Have you ever visited a place for one reason, but ended up doing something completely unexpected, and way more awesome? Last weekend, I took S on a surprise weekend away. I chose Ipswich. Why Ipswich? Well, because I found a good hotel deal… Just being honest.
Whilst Ipswich was a pretty interesting place in itself, on Sunday we decided to head out of town and find somewhere to walk around. A lake walk was mooted, and I thought I’d just check my National Trust app to see if there was anything around worth visiting. The first option was Sutton Hoo, and I nearly fell out of my chair with excitement.
When I was a child, I loved reading books about history and archaeology (in fact, I nearly studied history at university – bit different from biology!). One of my favourites was a book on the Anglo Saxons, which contained a full double page spread on the treasure hoard discovered at Sutton Hoo. Ever since, I’ve wanted to visit the site. Like how other children might want to go to Disney to see the characters from their favourite books and films – for me it was things like this. Yes, I was (am) a geek.
Lengthy explanation alert: Sutton Hoo is the site of a cluster of barrows dating from 600AD, which were burial mounds of the important Saxons of the area. They were excavated in the 1930’s, and whilst some had been looted, one barrow in particular was full of some of the most important grave goods from the period. These items include treasures such as a belt buckle made from solid gold which weighs over 1lb, a highly engraved helmet, spears, swords, coins, and drinking vessels, all buried in a 90ft long wooden ship. It’s thought that this was the burial place of the King Rædwald, due to the amount and value of items held, as well as the fact that there were objects from throughout Europe, including Byzantine silver and French coins. The items were preserved remarkably well – even textiles – considering their age, and their importance in charting this period of history can’t be understated.
Plus, it’s a really beautiful site.
Sutton Hoo consists of the actual site of the barrows, as well as Tranmer House, which is open to the public, and an exhibition hall. There are various events on throughout the year, including regular guided walks around the barrows. We went for this option, which was excellent. It’s only £2.50 each and I’d say highly worth it. The guide gave us plenty of information and context around what we were seeing, and even let us into the area of the barrows themselves which are normally roped off.
The first area we came to was called Mound 2, which is the only barrow to be reconstructed to it’s original height. You can see it in the photo at the top of this post. Unfortunately, it had been mostly looted by the time excavations started in the 30’s, but it’s been rebuilt to give a good impression of what the site would have been like in the 7th Century. Adjacent to this site is a mound which, like the others, has been largely flattened by centuries of farming, but when it was excavated it yielded some surprising finds.
Under these stone markings were found several burials which were very different from the graves around them. These people had died violent deaths, and their bodies were buried with no ceremony whatsoever, and certainly no fine grave goods. It’s surmised that by the 8th and 9th centuries, the site of the barrows as pagan burials had become an area associated with demons and devils, thanks to the newly Christian culture. Therefore, this site was chosen as the place to execute criminals, and there may have been a gallows erected on one of the mounds. Either way, the criminals were buried where they fell.
After walking a little further, we came to the main event. Mound 1, the barrow of Rædwald. There are posts on the top which mark out the bow and stern of the ship, all 90ft of it.
I can’t really describe how cool it was to finally stand on the site of something I’d read so much about, and wanted to visit for so long. Plus, it’s such an interesting time in history and I’m all about finding out as much as possible about these roots of ours. I think we all got a bit lost in the magic of it.
Our guide passed around a replica of a brooch unearthed beneath us. It was absolutely beautiful.
The Saxons got a name for themselves as quite uncivilised, especially those who opted to follow their pagan roots. Bede was especially scathing of Rædwald, who had converted to Christianity part way through his life yet opted for a pagan burial (in this barrow). Bede decried this as ‘like a dog returning to its vomit’. Nice. However, the items found in the grave shed a different light on a group of people who were often dismissed as uncouth savages.
It’s also a great place for a walk, with beautiful views over the countryside. Most of these barrows have now been excavated at one time or another, but some have been left intact and just surveyed using non-invasive methods.
Here’s me trying to pose with a barrow, however due to scale issues it’s just me in front of some grass. Hey ho.
Most of the treasures unearthed here are now on display in the British Museum (which you can visit for free!) but some found in subsequent digs have been kept on in the exhibition hall. These are the grave goods found with a young male who was buried with his horse.
Here you can see his sword, a bronze bowl, some buckles, and the base of a small cauldron.
This is the remains of a bridle, which had these highly ornamented gilt bronze plaques. The man also had a small pouch around his waist which contained a pork chop, presumably to snack on on his way to the afterlife.
The exhibition also contained full reconstructions of the treasures found in Mound 1, which are genuinely breathtaking. There is also a short film and various displays to help you get a handle on the way the world was at the time. All very informative and very well done.
Sidenote: you can also stay on site at Sutton Hoo, in one of the National Trust holiday apartments. They look a little bit like this..
… and the view is pretty nice, too. You can just see the barrows in the distance.
Sutton Hoo is a National Trust site, and the entrance fee is £8.70 for adults and £4.35 for children. There’s also a fee to park outside of opening hours. However, these fees are waived if you’re a NT member.
I’d highly recommend a visit to Sutton Hoo, especially if you have an interest in early medieval history, or just like nice walks in the countryside.
Have you ever been to a medieval burial ground? Do you think they should excavate the remaining barrows or leave them be?