Suffolk IP12 3DJ
Just east/north-east of Ipswich in Suffolk is the alien-sounding location of Sutton Hoo - an area of land spread along the bank of the River Debden opposite Woodbridge harbour. Outlined on the top of the slope can be seen a number of grassy tumuli (burial mounds).
These are the famous 6th and early 7th century Anglo-Saxon cemeteries of Sutton Hoo – a name synonymous with one of the greatest British archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.
Who were the Anglo-Saxons?
Throughout the 5th century people from the coastal areas of Denmark, Germany and the lower Rhine settled in East Anglia, merging with or over-running the native populations of Celts and Romans.
From Denmark and southern Sweden came the Angles and from Germany came the Saxons. These settlers became known as Anglo-Saxons, and their combined languages merged into Old English, the basis of modern English speech.
In the 6th century kingdoms were formed: Suffolk and Norfolk became The Kingdom of the East Angles - the foundation of England as a country had begun.
The new settlers brought with them the pagan custom of burying important people under mounds, often with precious goods as a sign of their wealth. The grave goods included objects that they would need in the after-life like cooking pots, drinking vessels, weapons and armour, clothing and jewellery.
In rare cases a complete ship would be included in the burial. Such unique ship-burials have been found in East Anglia and Scandinavia.
The mystery of the twenty grassy tumuli and what they contained was unravelled in the 1930s. The mounds were on private land owned by a Col. F Pretty and his wife. Mrs Pretty engaged a local archaeologist, Basil Brown, to excavate the mounds nearest her house.
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Brown opened three mounds (Mounds 2, 3 & 4) in 1938. He realised that they had been high status Anglo-Saxon graves which had been robbed out. He also found traces of a buried boat indicating that one of these mounds could contain a ‘ship-burial’! As this was the customary way of burying Nordic chieftains and royalty, the Sutton Ho site suddenly assumed enormous significance.
In 1939 Brown opened the largest tumulus (Mound 1). He cut a trench from east to west and discovered iron ship-rivets in the sand. Without removing them he gradually revealed the stain of a 90 ft (27metre) long ship. The wood had rotted away leaving a perfect imprint of the boat.
The archaeologists could discern that the boat had been used at sea and had even sustained repairs at one time. It had a clinker hull, high stem and stern posts and thorn-shaped oar rests for 40 oarsmen. The decking, benches and mast had been removed before this huge oak boat had been hauled up from the river below.
Chamber with extraordinary Grave Goods
Across the width of the boat was a collapsed burial chamber filled with extraordinary grave goods. He had literally struck gold! The objects included jewellery, gold bejewelled clothing clasps, a belt buckle, silver bowls, drinking vessels, clothing, a magnificent ceremonial helmet and weaponry. One unusual item was a large ‘sceptre’ in the form of a whetstone but it showed no sign of previous use as a tool. It has been suggested that it symbolized the office of East Anglian Ruler.
Although there was no body visible subsequent soil analysis proved that there had been one laid in a wooden coffin. It was obviously the burial place of a high status and wealthy person. It was the grave of an early 7th century East Anglian king whose identity is unknown. Some authorities think that the occupant was Raedwald (ruler of the East Angles) who died circa 624 but this is debatable.
Sutton Hoo is of a primary importance to early medieval historians because it sheds light on a period of English history which is on the margin between myth, legend and historical documentation.
Mrs Pretty presented the ship-burial treasure to the nation for permanent display in the British Museum.
In the 1990s Mrs Pretty’s house and the ancient burial ground were donated to the National Trust to make them open to the general public.
Mound two has been reconstructed to its original height and a Visitor Centre and Exhibition Hall constructed where visitors can see a reconstruction of the ship with in-situ replicas of the finds, and other original artefacts found in the excavated mounds.
It is a thrill to be able to explore the actual place where these extraordinarily beautiful objects were found and learn about the mysterious history of the Anglo-Saxons.
Plan Your Day
Visit the National Trust website - see below.
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Grounds partially accessible - a map is available of the accessible route.
Burial Ground Tours
Guided Tours, Visitor Centre and Exhibition Hall, café, gift shop, toilets, parking.
Contact & Further Information
+44 (0)1394 389 700
- By road
Sutton Hoo is on B1083 Melton to Bawdsey road. Follow signs from A12 north of Woodbridge
Google Maps - Sutton Hoo