Personal reflections on the digs and discoveries at Sutton Hoo

Published: 27 January 2021

Last update: 27 January 2021

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This blog post is written by Angus Wainwright, Archaeologist Angus Wainwright Archaeologist
Sunrise over the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk

Angus Wainwright is one of our archaeologists, based in the East of England. He has visited and worked on many fascinating dig sites over the years, but if there’s one that stands out, it has to be Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. Archaeologists have been working on the area for more than 80 years, but it’s the first excavations in 1938-9 which are the subject of new Netflix film The Dig, starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan. Here, Angus shares some of the details behind the drama, as well as his own history with Sutton Hoo.

Reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon shoulder clasp found at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk
Sutton Hoo shoulder clasp reconstruction
Reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon shoulder clasp found at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk

Like many archaeologists I first came across Sutton Hoo in a university lecture. One by one, a series of extraordinary treasures popped up on the lecture theatre screen. Warm gold and glinting garnets, cool silver and burnished bronze. Like everyone else who sees these things, I was stunned: they were perfect but uncanny. It was difficult to imagine they had been made by human beings, let alone ones who lived more than a thousand years ago.

My next experience of Sutton Hoo was as an archaeological tourist, visiting Martin Carver’s excavations in the 1980s. We had come from our excavation on a Roman villa in Hertfordshire on a visit to the most glamorous dig of the time, the one that was regularly on the television. We thought they were having a rather easy time shifting nice light sand rather than our horrible heavy clay with flints. These pampered softies also had a luxurious tea hut and cooked meals, whereas we had insanitary tents and Vesta curry!

Aerial shot of Martin Carver's 1980s archaeological dig at Sutton Hoo
Aerial shot of the 1980s archaeological dig at Sutton Hoo
Aerial shot of Martin Carver's 1980s archaeological dig at Sutton Hoo

Sutton Hoo and the National Trust

Ten years later I was working for the National Trust in East Anglia, doing a crash course on the Cold War and the techniques of military experimentation having been given the Trust’s atomic weapons test site at Orford Ness to study. At the time, Sutton Hoo was a quiet backwater only visited by the real enthusiasts who wanted to see where the great discovery had been made.

A summer's day at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk
Sutton Hoo burial mound summer
A summer's day at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk

However, in the late 1990s the trustees of the Annie Tranmer Charitable Trust kindly donated the house and estate to the National Trust, and over the years the number of visitors has grown. As an archaelogist, it's been a real joy to finally be working on the site that first captured my interest back in that lecture hall.

Following the clues

One of the challenges of Sutton Hoo is that so many pieces are missing from the puzzle. Most of the organic remains like wood, textiles and bones have entirely disappeared. In other cases we have complete objects, but they’re so different from anything else ever found that we struggle to understand their function.

A good example is the so called ‘sceptre’: a large carved stone rod topped by an iron ring and bronze stag. It looks like a symbol of power, but was it connected to religion, royalty, the military, or none of the above? 

Reconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon ‘sceptre’ from Sutton Hoo
Reconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon ‘sceptre’ from Sutton Hoo
Reconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon ‘sceptre’ from Sutton Hoo

This issue is typical of most dig sites, where archaeologists must use their expertise and imagination to reconstruct buildings and the lives of people from patterns of post holes and fragments of broken pottery. 

In the same way, John Preston - who wrote the novel ‘The Dig’ based on Sutton Hoo - had to reconstruct the characters and their relationships from small clues in letters and diaries. The world he creates around the 1939 excavation seems real, but - like the worlds created by archaeologists - it’s all based on his interpretation of the clues left behind.

Two archaeological heroes

The two heroes in the story of Sutton Hoo's excavation are of course Mrs Edith Pretty who owned the estate, and Basil Brown - the self-taught archaeologist who she first employed to excavate the mounds.

Basil Brown (L) and Mrs Edith Pretty (R)
Basil Brown (L) and Mrs Edith Pretty (R)
Basil Brown (L) and Mrs Edith Pretty (R)

Brown is often portrayed as a rather tragic figure who had the biggest discovery of his life snatched from under his trowel. It's not entirely clear from his diaries or letters that this was the case, in fact he may have been quite glad to be relieved of the immense responsibility of excavating the burial chamber.

As an archaeologist I can appreciate Basil Brown’s great digging skills, but when it came to the challenges of unpicking the burial chamber and recording the many crushed and mangled objects, not to mention measuring a fragile 27-metre ship, I’m glad that the new team - led by Charles Phillips - were trained in the latest archaeological techniques.

The 1939 dig at Sutton Hoo attracted a lot of spectators
Navy personnel observe the 1939 Sutton Hoo dig
The 1939 dig at Sutton Hoo attracted a lot of spectators

Phillips also has his Sutton Hoo disappointment. Normally the excavator would get the job of writing up his dig, but that career-changing opportunity never came his way. Instead the job was taken by a team led by Rupert Bruce Mitford of the British Museum, who spent 40 years studying and publishing the excavation.

Raising the profile of the Anglo-Saxons

While an Anglo-Saxon expert might get excited about the Lombardic influence on the design of the gold and garnet cloisonné jewellery found at Sutton Hoo, for many people the entire period is a bit of a mystery. One wonders which PR company had the Anglo-Saxon account because they seem to have done a very poor job. Considering that the Anglo-Saxons gave us the English language, most English place names and the foundation of our law, it’s rather sad that people often know more about the rather flashy but historically insignificant Vikings, for example.

Reconstruction of a gold belt buckle found at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk
Sutton Hoo belt buckle reconstruction
Reconstruction of a gold belt buckle found at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk

At Sutton Hoo, we are aiming to shed a bit more light on this fascinating piece of our past. In 2018 we began work on an exciting project to transform the way people experience the story of Sutton Hoo. This included the creation of a new permanent exhibition which aims to do justice to the knowledge and debate about the site, while at the same time making the stories accessible for anyone who is new to archaeology and Sutton Hoo’s history. 

Sutton Hoo's exhibition reveals the lives of the Anglo-Saxons
Image of The Horseman, part of Sutton Hoo's permanent exhibition
Sutton Hoo's exhibition reveals the lives of the Anglo-Saxons

Lockdown means that the site is currently closed, but we look forward to welcoming you to Sutton Hoo once restrictions are lifted. In the meantime, don't forget to watch The Dig on Netflix for a taster of the site's history.

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