


Coins found at Sutton Hoo
Replicas of gold coins foud buried with the king

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, cafe, 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.


 A reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet
A reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet

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 exquistely 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.


A replica of the centrepiece of the shield found at Sutton Hoo

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.

A replica large white drinking horn
A replica drinking horn really helps to conjure up the atmosphere of feasts in the Great Hall.

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.


A close up of the game of Hnefatafl
Hnefatafl - the pre-runner of chess

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 broze bowls.


A close up of a comb made from antler
An original antler comb

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.


A close up of a small bowl
The original pot which contained cremated remains

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.