The experience for visitors at the site of one of the greatest archaeological discoveries ever made has been transformed at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, to bring the story of a spectacular King’s ship burial and his treasures to life.
In 1938, local landowner Mrs Edith Pretty called in archaeologist Basil Brown to investigate a series of mysterious mounds of earth on her estate near Woodbridge.
What he uncovered the following year, on the eve of the Second World War, made headline news: the 1,300-year old ship burial of a man believed to be 7th century Anglo-Saxon King Rædwald, along with priceless treasures including his helmet, gold belt buckle, sword and shield. The discovery revolutionized historians’ understanding of the 7th century and revealed that a time previously seen as dark and insular was in fact cultured, sophisticated and vibrant.
Now, the various elements of this extraordinary story are being re-told in a £4 million reinterpretation project, including a grant of £1.8 million from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, to offer new installations, immersive experiences and routes through the landscape.
Visitors are greeted in the Courtyard with a full-size, 27-metre long sculpture representing the burial ship, whilst the Exhibition Hall and Tranmer House, the former home of Edith Pretty, have both been completely transformed. Along with a new route through the landscape, these will reconnect the stories and people associated with the ship and its discovery with the Royal Burial Ground itself.
“It is impossible to overstate the level of excitement that surrounded the discovery of the King’s ship burial in 1939, explains Laura Howarth, Archaeology and Engagement Manager at Sutton Hoo. “Nothing of this scale had ever been unearthed in this country before and in a short period of time, this and subsequent excavations have transformed our understanding of the Anglo-Saxons and their world.
“The significance of the Anglo-Saxons at Sutton Hoo continues to resonate today through our language, law, culture and connections to the landscape. We wanted to create an experience which really does justice to this incredibly important heritage site and we hope our transformation will fire the imaginations of our visitors and help them to feel a part of this story.”
Within Tranmer House, the focus is the excavations in 1939 and those since, offering the chance to absorb the atmosphere of the discovery as it unfolded, as Edith Pretty, Basil Brown and others faced a race to complete as much as they could before war broke out.
Recorded interviews, vintage projections, extracts of diaries, letters and newspapers, along with photographs of the 1939 dig – including the first colour photographs from an archaeological excavation – immerse visitors in the story before they follow a new route from the house to the Royal Burial Ground beyond. Other important original items will tell their own stories, including in Tranmer House, one of the first ship rivets unearthed, alerting Basil Brown that something significant lay beneath his feet.
In the Exhibition Hall, dramatic new displays will greet visitors, showcasing finely-crafted replicas of the glittering treasures, now in the British Museum, that were buried with the King to accompany his journey into the afterlife.
Original pieces from the later digs will be displayed, such as items from the 1991 excavation which uncovered a warrior and his horse buried alongside bowls and sword, as well as a comb to remind him to stay presentable in the next life.
The Hall will also offer a window on the world of the Anglo-Saxons, through the eyes of various characters, using film, sound and displays to explore their culture, food, trade, rituals and the skilled craftsmanship used to produce the many items discovered.
Later this autumn, the final part of the project, a 17-metre high observation tower, will be opened to offer birds-eye views across the Royal Burial Ground to the wider landscape.
The £4 million project at Sutton Hoo was made possible by a £1.8 million grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and has been supported by the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership through the Growing Places Fund and the generosity of many National Trust members, supporters and donors.
John Orna-Ornstein, National Trust Director of Culture and Engagement comments, “I am delighted that the experience of visiting Sutton Hoo, one of the oldest and most significant historic sites in this country, has been transformed to offer ways for visitors to connect more deeply with its history and significance.
“We are hugely grateful to The National Lottery Heritage Fund, and the many Trust members and supporters who have helped make this transformation possible. Whether you have a deep interest in archaeology, love exploring local history, are visiting a heritage site for the first time or simply enjoy discovering the significance of the landscape around you, we hope Sutton Hoo will inspire people of all ages with its astonishing story.”
Anne Jenkins, Director, England: Midlands & East, The National Lottery Heritage Fund, added “Sutton Hoo is one of the most remarkable heritage sites in the UK, and we are delighted to have supported the transformation of the site to give visitors new insights into the fascinating history of the Anglo-Saxon King’s ship burial. It is thanks to National Lottery players that we have been able to invest in revealing hidden facets of the story, and we are sure that many of them will take full advantage of this brand-new experience.”
For further information and opening times visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo
Top Image: Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial – Photo by IH / Wikimedia Commons