Excavating the CA archive: Sutton Hoo

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

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Joe Flatman
Joe Flatman is Head of Listing Programmes at Historic England and the former County Archaeologist of Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman

As this month’s contribution to the ‘great excavations’ mini-series, I turn my attention to a ‘great’ project of Anglo-Saxon archaeology: Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. The site is one of the best-known in the country thanks to the stunning array of high-status grave goods recovered during the 1939 excavations and displayed in the British Museum since the late 1940s. But in this column I want to focus not on the objects but rather on the two great post-war phases of fieldwork undertaken on the site between 1965 and 1971, led by Rupert Bruce-Mitford, and then again between 1983 and 1992, led by Martin Carver. With CA having launched in March 1967, the timing of these projects coincides perfectly with the emergence and growth of the magazine.


Bruce-Mitford’s involvement in Sutton Hoo dates back to the pre-war fieldwork in 1939. Having joined the staff of the British Museum in 1937, he was familiar with the site, and in his semi-autobiographical book Anglo-Saxon and Mediaeval Archaeology (1989) he notes that as early as 1940 he had been informed that on his return to the museum from war service he would be responsible for the curation of the Sutton Hoo finds. These had been hastily put into storage when war was declared only weeks after the end of the fieldwork in August 1939. Bruce-Mitford’s return duly took place in 1946, and he quickly concluded that there were still unanswered questions from the site.

The cover of CA 95 featured Sutton Hoo at night. The floodlit photo, taken with the help of BBC technicians, helped to reveal the contours of the site.

Such is the origin of the 1965-1971 excavations – what of CA’s reporting on them? There is passing mention in early volumes of the magazine, including, in CA 10 (September 1968), of the ‘media archaeology’ of the BBC’s Chronicle programme, which had visited the summer 1968 fieldwork. But the intriguing fact is that there is no in-depth report in CA on the excavations of this period.

[Ed’s note: I asked Andrew Selkirk about this, and he explained: ‘I have never been much of an extrovert, and am not always good at approaching my seniors – that was particularly the case when CA was first getting established – I also missed out on covering early work at Silbury Hill due to a similar lack of chutzpah. I did visit Bruce-Mitford’s excavations at Sutton Hoo, but we did not get an article out of it. Funnily enough, I had previously met him when I was a schoolboy, digging at DMVs in the 1950s. I took some pottery to the British Museum, and Bruce-Mitford looked at it for me and said it was the first St Neots ware found in Warwickshire.’]

In the magazine’s coverage of the first volume of the site reports in CA 57 (July 1977) Andrew notes: ‘the book that everyone is talking about I have not yet seen. I refer, of course, to the first volume of the Sutton Hoo report, which costs, apparently, no less than £45… One cannot help feeling that this type of scholarly publication simply should not be published by a commercial-type organisation… Above all, of course, they should have sought a big fat subsidy, equivalent at least to the standard DoE subsidy of 75 per cent of the printing costs… By publishing it at £45 [roughly £270 in 2018 terms], the British Museum has surely failed in its duty’.

In 1978, the National Maritime Museum opened its new archaeology gallery with a cast of the Sutton Hoo ship and the Graveney boat, discovered in 1970. CA 65 covered the launch.

More favourable mention in this period comes in CA 65 (February 1979), when the Selkirks visited a new archaeological gallery – not as might be expected at the British Museum, but rather at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. There, the front quarter of the fibre-glass cast of the Sutton Hoo ship – taken during the 1965-1971 excavations prior to destroying the impression in order to excavate underneath – was displayed alongside the stylistically comparable but later Graveney boat from Kent (dating from the 10th rather than 6th-7th century) that had been discovered in 1970.


Sutton Hoo next crops up in CA 75 (February 1981), which noted that ‘the Antiquaries [the Society of Antiquaries of London] are trying to put aside part of their research funds for a major excavation at Sutton Hoo for research into some of the other burial mounds adjacent to the ship burial’. That most learned of learned societies normally getting what they want, CA 88 (August 1983) duly reported on a meeting of the Medieval Society in April 1983 in which plans for the site were presented by the new lead excavator: Martin Carver. Carver’s is a name that is nowadays well known among archaeologists, thanks to his boundless energy and enthusiasm, not least as editor of the journal Antiquity between 2002 and 2012. In 1983 CA introduced him with a resumé worth repeating in full:


Martin Carver is not a graduate in archaeology, but began his career in the army, and while in the army he took an external London degree in general sciences. Having left the army he did a diploma in Anglo-Saxon studies at Durham and went on to conduct some much-praised excavations in Durham. Currently he is head of the Birmingham University Field Archaeology Unit where he has been conducting excavations at Stafford. He is an excellent strategist, asking all the right questions, and producing, in the modern jargon, a very good research design.


Sutton Hoo appeared again on the cover of CA 128.

Accordingly, the Selkirks paid a visit and reported fully in issue 95 (January 1985), with not only the first detailed coverage of the site in the magazine but also its first time as cover star.

CA 95 highlights the scale of the work in these years, and the challenge of interpreting it, not just in terms of the complexities of the excavation but also as regards the materials on site. As CA reported, this ‘emphasises what the excavator calls the eclecticism of Sutton Hoo: they drew inspiration from all over Northern Europe. Thus their jewellery and regalia drew on Germanic, Late Antique, Scandinavian and native British traditions’.

CA returned in issue 118 (January 1990), giving an update on the ongoing excavations and also placing the work in the wider context of a report on a nearby site of nearly as great significance: Snape, an Anglo-Saxon cemetery with a history of excavation (dating back to antiquarian work in the 1820s and 1860s) that was reinvestigated between 1985 and 1992 as part of the wider reappraisal of the Anglo-Saxon landscape of East Anglia that the 1980s Sutton Hoo fieldwork had initiated. CA 128 (March 1992) then made a final return to the site, summarising the previous decade of work in style – and also, for the first time in the magazine, in colour – with an extended ‘interview’ with Martin Carver in the style of an epic, Beowulf-esque poem. This is quite something, literally unlike any other piece of writing in CA before or since, and I urge readers to seek it out via the magazine’s online archive.

THE 1990S
Excavations in advance of a new visitor centre revealed another cemetery at Sutton Hoo, as CA 180 reported.

In more recent times, Sutton Hoo may not have seen the scale of work experienced under Bruce-Mitford and Carver, but nor has it lain quiet. Crucially, in the 1990s the larger estate was given to the National Trust by the Trustees of the Annie Tranmer Trust, the charitable organisation that had managed the site since its sale by the original 1930s owner-excavators, the Pretty family. Under the new management – helped by an influx of funding from various sources – a brand-new visitor centre was opened at the site in 2001. CA 176 (October/November 2001) briefly reported on this, and CA 180 (July 2002) then paid a full visit, reporting both on the visitor centre itself and on the archaeological excavations that had, rightly, preceded construction.

If you have never visited Sutton Hoo, then do consider doing so. Even when busy, there is normally a quiet space to be found on the further corners of the site, and on an out-of-season day, especially when the early morning mists linger, there are few more evocative corners of the British archaeological landscape to explore.

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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 3 May. 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 ‘DIGI339’

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