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Sutton Hoo History

Sutton Hoo has been described by some as the UK’s best 20th century archaeological find, and little wonder as the site has produced a treasure trove of artefacts far in advance of anything previously found, and which are now on display at various locations. These include the British Museum, Ipswich Museum and the Sutton Hoo visitor centre. After it was discovered in 1938, the site was subject to a number of detailed archaeological projects and what these showed was not just burial chamber detail, but valuable information about the life of the local people and their land over thousands of years.

Geographically, the area was an ideal place for habitation, being next to the estuary and high up on a hill that jutted into the River Deben and not far from the North Sea. What it didn’t have though, was fertile soil – it was of acidic nature and not ideal for crop growing, even when ploughed. The area is part of the east coast ‘Suffolk Sandlings’ which gives a clue as to the ground composition.

There’s evidence that the site was inhabited from around 3500BC when there was a Neolithic settlement, with archaeological research showing signs of life through the Bronze and Iron Ages and on to the period of Roman rule. The Romans left in around 410AD when Christianity started to spread, this in contrast to the old pagan beliefs of earlier years, and it’s thought that religious beliefs may have had a bearing on these burial grounds. By 600AD the kingdoms of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes were developing and these people would have been instrumental in the construction of the Sutton Hoo site. The Anglo Saxons did much friendly trading during Roman times and when the Romans left they took control.

Whilst the general history of the area is interesting, Sutton Hoo became of international importance after a specific event that took place in 1938. The story starts with an Elizabethan style mansion being built in the area in 1910 which was bought in 1926 by Colonel Frank Pretty and his wife Edith. The couple had a child in 1930 and when the Colonel died in 1934 he left Edith to bring up their son alone. It was a lonely time for her and, maybe with the idea of contacting her husband, Edith became interested in spiritualism. She was aware of the mounds in the mansion grounds, but had never had the interest to explore. But now she became drawn towards them, with her young son telling her that there were valuables underground when pursuing his dowsing interest. She was also told that a mysterious figure on a white horse had been seen next to the mounds.

Edith decided to investigate, and being a wealthy lady, had the means to do so. She approached the local museum for advice and they recommended an archaeologist who worked for them; his name was Basil Brown. Brown was an unqualified archaeological enthusiast, but highly regarded and one who had a reputation for ‘finding’ things, he’d even appeared on television at one point. He was offered a weekly wage, accommodation and the services of two of Mrs Pretty’s groundsmen. They started work on 20th June 1938.

At Mrs Pretty’s suggestion, work started on Mound 1, which was fairly central to the site, but Brown soon moved on to the adjacent Mound 3. On the 25th June, after digging down 9 feet, he came across cremated bone, a wooden tray, an axe head, part of a water jug, a plaque and pottery pieces. From experience, and in careful analysis of the section of the narrow trench he dug, he spotted a ‘robber trench’. This is archaeological parlance for a previous historic excavation and one in which it’s fairly obvious that the diggers intended to take valuables for personal gain. It’s believed that this happened in the sixteenth century and it’s thought that it was carried out by a team led by Dr John Dee, an alchemist who was an advisor to Elizabeth I.

Brown moved on to the large Mound 2 at the north end on July 6th. He found metal pieces which he recognised as ship rivets, and also noticed another robber trench. By around July 20th, Brown discovered what he thought was a boat-shaped base to the grave and found rivets together with knives and an Anglo Saxon bronze disc. What now transpires is that when Brown found rivets and then dug down into the chamber, he thought he was in a boat, but in fact he was in the robber pit of similar shape. The detail of the Mound 2 burial was thus: a pit was dug 12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 6 feet deep and within that a wooden chamber was constructed. The chamber was then furnished with the body and possessions and sealed at ground level. A wooden ship was then pulled up from the river, either by men or horses and placed on the ground over the burial chamber. This was in a prominent place, being both high up on the hill to be seen by passing boats as well as being right next to the busy path that people used to get to Ferry Cliff, the crossing point down by the river.

The ship on the hill would have been a powerful sight and would have shown the esteem in which the incumbent was held. At a suitable time in the future, for posterity and security of the treasures, the ship was covered in soil from the surrounding ground, this being a substantial project at the time. Eventually the inevitable happened as the ship timbers decayed and the weight of soil crashed through the deck into the open chamber. This would show as a depression in the surface at the top of the mound and was called a ‘ship dent’.

The team moved on to Mound 4 on 30th July and found remains of a cremation wrapped in cloth and placed in a bronze bowl, together with robber pit evidence. This became a fairly common find. Due to the effects of winter, ie the problems of trowelling frozen ground etc, archaeology tends to be a seasonal project and so ended work for 1938.

On May 8th 1939 they resumed and Mrs Pretty again asked Brown to investigate Mound 1. On May 11th one of Brown’s helpers found a piece of metal and Brown recognised it as another ship’s rivet. Brown was fairly disciplined and rather than blithely carrying on, he simply marked the point and trowelled away carefully. Soon rivet after rivet appeared with each one a set distance from the previous one. He found the almost obligatory robber pit, but mercifully this time the previous excavation had missed the chamber by inches. The sides of Brown’s trench collapsed at one point and 16th century pottery fell down, and together with the finding of a sixteenth century gin bottle, reinforced the view that the robber trench took place at this time. For Brown, it soon became clear it was a burial boat and after telling Mrs Pretty and the local museum, rumours began to circulate.

What saved the treasure from the previous diggers was that a field boundary ditch, dug around the 1300’s went straight through the side of the mound, making the mound shorter on one side. So when the robbers went for the centre, they dug at the central point between the ditch and the other side of the mound and so missed the original centre.

On 9th June a meeting was convened with representation from the British Museum, the Government, the local museum, Cambridge University expert Charles Phillips and Mrs Pretty and her team. As the gravity of the find sunk in, it was decided to cease digging and call in a more experienced group together with suitable equipment. The trouble was that war was imminent, the government had other things to do and the museum had to look at safeguarding its museum contents. This was ideal for Brown – he just carried on!

Whilst this could have been disastrous, it actually wasn’t that bad and proved a blessing as it provided security at a time when many locals began to hear about treasure being found in the mounds.

When a formal excavation was planned, Phillips was asked to lead the operation with Brown being diplomatically appointed his assistant. Phillips needed to recruit a team and sought trusted friends and colleagues, many of whom were recalled from holidays. Work started on July 8th. His team included Stuart and Peggy Piggott, Peter Grimes and Osbert Crawford and they embarked on excavation, plan making and photography. In reality, these weren’t just helpful hands, they were amongst the most skilled archaeologists of the era. On 21st July the team found a piece of jewellery and on the 22nd found a large horde. They finished on July 29th. They stored lesser finds in the workshop, but anything valuable was put for safety under Mrs Pretty’s bed. For added security she arranged for a policeman to guard the estate.

The horde contained over 250 pieces, but what they didn’t find was a body, which led the team to speculate that it may have been a cenotaph, an empty tomb in honour of men lost at sea. This was the subject of much debate at the time and what later proved to be true was that there was a body but the acidic nature of the soil dissolved it, preserving only the outline which is likely to have been lost when the ship timbers decayed and the chamber collapsed. Over the years many bodies were discovered at the site and the shape of most became recognisable by a dark crusty outline in the sandy soil.

The treasure that Mound 1 contained included 37 French gold coins, together with three blank coins and two ingots – these believed to have been payment for 40 oarsmen. Other objects included 10 silver bowls, a silver ladle, a silver spoon, a silver dish, a fluted silver bowl, 7 spears, a lyre, gaming pieces, a gold buckle, a sword, a purse, cauldrons, bottles, knives, an otter fur cap, combs, a pillow, shoes, garments, an axe hammer, buckets, a lamp, a leather bag, a Coptic bowl, a shield, cloaks, straps and buckles. There were also drinking vessels made from the horns of an aurochs, a type of cattle that became extinct in the 17th century. These had silver fittings of which a set from the same manufacturing die was found under Mound 2.

The divergence of the sources of the possessions emphasised the trade routes operating by that time. The coins were French, the silver from east Mediterranean, textiles from Europe and the Middle East and the Coptic bowl from Egypt.

Anglo Saxon expert Hector Munro visited the site a few weeks later and immediately announced that the burial chamber was that of Raedwald, the King of East Anglia who died in 625AD. This is a generally accepted theory today, although there are always alternative views. Raedwald was a popular king and a lavish burial would have been a suitable gesture to him. The coins are dated from 595 to 613 which backs things up nicely.

In contrast to the Mound 2 burial where the body had lain in a chamber under the boat, this one was buried inside the boat with the whole boat being buried below ground level. The boat was then lavishly furnished with all manner of possessions to accompany the deceased on his great journey.

Whilst the monetary value of the find was significant, the historic value was incalculable. But who owned it? It was on Mrs Pretty’s land, but was the buried treasure Crown property? The criteria in such a case depends on whether the people burying the treasure intended to return and retrieve it. In such a case the property belongs to the Crown. As the burial chamber constructors had no intention of returning, the local coroner awarded the treasure trove to Mrs Pretty. To her eternal credit she gave the complete collection to the nation and it is now on public display.

This was the ideal time to research the area and, more importantly, analyse under laboratory conditions what had been found. But within five weeks war had been declared and all recovered items were stored in the London Underground until hostilities ended. Brown covered the excavation in bracken and turf. To compound the problem of potential site damage, almost bizarrely, the area became a training ground for troops with the mounds being used as part of tank practice. Thankfully this practice soon stopped. Further damage was done to the nearby area as anti glider trenches were dug a short distance away as were small slit trenches, this to protect the vulnerable east coast. These are still visible today.

During the war years Edith died and the family home was sold but they included a clause in the sale enabling the family to retain the rights of site exploration and ownership of ‘finds’.

After the war, the British Museum had the task of establishing exactly what had been found six years earlier and Dr Rupert Bruce-Mitford led the team in pursuing this. A problem was that whilst the valuables had remained safe during the war, much paperwork had been lost and these included virtually all the photographs. As luck would have it, two of Mrs Pretty’s friends were lady history teachers and they’d spent time with her sitting on chairs watching the excavation and they took many photographs. These were donated to the museum in later years.

After laborious work, dozens of small metal pieces were found to be part of a helmet and this artefact has tended to be synonymous with the Sutton Hoo discovery. It was no complete helmet however, but sufficient remains were found to work out how it would have looked. To fulfil this, Tower Armouries were commissioned to produce a replica and this is on display in the British Museum today.

A small metal stag was found, as was a ring and a small pedestal and they all joined together one on top of the other. Put together with an iron stand found nearby it became a ‘standard’. But in 1970 Bruce-Mitford had an inspired thought. There was no certain reason why these articles should be on top of the stand and they could just as easily have been on top of a whetstone found nearby. Metal tests were done and the joint between the pedestal and the whetstone were found to be a perfect match and the resulting piece was a sceptre.

It was accepted that, for various reasons, the excavation of Mound 1 was rushed in 1939, so in 1965 a further study of the mound was undertaken, this time with detailed precision and with more modern equipment. It was also decided to fully excavate. Brown’s spoil heaps were located and when these were sieved, a few further items were found. Soil was analysed and it was found that the body would have been at the west end due to the chemical composition on that side. Care had to be taken during excavation as at the end of the war live ammunition had been buried in Mound 1.

Bruce-Mitford published his findings in three volumes containing 2771 pages and these were published in 1975, 1978 and 1983. A further reminder of the work is the fibreglass model of the prow section of the ship that is on display in the National Maritime Museum. This was achieved by taking a plaster cast of the ship on site.

By the late 1970’s there had been two twentieth century excavations, but Bruce-Mitford felt further exploration was necessary. But whilst it was a prime site for further inspection, it was felt that any further interest would take up valuable funding and resources that may have been better employed elsewhere. The archaeological world was split, but eventually it was decided to embark on a new project in the area. One factor was the state of the site at the time – it was largely covered in bracken and rabbit warrens and badly in need of protecting.

The project started in 1983 and the team was led by Professor Martin Carver. This new project was ‘sold’ to the funding committee on the basis of being research, not just in search of material items, but in learning more about the history of the site and the people who lived there over thousands of years. One of Carver’s other criteria, in gaining the commission, was that he undertook to leave a vast part of the site untouched for future research and a time in which archaeological technology and methods may be far in advance of today. He worked on a limited budget and each season recruited a team of students to help him examine the site.

Carver further investigated Mounds 5, 6, 7, 18, 14 and 17. Mound 5 was a very significant burial and has a good case for being recognised as the first burial mound. The person buried is believed to have been a high ranking person, but the mound is believed to have later been the site of gallows and is surrounded by graves of people who bore the marks of execution victims, many with their heads removed from their bodies. The Sutton Hoo site thus seemed to represent burials of either kings and royalty, or execution victims. It would seem illogical to surround a smaller mound if the larger mounds or perimeter mounds were built at the time so 5 may well have been the first.

Mound 5 was certainly an early grave and we know that the occupant suffered damage to their skull. Many mounds contained supposedly Christian cremations with remains wrapped in cloth and placed in copper bowls. In addition Mound 5 contained objects that included shears, gaming pieces, a comb, glass, ivory and animal bone, whilst Mound 6 contained similar games, comb and bones. Mound 7 contained the same as 6, plus glass, a cauldron, a bucket and parts of a drinking vessel, whilst 18 had the standard bones, games, copper bowl and cloth. It must be remembered that all these graves had previously been robbed, in fact the grave treasures of only two mounds were found intact, 1 and 17, and in each case the mound had been dug, but unsuccessfully. Mound 14 was that of a female and finds were silver parts of bowls and a cup, parts of a brooch, a bucket, a dress fastener and a cauldron.

The last mound to be discovered was Mound 17 and the reason for this was that the mound had been flattened and only showed above the surface under close examination. It was of a young adult male who was buried in one grave, with his horse buried in an adjacent grave. There were a host of items found for both man and horse and these were a sword, knife, two spears and a shield. The man’s dress items consisted of textiles together with a host of strap connectors, buckles and adornments as well as a belt buckle and a pouch containing jewels. Saddle items and tack were found for the horse as well as a bowl, cauldron and a horse bucket that was thought to have originally contained feed. A comb was found in the soil just above the coffin lying in a vertical position, this thought to have been thrown in as an afterthought by a mourner. The irony of this double burial is that when the robber pit was sunk into it, their vertical pit struck dead centre, right between the two burials. The robbers therefore believed the mound to be empty and left it.

In accordance with his intentions of historic site research, Carver’s excavation over the years took the shape of a giant cross or cruciform. At the east end of the cross he started to locate body after body and found it was a cemetery containing 39 graves. Again these were the bodies of people who had died violent deaths and when locating the central post holes of what is believed to have been another set of gallows, it became obvious that this was another execution area. The gallows posts were carbon dated to between 650-960AD indicating that it had been used at the same time as the Mound 5 execution site. It has been suggested that the different grave sites may have been due to different beliefs ie pagan and Christian. Many of the victims were in positions of distress eg hands tied behind their backs. One notable burial saw a triple burial with a decapitated man lying under two females. Having been in the acidic ground for well over a thousand years, the finds were generally a dark, hard crusty shape indicating the position of a body or a wooden coffin.

The astonishing detail that the Carver excavation revealed, things like the direction in which the wheelbarrows ran in ancient times, highlighted the fact that whilst Brown’s efforts were admirable and that it’s a wonderful story of the unskilled enthusiast finding the greatest treasure trove ever found in the UK, you do wonder how much detail was lost through not following procedures on the lines of Carver’s. But I suppose you may say the same thing in the future about Carver when it may be possible to analyse every single particle of a mound without so much as penetrating the surface, and they may find that Carver missed much too. This theory could go on and on but it should be noted that Brown could have done a lot worse than he did and let’s be grateful that the Mound 1 grave robbers hundreds of years before weren’t as successful as they may have been.

Carver used various techniques and research to date the previous digs. He believed that religious belief prior to the sixteenth century, and the fear of supernatural reprisals by the people who committed the deeds, would have prevented grave robbing. Following the fall of the monasteries, the fear would have diminished and it was around this time, in the sixteenth century, when almost every mound was dug and it’s believed that vast amounts of treasure was taken. In 1860 the local newspaper, the Ipswich Journal, reported the finding of a couple of thousand iron bolts and this was almost certainly from Mound 2. Further excavations then took place in the prominent Mounds 6 and 7, but Carver, through studying period journals and archaeological records found no indication of any treasure found at the time and was fairly confident that word would have got out one way or another if any was found. The likely outcome was that cremations were found and further perusal was deemed to be a waste of time and effort.

In finishing the field work, all mounds were rebuilt to the height that they were before the 1983 project started. All except Mound 2 as this was rebuilt to its original height of around 625AD, this worked out from the size of pits that surrounded it. During excavation of these, remains and post holes of a Bronze Age hut were found at ground level.

In 1998 the house and estate was given to the National Trust by the trustees of the Annie Tranmer Trust and in 2002 it was opened to the public. In preparation, they constructed a visitor centre and quite bizarrely when digging the foundations, they came across a further cemetery. At one time these also had mounds although they had been ploughed flat by local farmers. The archaeologists excavated only the area under the new constructions and left the land next to it for further exploration at a time in the future when it’s felt that technology is sufficiently advanced.

 

Sutton Hoo Visit 

Sutton Hoo provides a tranquil day out and is a great place to visit. It seems the typical National Trust site with a gift shop and café and the opportunity for nice walks around the 255 acre site. As the walks can be around the burial mounds, they can be really interesting too. The mounds are around 400 yards from the visitor centre and you get there through a small woodland.
 
The site is near Woodbridge in Suffolk, with the nearest stations being Melton, just over a mile away, and Woodbridge, about 3 miles away.
 
On site, in addition to the visitor centre and cafe, there’s an exhibition hall and children’s play area, whilst the ground floor of Tranmer House is also open to the public. The stables are open as a second hand book shop and there are three holiday apartments in the house. The exhibition provides excellent details of the burial treasure, life at the time and the history of the site.
 
There is a free guided tour available and this is well worth taking.
 
Adult entry is around £10 and the site generally opens at around 10.30.
 
There are a number of events that are held at the site, and these are often things like talks and lectures.
 
Details can be found on the website.