diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 25, 2011

Day Out: Sutton Hoo
To celebrate it being ten years since leaving Suffolk, I thought I'd go back. There were so many places I never visited back then, because I didn't spend my time scouring the local area for interesting things to blog about. I even had a car then, which I don't now, which made getting to my chosen spot rather trickier than it would have been in 2001. Better late than never.

It was luck, really. The greatest archaeological discovery of the century, all down to an unlikely series of consequences. Somebody else would have uncovered everything by now using infra-red scanning or satellite photos or some other technology, obviously, but back in 1939 it took a man with a trowel. His name was Basil Brown, and he's the reason Sutton Hoo is famous.

When Edith Pretty moved into her new home on a hill overlooking Woodbridge, she never guessed what might be lurking in the undergrowth on her estate. But her burgeoning interest in spiritualism made her wonder, then believe, that one of the mounds on the ridgetop might contain buried treasure. She called in Ipswich Museum, who sent Basil, and he sunk a quick shaft but found nothing. Undaunted he decided to explore some of the other barrows close by instead, unearthing some rivets and handful of minor treasures, but it appeared that everything of value had been plundered by grave-robbers in centuries past. The summer of 1938 passed without major incident, and the secret of Sutton Hoo remained buried.

The next year Edith invited him back, told him to investigate the big one or else, and this time Basil dug a proper trench. He found more iron rivets, but this time arranged in a regular pattern, and soon realised he was excavating an unusually large ship. Somehow, quite fortuitously, this mound's contents had evaded the persistent attention of thieves and survived intact. The British Museum were called, and they rushed up to Suffolk and took over, demoting Basil to the sidelines while the real treasure was uncovered. Hundreds of ornate items of gold and jewellery, the remains of swords and shields, and various accoutrements that an Anglo-Saxon king might want in the afterlife. No body, nothing organic, but most of the metal objects had survived the chemical bloodbath of a deeply acidic soil. Coins dated the hoard to about 625AD, suggesting that this might be the tomb of Raedwald, leader of the East Angles, but nobody's ever proved that conclusively. All of the ancient artefacts were painstakingly catalogued and removed, stored in Edith's house for safe keeping, then carted off to London. And only just in time, because World War 2 broke out days later and the dig had to be abandoned forthwith.

A coroner's inquest in the local village hall decided that the entire hoard belonged to Edith, an unimaginable fortune, but she humbly chose to bequeath everything to the British Museum a week later. That's why, if you want to see the finest treasures from the site, you have to head to London and not to Suffolk. The Sutton Hoo helmet is an astonishingly rare and intricate find, and usually has pride of place in Room 41. Alas, that's closed for renovation at the moment, so Hoo seekers will have to make do with one of the many reproductions elsewhere, or the Radio 4 series "A History of the World in 100 objects", or a trip to Edith's old estate above the River Deben.

The site today is owned by the National Trust, and could be any old patch of East Anglian farmland were it not for the visitors centre and car park. The story of the Sutton Hoo hoard is told in a specially constructed exhibition gallery, which includes a reconstruction of what the wooden burial chamber in the heart of the sunken boat might have looked like. There is, naturally, a restaurant and a shop, the former considerably busier yesterday than the latter, but then there's still three months to Christmas so nobody needs National Trust notelets or gift boxes of toffees just yet. In a nice touch, Edith's home has been restored to provide a 1930s counterpoint to the Anglo-Saxon site on the ridge. Members of the Sutton Hoo Society dress up as the butler, or as ladies visiting for afternoon tea, and the house's entire period contents can be handled as well as enjoyed.

If you visit, I strongly recommend you pay a little extra to join a guided walk. It's only a short walk from the visitor centre to the area where all the excavations were made, but the guides bring the whole place to life which stories of what did, and what might, have happened here. Even better they'll take you inside the roped-off area, walking amongst the 17-or-so mounds and pointing where the horse was buried and where the gallows stood. And, even better still, they'll take you up onto the mound itself (which beats standing on the low viewing platform behind an ill-placed tree). It's not the original Anglo-Saxon earth, because that's been reconfigured several times by archaeologists, but there is a thrill in climbing up onto the boat-shaped hump beneath which our island's ancient history was so perfectly preserved.

Sutton Hoo (IP12 3DJ)
» Open daily April-October (weekends November-March)
» Admission £6.50 (or free to National Trust members)
» Nearest station: Melton (20 minutes walk) (hourly trains from Ipswich)

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