4 August 2018

#Research: The Hollow Hills of Sutton Hoo

I’ve lately been posting about the Neolithic passage tomb of La Hougue Bie to be found on the Channel Island of Jersey, HERE and HERE. But not all “hollow hills” are of such antiquity, and many are true tombs. The most celebrated to be found in the British Isles is at Woodbridge in Suffolk… Sutton Hoo.

Left: mound rebuilt to original height. Right: height after 1400 years natural erosion

Sutton Hoo is the site of a multi-mounded cemetery of the 6th-7th centuries. A couple of weeks ago was the anniversary of the finding of its treasures, but it wasn’t the first time “excavations” had been made at the site. When the land belonged to the Tudor Crown, Queen Elizabeth I licenced men to dig there in the hope of re-filling State coffers. Thankfully, they didn’t try very hard or the archaeology would have been lost to future generations.

The Sceptre whetstone, made from Greywacke

In the 1930s the mounded cemetery was part of the estate belonging to a Mrs Edith Pretty who instigated formal excavations. At least, sort of formal. In 1938 test trenches were dug into various mounds by a self-taught local archaeologist, Mr Basil Brown, who specialised in Roman excavations, ably supported by various members of Mrs Pretty’s estate workers. Some of the mounds were found to have been robbed; ship’s rivets were found in others. Not Roman; Viking perhaps?

In May 1939, with war imminent, Mrs Pretty gave the go ahead for one last try on a partly broken mound believed robbed. Within days it was realised not only that robbers had failed to find the inner chamber but that it contained an untouched ship burial. And the rest, as the saying goes, is world-breaking news. Except, of course, Europe was fast going to hell in a hand-basket, and Britain was soon to be involved. It became a race to fully excavate, document, and save both extracted artefacts, and the site.

What Basil Brown found was an Anglo-Saxon ship burial, except there was no ship. The wood of the 90 ft (27.5m) vessel had dissolved in the acidic soil, leaving its outline perfectly preserved via its rows of iron rivets. The grave has since been attributed to King Ræwald, a Bretwalda who took homage from other kings. Like the wood of the ship, he, too, was a mere ghost surrounded by his grave goods, which reads like a list taken direct from the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, surprisingly cited during the Coroner’s Inquest.

Replica full-faced helmet
Arrogant though it seems to us today, the academic belief prevalent at the time was that when the Roman legions withdrew in or about 410AD, these islands were plunged into a centuries’ long period without art, writing, or culture, and had only the most basic subsistence economy.

Yet here was superb gold filigree work depicting mythical birds and animals, jewellery and clothes fittings carrying garnets from India, Irish gold-work, a silver and bronze bowl from the eastern Mediterranean, traces of fine fabrics, and the accoutrements of a high-born warrior: shield, sword, spears, mailcoat and a fantastically-decorated, full-faced helmet.

Under the laws of Treasure Trove, Mrs Pretty was allowed to keep all artefacts. She, in turn, gave them to the Nation via the British Museum where they were conserved and can still be viewed, recently via a Google Walk-through.

In the 1990s her house and estate, including the mound cemetery, were given into the keeping of the National Trust. When work started on an Exhibition Hall and visitor centre it was realised, as had been suspected, there was much more to the site than the mound cemetery.

Replica shield (3ft dia) to show its gold fixings
Although the mound cemetery is… grassy mounds… the exhibition centre brings alive the period through its excavated artefacts, replica artefacts of items in the British Museum,  video explanations, and a walk-through reproduction of the burial chamber inside the ship as it would have looked prior to being covered in earth – a quiet and quite moving experience in itself.

Sutton Hoo – the hoo being a spur of a hill – is a place I’d always wanted to visit, despite it being, basically, a field of tightly grouped grassy mounds overlooking the River Deben. Perhaps I should say, placed strategically on a spur of a hill to be viewed, in awe, from the economic highway that was at the time the River Deben.

If you want to see more about Sutton Hoo, go on to YouTube.

Is this a ‘once in a lifetime' find? An Anglo-Saxon ship burial? Possibly; only one other has been uncovered in the British Isles, a 48ft ship burial in Snape quite close by, though much smaller boat burials are well-known, including one in the Sutton Hoo cemetery. However, well preserved burials with grave goods are found, seemingly, all the time. One, a man laid to rest with his spear and pattern-welded sword in its scabbard, came to light while I was pulling together this post. The grave was found by Afghan veterans on military training land on Salisbury Plain [HERE]: “The men were very moved by the discovery of a man they felt would have shared some of their experiences”. Mmm. I bet they were. I can’t see how they couldn’t be. 


NB: Click on the images to bring up a larger view. All photos (c) Linda Acaster.

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