Reinterpreting a world-famous site

This summer marks 80 years since the Sutton Hoo ship burial was discovered, revolutionising our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon period. The site has just reopened to the public following a £4 million investment. Carly Hilts paid a visit to see how a celebrated story had been presented anew.

Archaeologists excavating Sutton Hoo's Mound 1 ship burial, 80 years ago. The investigation was sparked by the interest of landowner Edith Pretty (shown centre, watching the dig from a cane chair).
This summer marked 80 years since the discovery of Sutton Hoo’s Mound 1 ship burial. The investigation was sparked by the interest of landowner Edith Pretty (shown centre, watching the dig from a cane chair). [Image credit: Trustees of the British Museum]

In the summer of 1939, a discovery was made that would change our understanding of Anglo-Saxon England forever. In archaeological circles, the story is as well known as any fairytale: Suffolk landowner Edith Pretty had engaged local archaeologist Basil Brown to investigate a cluster of mysterious mounds on her estate, and in 1938 he had uncovered rivets from a heavily disturbed ship burial (later known as Mound 2), ravaged by robbers and burrowing rabbits. Hopes were high that the largest of the barrows (Mound 1) might contain more of the same, but what emerged from the sandy soil was beyond anyone’s expectations: the ghostly outline of a 27m-long vessel picked out in rows of rivets and the impression of its long-decayed hull. Unlike the 1938 discovery, this grave was undisturbed, and its central burial chamber appeared to be intact.

One of the grave goods from the ‘Warrior burial’ found in Mound 17 during a later excavation at Sutton Hoo; the burial assemblage is on long-term loan from the British Museum and is displayed in the site’s recently-transformed Exhibition Hall.
One of the grave goods from the ‘Warrior burial’ found in Mound 17 during a later excavation at Sutton Hoo; the burial assemblage is on long-term loan from the British Museum and is displayed in the site’s recently-transformed Exhibition Hall. [Image credit: Phil Morley]

Given the potential significance of these finds, the dig was promptly taken over by Cambridge academic Charles Phillips – deemed a more ‘suitable’ leader than the self-taught Brown (though Brown was still allowed to participate in the excavation). Phillips put together a team of experts including celebrated names like O. G. S. Crawford, W. F. Grimes, and Stuart and Peggy Piggott. Painstaking excavation of the burial chamber revealed a spectacular array of over 200 objects, testifying to the skill of early medieval artisans and the wealth of the individual buried beneath the mound. Although the ship was initially interpreted as a Viking burial, it soon became clear that Sutton Hoo was the burial ground of 7th-century royalty, opening a unique window on the Anglo-Saxon past.

Eighty years later, the burial ground is in the care of the National Trust (see p.16), which has just reopened the site to the public following a £4 million transformation, including a £1.8 million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. New displays explore the story of the 1930s excavation and its discoveries, and new walks encourage visitors to engage more deeply with the river-valley landscape that first drew Anglo-Saxon mourners to the site.

Trench with remains of the Mound 1 ship, although the timbers had decayed in the acidic Suffolk soil, its outline could still be clearly seen. The vessel measured 27m in length and could have accommodated 40 oarsmen.
Although the timbers of the Mound 1 ship had decayed in the acidic Suffolk soil, its outline could still be clearly seen. The vessel measured 27m in length, and could have accommodated 40 oarsmen. [Image credit: Trustees of the British Museum]

TRANSFORMING TRANMER HOUSE

While perusing photographs of the excavation – many of which have been brought out of the archive and digitised for the first time thanks to the recent funding – and hearing accounts from its key players, it is striking how different this project was in some ways from a modern archaeological investigation. Yes, the excavation was carried out with painstaking care, and every find was recorded in detail, but many of the tools used to remove them from the ground had been borrowed from Edith Pretty’s pantry – pastry brushes, pen knives, jugs and basins, a kettle, a coal scuttle, and the household bellows. The finds were themselves transported from the site in makeshift containers: boxes, tins, and bottles borrowed from the local chemist and greengrocer, carefully packed out with moss. These differences are exemplified, though, by a recorded interview with Stuart Piggott, who describes going to the pub with the box containing the now-famous gold belt buckle still in his coat pocket. His clipped tones, and those of a BBC interviewer heading a 1965 documentary called The Million Pound Grave (clips of which are also shown), contrast starkly with the rounded accent of Basil Brown and Jack Jacobs, Edith Pretty’s gardener who (together with the gamekeeper, William Spooner) had been enlisted to help with the digging. Jacobs describes how he discovered the first of the ship rivets, only to be scolded by Brown for removing it from the ground and being made to put it back. Brown himself recounts his excitement at the discovery in wonderfully idiomatic phrasing: ‘So, I made a rush and pushed him out the ways…’.

Archaeologists working on the original excavation, which was led by Cambridge academic Charles Phillips. e assembled an expert team including many who are celebrated archaeologists in their own right today, such as Stuart Piggott (on the left) and W. F. Grimes (right).
Although the initial discovery was made by self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown, as the significance of his finds became apparent, Cambridge academic Charles Phillips took over as project lead. He assembled an expert team including many who are celebrated archaeologists in their own right today, such as Stuart Piggott (on the left) and W. F. Grimes (right). [Image credit: Trustees of the British Museum]

TROWELBLAZING PHOTOGRAPHY

These first-person accounts bring the excavation to vivid life – as do the displays in the second room ofthe house, where two women who played a key role in documenting the investigation take centre stage. Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff were friends and schoolteachers with a passion for Anglo-Saxon archaeology: they had previously spent school holidays photographing carved stone for the British Museum, and they brought their skills to bear on recording the early days of the Sutton Hoo excavation. Their images – many of them neatly annotated – provide a fascinating insight into the project, and include some of the earliest colour photographs from an archaeological investigation in this country.

Keen photographers Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff captured almost 450 stills of the Sutton Hoo excavations. This photo, taken by Barbara, shows Mercie and some of the members of the dig team – might she be showing them her own images?
Keen photographers Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff captured almost 450 stills of the Sutton Hoo excavations. This photo, taken by Barbara, shows Mercie and some of the members of the dig team – might she be showing them her own images? [Image credit: Trustees of the British Museum]

However groundbreaking this project was, though, as the Sutton Hoo diggers worked there were much more potent forces looming that would bring the excavation to an abrupt end. With the outbreak of the Second World War, digging had to cease. The ship burial was covered with a protective layer of bracken, and its grave goods were spirited away to London where they waited out the war deep in the (now-defunct) Aldwych tube station. Even so, this did not prevent the site from being damaged by military action – by our own forces. Throughout the war, Sutton Hoo was used as a military training ground, with the mounds brought into service to practice tank manoeuvres: to this day, the site still bears the scars of their tracks, and of anti-glider trenches. Excavations would not return to Sutton Hoo until 1965.

One of the objects dislpayed in the new Tranmer House displays: a ship's rivet recovered from the Mound 1 burial
One of the objects dislpayed in the new Tranmer House displays: a ship’s rivet recovered from the Mound 1 burial [Image credit: Phil Morley]

The third and final room open in Tranmer House takes visitors forward to the present day, offering a quiet space to sit and listen to the recorded memories of archaeologists who were involved in more-recent campaigns onthe site: Martin Carver, Sue Brunning, Fleur Shearman, Annette Roe, and Angus Wainwright. Large windows offer a contemplative view over the surrounding landscape, looking towards the burial grounds; bringing this landscape to the fore has been one of the key priorities of the site’s recent transformation.

One of the objects dislpayed in the new Tranmer House displays: Basil Brown's tape measure
One of the objects displayed in the new Tranmer House displays: Basil Brown’s tape measure [Image credit: Phil Morley)

A new walk takes you from Tranmer House down into the river valley that runs between the two promontories – or ‘hoos’ – on which the house and the burial mounds perch. These twin vantage points were probably both selected by the people who built on them, centuries apart, for their view over the valley and the River Deben. Visitors are encouraged to imagine how the great funerary ship may have arrived at the site by water, and how it was dragged upslope to its final resting place – indeed, the last stretch of the walk follows a hollow way that is thought to be one of two possible candidates for this route.

GRAVE SECRETS

As for the burial site itself, the old circular route that skirted the edge of the royal cemetery has been abolished, photo: and much of the fencing taken down so that visitors can walk among some of the mounds. While contemplating these barrows, though, you should also look at the ground underfoot, as – in the shadow of Mound 5 – a cluster of rough ovals covered with gravel mark the location of graves discovered during Martin Carver’s excavations of 1983-1991. These burials represent a darker turn in the site’s fortunes, when it was transformed from a place of ostentatious regal ceremony to a place of execution. Although the acidic local soil had eaten away the bones of the graves’ occupants, the shape of their bodies had been preserved as a rounded crust of brown sand, revealing their shockingly contorted postures.

At the time of their discovery (see CA 118), it was thought that the ‘sandmen’ might have been human sacrifices associated with Mound 5, but more recent dating evidence places them in a period spanning the late 7th/early 8th century to the first half of the 11th century. This encompasses a time of dramatic cultural and religious change, with Christianity beginning to take hold in East Anglia, and it is now thought that they represent judicial executions consigned to unconsecrated ground among the long-abandoned pagan mounds (CA 331).


This is an excerpt from a feature published in CA 355. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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