Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge, East Anglia, is the site of two 6th- and early 7th-century cemeteries. One contained an undisturbed ship burial, including a wealth of Anglo-Saxon artefacts of outstanding art-historical and archaeological significance, most of which are now in the British Museum in London. The site is in the care of the National Trust and there is an exhibition hall at the site as well as allowing the visitor to explore the Royal Burial Mounds. Sutton Hoo is of primary importance to early medieval historians because it sheds light on a period of English history that is on the margin between myth, legend, and historical documentation. Use of the site culminated at a time when Rædwald, the ruler of the East Angles, held senior power among the English people and played a dynamic if ambiguous part in the establishment of Christian rulership in England; it is generally thought most likely that he is the person buried in the ship. The site has been vital in understanding the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of East Anglia and the whole early Anglo-Saxon period.
The ship-burial, probably dating from the early 7th century and excavated in 1939, is one of the most magnificent archaeological finds in England for its size and completeness, far-reaching connections, the quality and beauty of its contents, and the profound interest of the burial ritual itself. The initial excavation was privately sponsored by the landowner. When the significance of the find became apparent, national experts took over. Subsequent archaeological campaigns, particularly in the late 1960s and late 1980s, have explored the wider site and many other individual burials. The most significant artefacts from the ship-burial, displayed in the British Museum, are those found in the burial chamber, including a suite of metalwork dress fittings in gold and gems, a ceremonial helmet, shield and sword, a lyre, and many pieces of silver plate from Byzantium. The ship-burial has from the time of its discovery prompted comparisons with the world described in the heroic Old English poem Beowulf, which is set in southern Sweden. It is in that region, especially at Vendel, that close archaeological parallels to the ship burial are found, both in its general form and in details of the military equipment contained in the burial.
Although it is the ship-burial that commands the greatest attention from tourists, two separate cemeteries also have rich historical meaning because of their position in relation to the Deben estuary and the North Sea, and their relation to other sites in the immediate neighborhood. Of the two grave fields found at Sutton Hoo, one (the "Sutton Hoo cemetery") had long been known to exist because it consists of a group of approximately 20 earthen burial mounds that rise slightly above the horizon of the hill-spur when viewed from the opposite bank. The other, called here the "new" burial ground, is situated on a second hill-spur close to the present Exhibition Hall, about 500 metres upstream of the first. It was discovered and partially explored in 2000 during preliminary work for the construction of the hall. This also had burials under mounds, but was not known because these mounds had long since been flattened by agricultural activity.
Following the withdrawal of the Romans from southern Britain after 410, the remaining population slowly adopted the language, customs and beliefs of the Germanic Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Much of the process may have been due to cultural appropriation, as there was a widespread migration into Britain. The people who arrived may have been relatively small in numbers and aggressive towards the local populations they encountered. The Anglo-Saxons developed new cultural traits. Their language developed into Old English, a Germanic language that was different from the languages previously spoken in Britain, and they were pagans, following a polytheistic religion. Differences in their daily material culture changed, as they stopped living in roundhouses and constructed rectangular timber homes similar to those found in Denmark and northern Germany. Their jewellery began to exhibit the increasing influence of Migration Period Art from continental Europe. During this period, southern Britain became divided up into a number of small independent kingdoms. Several pagan cemeteries from the kingdom of the East Angles have been found, most notably at Spong Hill and Snape, where a large number of cremations and inhumations were found. Many of the graves were accompanied by grave goods, which included combs, tweezers and brooches, as well as weapons. Sacrificed animals had been placed in the graves.
At the time when the Sutton Hoo cemetery was in use, the River Deben would have formed part of a busy trading and transportation network. A number of settlements grew up along the river, most of which would have been small farmsteads, although it seems likely that there was a larger administrative centre as well, where the local aristocracy held court. Archaeologists have speculated that such a centre may have existed at Rendlesham, Melton, Bromeswell or at Sutton Hoo. It has been suggested that the burial mounds used by wealthier families were later appropriated as sites for early churches. In such cases, the mounds would have been destroyed before the churches were constructed. The Sutton Hoo grave field contained about twenty barrows; it was reserved for people who were buried individually with objects that indicated that they had exceptional wealth or prestige. It was used in this way from around 575 to 625 and contrasts with the Snape cemetery, where the ship-burial and furnished graves were added to a graveyard of buried pots containing cremated ashes
The most impressive of the burials without a chamber is that of a young man who was buried with his horse, in Mound 17. The horse would have been sacrificed for the funeral, in a ritual sufficiently standardised to indicate a lack of sentimental attachment to it. Two undisturbed grave-hollows existed side-by-side under the mound. The man's oak coffin contained his pattern welded sword on his right and his sword-belt, wrapped around the blade, which had a bronze buckle with garnet cloisonné cellwork, two pyramidal strapmounts and a scabbard-buckle. By the man's head was a firesteel and a leather pouch, containing rough garnets and a piece of millefiori glass. Around the coffin were two spears, a shield, a small cauldron and a bronze bowl, a pot, an iron-bound bucket and some animal ribs. In the north-west corner of his grave was a bridle, mounted with circular gilt bronze plaques with interlace ornamentation. These items are on display at Sutton Hoo.
The Exhibition Hall is the perfect place to learn more about the Sutton Hoo burials, and the wider Anglo-Saxon world. A short film introduces you to the era, and information boards explore the story and themes that emerge from the archaeological discoveries. A reconstruction of the burial chamber evokes a sense of the ritual that must have taken place, and shows how the treasures were laid out around the king. For families there are quizzes, rune-writing, and the opportunity to dress up as an Anglo-Saxon. They have a collection of exquisite hand-crafted replica treasures on display in the Exhibition Hall, made by master craftspeople. These treasures serve to show us what they would have looked like all those years ago when they were laid down in the ship burial. Making them was also an act of experimental archaeology. By using techniques that would have existed at the time, it has helped them to understand the skills of the Anglo-Saxon craftsman. In the year 2000, archaeologists were excavating a corner of the Sutton Hoo estate in preparation for the construction of the exhibition hall and visitor services buildings. The team discovered a whole new cemetry, of graves that pre-date the famous mounds.You can explore the burial area in detail with the 'Hidden Hoo' Trail - ask at visitor reception for details. Mobility parking in the main car park with a Drop-off point. Museum has a level entrance. Four wheelchairs. Ground floor accessible. Audio visual/video. Adapted toilets are at the visitor reception. Grounds are partly accessible, slopes, uneven paths, undulating terrain. Map of accessible route. Burial ground tours not accessible for visitors in wheelchairs or PMV due to uneven and undulating ground. Two single-seater PMVs available, booking essential. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : Tranmer House, Sutton Hoo, Woodbridge, Suffolk, IP12 3DJ
Transport: Melton (National Rail) then bus or 25 minutes. Bus Routes : 71 (via Melton and Ipswich) stops nearby.
Opening Times : Daily 10:30 to 17:00
Tickets: Adults £8.20; Children £4.10
Tel: 0139438 9700