A life full of stories
Laura Howarth is the National Trust’s only Archaeology and Engagement Manager, but you could also call her a storyteller. With her special blend of knowledge, passion and curiosity, Laura weaves the threads of Sutton Hoo history together into a rich tale for all to enjoy. We asked her to tell us more about her role.
How did you find yourself at Sutton Hoo?
It was back for in 2014, after I’d completed an MA in medieval studies, specialising in 7th century Anglo-Saxons. If I had a pound for every time someone had asked me what I would use my MA for I’d be rich, so when the job came up here, it was one of those real ‘pinch me’ moments!
When I arrived for my interview, it felt more like I was talking to friends and like-minded people than being assessed and I came away really hoping that I had got the job.
Now I enjoy spending every day sharing the story of Sutton Hoo with visitors, helping to inspire them to be as passionate about the incredible history of the site as I am.
What does your work as Archaeology and Engagement Manager involve?
I lead a team that plans events, educational activities and exhibitions as well as looking after and sharing our collections. Really anything that helps the story of Sutton Hoo come alive for our visitors.
I love to provide new and fresh ways of looking at the history of Sutton Hoo and have a particular interest in helping our visitors relate to the Anglo-Saxons.
For example, recently I’ve been working with our Food and Beverage Manager on developing a dish for our cafe that ties back to the Sutton Hoo story - a lamb curry. I know what you’re thinking, it doesn’t sound very Anglo-Saxon, but our inspiration for this dish was the lamb chops that were found in the grave of a warrior horseman here at Sutton Hoo, perhaps a picnic for his journey to the afterlife. The Anglo-Saxons were cultural magpies in their borrowing and blending of different cultures and traditions. This is just like our cosmopolitan society today and this dish reflects the nation’s love of curry. We still feel the legacy of the Anglo-Saxons today and it’s helping people feel this relevance 1,400 years later.
What have you been up to whilst the site has been closed?
It’s been all systems go and no two days have been the same, as we’ve been weaving stories, through objects, film, photographs, the landscape and perhaps most importantly, people.
Our volunteers and staff have been taking part in exciting training activities, such as geophysics and historical costume making, learning new skills which they can then share with our visitors. We’ve also been working with others on new and interesting projects such as establishing a dye garden here on site, as well looking at how we fit into a wider Anglo-Saxon story network.
What most captivates you about the Sutton Hoo story?
For me, I love that every single object at Sutton Hoo tells a story – from a ladybird found in the Great Ship Burial right through to objects of the most exquisite craftsmanship which you still stand in awe and wonder of, wondering how exactly did they do that. This is also a landscape that echoes with the voices and marks of people stretching back for millennia and I think the new experience will help shine a spotlight onto some of these different people, their voices and stories.
The story didn’t end with the discovery of the Great Ship Burial in 1939 as our knowledge of Sutton Hoo and the Anglo-Saxons is ever changing and expanding.
Which of the site’s new features are you most excited to share with visitors?
It’s really difficult for me to choose just one piece of the jigsaw puzzle as I think they are all going to fit together to form a really exciting whole. That being said though, it’s just so amazing to see those ideas now physically take shape; for example when we had some new master crafted replicas delivered which will form part of the new display. Being the person allowed the unwrap them all, it felt like an extra special Christmas!
If I was forced to pick just one though, it might be how we will be sharing a collection of photographs taken in 1939 by two ‘amateur’ photographers Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagtsaff, which were gifted to us by Mercie Lack’s great-nephew. The fossil of the ship was only fleetingly uncovered, but thanks to these photographs this moment in time was captured- the handwritten annotations in the albums adding a real personal touch that helps transport you back to that summer of 1939.
Tell us about any personal highlights during your time at Sutton Hoo
Really difficult to pick but in 2018 I had the chance to sail a replica Viking ship across a rather stormy fjord in Roskilde, Denmark. Whilst the Vikings came along after the Anglo-Saxons, being aboard a ship not too unlike the one buried at Sutton Hoo was an incredible way of first-hand experiencing how the Anglo-Saxons harnessed the sea and wind to travel.
These people were travelling far and wide, and bringing objects back from many different cultures, the world really was their oyster.