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History of archaeology at Sutton Hoo

View of the prow of the ship and part of the burial chamber featuring Basil Brown and Charles Phillips.
Excavating the ship. Basil Brown is pictured standing. Charles Phillips is seated on the right. | © Original photograph by Mercie Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum; digital image © National Trust

The discovery of the Great Ship Burial in 1939 not only stunned the archaeological world, but it set the scene for further exploration. Later archaeological campaigns have solved mysteries left by the original dig and revealed more about life in this Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

1600s: Tudor treasure-seekers

We know that the archaeological explorations that unearthed the Great Ship Burial in 1939 were not the first attempts on Sutton Hoo’s mysterious mounds.

Having been left untouched since their creation in approximately 625AD, fast forward to the Tudor period, a time when people were able to obtain a licence from the Crown to excavate here. Far from the honourable curiosity that later drove Edith Pretty and Basil Brown, these individuals were after treasure, of which they found a great deal. Valuable objects found would have been melted down and shared between the finder and the Crown

It was through our good fortune, rather than a lack of trying, that these treasure-seekers missed the contents of at least two of the mounds, leaving them undisturbed for the future.

1860: Plundering for profit

A major campaign of excavation took place at Sutton Hoo in the 19th Century. You can still see small dips in some of the mounds from this activity.

Whilst the excavator plundered a large quantity of rivets, they failed to appreciate that these were part of a ship burial. Rather than explore further, the rivets were allegedly taken to a blacksmith to forge horseshoes.

As with the Tudor treasure-seekers, these gentleman collectors left virtually no record of their finds. However, whilst so much that could have been learned had been lost, there was still a great deal yet to be discovered.

1938: A tantalising start

After being appointed by landowner Edith Pretty, local archaeologist Basil Brown’s initial excavation at Sutton Hoo took place in June and July of 1938, and focused on three of the burial mounds.

By using the traditional technique of cutting a trench across the mounds, Basil went in search of the chamber, or pit, that lies under all burial mounds. He was looking for a difference in soil colour, which indicates the presence of an in-filled chamber or grave. This was made more difficult than usual, due to interference from ‘robbers trenches’ left by treasure seekers centuries before.

Whilst Basil was to discover that each of the mounds had been robbed, still they revealed hints of the glorious finds to come. Within Mound 3, he unearthed the remains of a cremated man, along with a corroded iron axe-head, part of a decorated limestone plaque, fragments of pottery and the lid of a Mediterranean jug. Mound 2 revealed pieces of iron, which Basil recognised as ships’ rivets - although having been previously scattered by grave robbers, they did not immediately suggest a ship burial. He also recovered a beautiful piece of blue glass, a gilt bronze disc, iron knives and the tip of a sword blade.

Mound 4 was the last of the 1938 season, and whilst it had a very shallow pit, and also showed signs of having been robbed, careful excavation revealed some tantalising fragments of bronze, high-quality textile and bone.

Basil had discovered just enough for another season of excavation to be planned…

1939: The Great Ship Burial

In May 1939 Basil returned to the site. Having had the previous year’s experience, he felt ready to take on Mound 1, the largest of the burial mounds.

On the discovery of the first piece of iron, Basil immediately stopped work and carefully explored the area with a small trowel. He uncovered five rivets in position on what turned out to be the prow of a ship. Presented with this unforeseen discovery, Basil had to change his trench technique, making it wider to encompass the emerging form. As he worked, Basil revealed the ghost of a ship, including the fragile outline of the curving wood in the sand, showing where all the planks, ribs and even some of the tholes for oars would have been.

Chamber of secrets

Basil reached the burial chamber, located in the centre of the ship, on 14 June 1939. Alarmed at finding signs of robbery, Basil gave a sigh of relief when he realised that quarrying in the Middle Ages had changed the shape of the mound, so when robbers had dug into what they thought was the central burial chamber, they had missed.

On the discovery that Mound 1 was a large ship burial, its chamber undisturbed, word quickly spread. It became evident to Edith Pretty that the significance of what had been found called for experts, and so the dig was swiftly handed over to Charles Phillips of Cambridge University and his handpicked team of brilliant young archaeologists. It was to become the richest grave ever excavated in Europe.

Race against time

At any moment, war could be declared, so without time to source specialist equipment, Charles’ team used what was to hand including a coal shovel, pastry brushes, penknives and a pair of bellows! In the following weeks, excitement mounted with the revelation of treasure after treasure. In total, there were 263 finds of gold, garnet, silver, bronze, enamel, iron, wood, bone, textile, feathers and fur. Amongst the finds included a pattern-welded sword with a jeweled hilt, intricate shoulder clasps of gold inlaid with garnet and glass and the iconic Sutton Hoo helmet - although, when this was excavated, archaeologists found only a series of its shattered fragments.

It was at this point that Charles Phillips was able to identify the ship burials as Anglo-Saxon, and not Viking, confirming Basil’s original conclusion.

War begins

War was declared on 3 September 1939 and the treasures were buried once more, but this time in a disused London Underground tunnel. They survived the Blitz, but the plans of the ship were not stored underground, and went up in flames. This loss led archaeologists to return to the burial site decades later to find answers to a few burning questions.

1965–71: Mystery solved

Two decades after the war, excavations resumed. Led by Rupert Bruce-Mitford and Paul Ashbee, a team returned to find out more about the Great Ship Burial in Mound 1. Most pressing was the question of why no human remains had been found in this elaborate burial. The mystery was solved by chemical analysis of the sand below the burial chamber, which showed high phosphate levels. This established that a body had decomposed there, and certainly the acidic nature of the region’s soil would explain why timbers and human remains alike had dissolved over time.

With previous digs focusing on the Great Ship Burial, archaeologist Martin Carver was keen to explore some of the other mounds within the Royal Burial Ground and the areas in between. His instincts were right and, over the course of a decade beginning in 1983, his efforts were rewarded by rich new discoveries including a second ship burial, the resting place of a warrior and the gruesome ‘sand bodies’.

The second ship

Following Basil’s initial finds in Mound 2, Martin’s team correctly deduced that this was likely to have contained a very rich ship burial of a person of comparable status to Rædwald. Though the grave had been robbed, and subsequently excavated by Basil, some fine objects had either been left behind or missed, including: two decorated gilt-bronze discs, a bronze brooch and a silver buckle. The tip of a sword blade showing elaborate pattern welding bore a resemblance to that found in the Great Ship Burial in Mound 1, and silver gilt drinking horn mounts were discovered in both mounds and found to have been struck from the same dies. Although the rituals were not identical, comparisons of the content of the burials suggests a similar date and status.

A woman of status

During this decade of investigations, Mound 14 was found to have been the only discernible high-status burial of a woman so far discovered in the Royal Burial Ground, leading some to conclude that this was the resting place of a queen, and perhaps Rædwald’s widow.

Ghosts in the sand

Moving away from the mounds, Martin Carver’s team started to look at the areas in between, and when the soil was scraped back, the outlines of more graves appeared. With careful excavation, human forms could be detected as areas of harder, darker sand. These ‘sand bodies’ lay in a variety of distorted positions, indicating that, unlike previous finds, these individuals had not been ceremoniously buried. There were other gruesome details: bound legs and ankles, broken necks and some severed heads.

Thirty-nine individuals were found in total, and all died violently - but why? A clue lay in the discovery of post-holes found nearby, which are thought to be the location of the uprights of an early gallows.

With paganism on the wane, the laws of the new Christian administration helped keep order for the kings that followed Rædwald, and capital punishment was part of that order.

What had recently been a Royal Burial Ground for pagan kings, it seems, had become the gruesome resting place for those denied a Christian burial.

Warrior at peace

Towards the end of Martin Carver’s investigations in 1991, there was a marvellous discovery in Mound 17. Much like the Great Ship Burial, it only survived robbers by chance.

The robbers dug straight down in to the centre of the mound, but as it contained two graves, side by side, they dug between and missed both of them. The remains of a young man had been buried in a tree trunk coffin with his weapons and other grave goods including a very fine horse harness. A celebration of this man’s status as a warrior was expressed by the presence of a shield, two spears and a fine sword with a jewelled belt fitting - there were also drinking vessels and food, including lamb chops. The other grave contained the skeleton of his horse.

Reconstructing Mound 2

The final piece of work carried out by Martin Carver was the reconstruction of Mound 2, the only one to receive this treatment. Being one of the biggest of the mounds, it was a prime candidate for reconstruction, and was Martin’s archaeological experiment to see both how this monumental marker would have dominated the seventh-century landscape and also how it would change over time.

1986: Building a Byzantine bucket

In 1986, during the time that the Tranmers were living at Sutton Hoo, harrowing in the Garden Field brought the Bromeswell Bucket to the surface. Made in the 6th Century, judging by the letterforms used within the bucket’s design, it was already a hundred years old when it arrived here from Antioch in modern Turkey, but then in the Byzantine Empire.

Like many of Sutton Hoo’s most fascinating finds, it was unearthed in fragments. Further discoveries during a metal detecting survey in 2012 unearthed more pieces of this Byzantine bucket.

Through painstaking work, we’ve carefully cleaned and reshaped each bucket fragment into its original form. By delicately fixing each piece of our ancient jigsaw onto a mount we’re able to see how this exotic piece of craftsmanship would originally have looked.

2000: Going further back in time

When building our Visitor Centre during 2000, the area of another hoo peninsula was investigated by Suffolk County Council archaeology unit, revealing an additional Anglo-Saxon cemetery that predated the Royal Burial Ground. Home to the previously discovered Bromeswell Bucket, archaeologists went on to find 13 cremations and nine burials in the area excavated, five of which were under small burial mounds.

Not quite as grand as the ship burials, these were the graves of residents from a variety of low to relatively high status families. Women had been buried with everyday items including combs, bowls, small knives, shoulder brooches and beads. In many of the male graves were found a spear and a shield. These were part-time warriors, ready to take up arms, but who spent most of their lives farming the land. Despite their lower-status, it’s quite possible that these were the grandparents and great-grandparents of East Anglian kings, such as those laid to rest in the Royal Burial Ground many years later.

2017 on: Research continues

New technological developments over the years allow us to continue to find new strands to the Sutton Hoo story.

Recently, a team from Bradford University explored the mounds using Ground Penetrating Radar and drone-mounted lasers (LiDAR). These non destructive techniques use pulses of radar and laser respectively, helping to reveal minute details of the construction of the mounds as well as marks left on their surfaces by Second World War tanks.

Exploring the viewing tower footprint

Whilst making plans to build the new 17-metre viewing tower overlooking the burial mounds, we carried out an excavation of the ground where the base of the new tower now sits.

Over two weeks in May 2018, Sutton Hoo staff and volunteers helped archaeologists from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) with their investigations. The BBC, ITV and Radio 4 all came along to enjoy the palpable sense of anticipation as we dug knowing that there was a real possibility of finding something incredible.

Whilst we didn’t uncover anything to rival previous discoveries, the finds told the long history of Sutton Hoo, from prehistoric flints and evidence of Anglo-Saxon camp fires right up to a bread packet from the 1980s!

Ongoing surveys

As part of the National Lottery Heritage Funded project, Releasing the Sutton Hoo Story, we were able to train our volunteers to study this landscape’s geophysics using an earth resistance meter, which measures the resistance of the soil.

By scanning the soil, we can build up an image of what lies under the surface. Generally, human-made features such as earthworks, walls or buildings will show up as a dark patch, indicating high resistance. Lighter spots, or low- resistance areas, are usually natural geological features. The geophysics team have recently completed a survey of Garden Field and the results are currently being interpreted.

Time Team

Working alongside National Trust archaeologists, a series of investigations have been planned to build up a more complete picture of the historic site. Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) has been used on the Royal Burial Ground, including some areas for the first time. Magnetometry surveys have also taken place on a scale that’s not been possible before, with high resolution, in an area adjacent to the High Hall exhibition. It was during construction of this exhibition building in the early 2000s that an Anglo-Saxon folk cemetery was discovered.

Photogrammetry, which is the science of extracting 3D information from photographs, is another process that Time Team will be using, supported by Aerial Cam, to help bring the landscape to life in the form of an interactive and immersive 3D digital model.

It is hoped that these non-invasive techniques will paint a subsurface picture of what lies beneath our feet, allowing us to hopefully discover more about how different people have used this landscape whilst causing the least amount of damage.

Ground-penetrating radar is a method that uses radar pulses to image the subsurface, helping to identify features and changes such as voids and ditches. Magnetometry relies on the ability to measure very small magnetic fields and has become one of the most important archaeological methods for the detection and mapping of buried remains.

Historic England has supported and enabled this exciting new research project and welcomes the use of non-invasive methods to learn more of Sutton Hoo’s significant history.

Geophysics surveying on the Royal Burial Ground at Sutton Hoo
Time Team geophysics survey at Sutton Hoo | © National Trust Images/James Dobson
Sunset over the burial mounds, shrouded by mist, at Sutton Hoo

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