Excavating the CA archive: Sutton Hoo revisited

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Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 5 September. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI355, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

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Joe completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of
Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.

In CA 339 (June 2018), I explored the site of Sutton Hoo through past issues of Current Archaeology. Here, I gleefully pay a return visit to this site, a place that is one of the spiritual homes of British archaeology. It is somewhere that has defined both approaches to and the understanding of our field as a discipline.

The estate has been cared for by the National Trust since the 1990s, and my visit in this issue allows me to flag the latest developments in the long history of fieldwork there, associated with new visitor facilities that open in the late summer of 2019 (see p.44). If you’ve never visited Sutton Hoo, or if you haven’t visited in a while, then this autumn make plans to head there. I promise you will not be disappointed.

With a recent investment of £4 million, the Trust is now bringing to life long-held plans to tell the story of Sutton Hoo like never before. Thanks to the generosity of National Trust members and supporters through donations and fundraising, together with a £1.8 million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund (previously known as the Heritage Lottery Fund), this is the biggest investment that the Trust has ever made in the area. Works include, most dramatically, the construction of a 17m-high observation tower, which will give views over the entire burial ground and to the River Deben beyond, revealing the fascinating story of this landscape; a walking trail across parts of the estate not previously open; and the transformation of Tranmer House (the former home of Edith Pretty, original owner/excavator of the site). Tranmer House will host a new exhibition exploring the people and stories behind the Sutton Hoo discovery, while new displays in the site’s Exhibition Hall will share more about the lives of the Anglo-Saxons and how Sutton Hoo came to be such a significant place in English history.


CA 180, feature reporting the opening of a new visitor centre at Sutton Hoo by Seamus Heaney in 2002, and looking at the associated archaeological excavations
A new visitor centre at Sutton Hoo was opened by Seamus Heaney in 2002, as CA reported in issue 180, in a feature that looked at the associated archaeological excavations.

As I noted in my introduction, the National Trust’s formal involvement at Sutton Hoo is relatively recent. In the mid-1990s, the estate was gifted to the NT by the Trustees of the Annie Tranmer Trust, the charitable organisation that had managed the site since its sale by the original 1930s owners, the Pretty family. Since the site came into the care of the NT, it has gone from strength to strength, not least with the completion in 2001 of a brand-new visitor centre. CA 180 (July 2002) paid a visit when it opened, reporting on both the visitor centre itself and the archaeological excavations that had preceded its construction. For the grand opening of the centre there was a day-long event with superstar speakers, including the poet Seamus Heaney, who at that time had recently published a highly acclaimed translation of Beowulf, the Old English epic which is perhaps our best source for the social world inhabited by Rædwald (chief candidate for occupant of Sutton Hoo’s Mound 1 ship burial) and his contemporaries. And CA noted the sheer scale of public interest: 55,000 were expected to come in the first year, a figure that ended up being dwarfed by the reality of well over 250,000 visitors.

The story of Sutton Hoo next returned to the pages of CA in issue 236 (November 2009), with an interview with one of the great modern-day names associated with the site: Martin Carver, who led fieldwork there between 1983 and 2005. Carver’s voice is always worth listening to: he has a passionate desire to share, an infectious enthusiasm for life that shines through in everything that he touches. The article gives a telling sense of his outgoing perspective when he is asked by the interviewer, ‘If you could travel back in time, what date would you go to?’. Carver replies, ‘I would go to the early 7th century when the largest Sutton Hoo ship was buried: I would like to have been there to see how they did it. But more than that… for me, this was a time for free-thinkers; there were Romans, Britons, Picts, Scots, Angles, Franks, Danes all arguing about the best way to live and experimenting politically – led by poets’. As a former soldier with a poet’s heart, I’m sure that Martin would have fitted very well into this rich cultural melting pot – and would probably have led some riotous partying on the site as well.

Cover of CA 331, looking at Martin Carver's most recent book, focusing on the site's wider context
Martin Carver, one of Sutton Hoo’s great excavators, was interviewed in CA 236. In CA 331, the cover feature delved into his most-recent book, focusing on the site’s wider context.

CA 331 (October 2017) picks up the threads of this earlier interview, with a cover story linked to Martin’s most recent book, The Sutton Hoo Story: Encounters with Early England. The book examines not only the famous 7th-century ship burials but the wider cultural heritage of the area, the later royal burials springing from an earlier cemetery, and then the dozens of later burials in an execution cemetery, a sequence of burials from late-Roman pagan communities through to a fully ‘Christian’ kingdom.  


After the interview with Martin Carver, Sutton Hoo next appears in CA 268 (July 2012), in an extended review of a groundbreaking new work by Leslie Webster, Anglo-Saxon Art: A New History. This book is well worth seeking out if you’re not familiar with it. It is a stunning piece of scholarship, interlinking the artistic and intellectual flows of this period, and simply beautiful to look at too, filled with photographs of the cream of artistic crafts of this era from sites across Europe, including many of the wonderful pieces of metalwork excavated at Sutton Hoo.

CA 293 (August 2014) continued this theme of the cultural and artistic melting pot that Britain represented in the 7th century with another book published at this time. James Gerrard’s The Ruin of Roman Britain suggests that, with no formal ‘end’ of Roman Britain, a comprehensive rewriting of our understanding of this period is necessary, and that even the distinction between ‘Romano-Briton’ and ‘Saxon’ is false. In issue 293, CA’s top heritage sleuth Chris Catling explored the book and more widely the evidence, or not, of a ‘late Roman transition’, pointing out, among other connections, that the design of the famous Sutton Hoo gold belt-buckle is ultimately derived from the belt-sets of Late Roman officials. Saxon art thus sought to emulate Roman style and to stress continuity rather than difference, another reason for doubting whether this is the art of a hostile ‘invader’.

Last year, CA 341 covered the dig carried out in advance of the new visitor facilities at Sutton Hoo (see p.44)

Last year, CA 341 covered the dig carried out in advance of the new visitor facilities at Sutton Hoo (see p.44)

CA’s most recent visit to Sutton Hoo came in issue 341 (August 2018), when the magazine travelled to the site to tell the story underlying fieldwork undertaken by MOLA in advance of the new visitor facilities that I began this column with. As can be imagined, works on a site of such national importance by necessity see the National Trust working closely with key partners such as Historic England to ensure that the maximum amount of information is extracted by any groundwork.

But, crucially, such fieldwork is also a means of involving the public and thereby developing their understanding. Sutton Hoo, like many NT sites, only achieves everything that it does thanks to the time and dedication of volunteers (over 60,000 of whom work on sites nationally in a diverse range of roles), and this includes archaeological fieldworkers, many of whom played a key role in this project. The story of these most recent participants in the long life of the site will be told among many tales in the new displays there, so my advice is: keep an eye open for announcements and plan to make your own pilgrimage to this corner of a Suffolk field as soon as you can.


Sutton Hoo is open daily. For more details, visit http://www.national trust.org.uk/sutton-hoo or call 01394 389700.


Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 5 September. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI355’

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