Sutton Hoo at last

On the cover of my school history textbook was a photograph of a jewelled purse lid of gold and garnets – one of the treasures of the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial. Later, studying history at university in London, I spent many afternoons in the British Museum, staring at all the objects from Sutton Hoo, marvelling that such intricately decorated objects such as the shoulder clasps, belt buckle and helmet were produced during the period known as the ‘Dark Ages.’ The helmet, with its garnet-encrusted eyebrows, held a particular fascination.

Image of purse lid

I had watched In Search of the Dark Ages and knew that the Great Ship Burial, excavated on the eve of the Second World War was possibly that of King Raedwald of the East Angles, a powerful 7th-century king, mentioned in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Church and People, who hedged his bets by adopting Christianity without abandoning his pagan beliefs.

Despite all that, I had never seen the site. Until now. In February 2023, I finally took the opportunity to pay a visit. The estate was donated to the National Trust and in the intervening time they have built an excellent visitor centre. The first sight to meet my eyes on leaving the car park was an art installation of the iconic helmet.

My first port of call was the ‘High Hall’ exhibition, which uses both original and replica objects to explore the world of the Anglo-Saxons. ‘World’ is the right word – the items show the extensive trading networks that existed. Among the 37gold coins were examples from across what is now France and Germany, whilst silver bowls and spoons came from the Eastern Mediterranean. A bronze bucket engraved with a hunting scene, found in 1986, was made in a Byzantine Antioch.

Passing the modern whale-like recreation of the ship’s skeleton, I set out on the path towards the royal burial ground, situated on high ground above the river Deben. Despite the nesting boxes and jaunty lanterns in the trees lining the path, there was a definite sense of history and the others who had been this way centuries before. The burial ground itself was bleak on a windy February afternoon. A viewing platform provided a bird’s eye view of the mound, but. the view to the river, is now largely obscured by woodland.

After the windswept viewing platform, it was something of a relief to reach the final part of the visit, Tranmer House (formerly known as Sutton Hoo House), the home of Edith Pretty, the landowner who commissioned Basil Brown’s initial excavation on the estate in 1938. It’s the sort of house I would love to live in, given the income to go with it, but the main attraction for visitors are the photos and films of about the various excavations, and the hurried plans to protect the finds in the light of the impending war.

I’m glad I finally made it to Sutton Hoo. I will be back.

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