Last Updated on 8th June 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
Above is a representation of the warrior’s helmet from Sutton Hoo. That helmet has a challenging appearance. Fearsome, haunting and spine-tingling, it demands that you imagine the man who may have worn it, and picture what he and his world were like. The image has drifted in and out of my dreams for years, such that visiting the spot where it had been buried for so very long became something of a pilgrimage that, sometime, had to be made.
If you don’t already know, the treasure of Sutton Hoo is a ship burial which dates from the early 7th century and, when it was found in 1939, it forced a profound revision of our appreciation of the early Anglo-Saxons in Britain. The story of the Sutton Hoo discovery is up there with the very best legends of archaeology – like Carter finding Tutankhamun, or the myth of Schliemann identifying the site of Troy. Then, of course, there’s the even bigger story of what Sutton Hoo is all about – identifying the items that were found, their provenance, purpose and significance. But it’s only when you dig around a bit (pun intended) that you realise there’s a third, very human, story which almost joins the other two up. Finally, I guess you might want to know what it’s like to visit Sutton Hoo.
In truth, there’s at least a score of other stories behind Sutton Hoo – but we will merely touch upon those later. So, are you sitting comfortably? Good; then I’ll begin…
Edith Dempster was born in 1883 in Elland, Yorkshire. The daughter of an immensely wealthy family of industrialists, she attended Roedean School and had an appropriately privileged upbringing. At around the turn of the century, when she was 17, she met Frank Pretty. Frank was in his early twenties and had an altogether more modest background in the Suffolk town of Ipswich, where his family were in ladies underwear (so to speak). The two youngsters fell in love, but Edith’s father considered Frank a most unworthy suitor for his daughter’s hand and consistently refused to approve the match. The story goes that Frank proposed to Edith every year on her birthday. A Major in the Suffolk Territorials, he went off to war along with thousands of others – but somehow survived (his younger brother did not), rising to the rank of Colonel. In 1926, her father having graciously passed on, Edith finally married her Frank. By this time both in their 40s, using Edith’s fortune, the couple bought the Sutton Hoo estate near Woodbridge, Suffolk, which contained a good-sized house, built in 1910. In 1930, aged 47, Edith gave birth to a son, Robert Dempster Pretty; on 28th December 1934, his 56th birthday, Frank died. Married less than a decade, how Edith Pretty must have missed Frank. Alone on a large estate with just a young boy for company, perhaps it’s understandable that she became interested in spiritualism. She was particularly fascinated by 18 or so grassy mounds on a patch of heathland some 500 yards from her house. What did they hide? Did she dream, or see, the figure of an armed warrior on them, though the mist? A horse?
There had long been rumours that the mounds, which some thought were Roman burials, concealed a great treasure. Edith Pretty decided they needed to be excavated. She contacted the local museum at Ipswich and they put her in touch with a certain Basil Brown. And so we come to our second tale for today.
Basil Brown was born in 1888 in Bucklesham, Suffolk, and left school at the age of 12. Thereafter, he self-educated himself in a variety of fields, including geology and astronomy, dabbled unsuccessfully in farming and become an enthusiastic, if untrained, archaeologist. Apparently, he used to cycle round East Anglia seeking out suitable sites, had developed quite a nose for them and, indeed, was engaged by Ipswich Museum to work on Roman digs.
Mrs Pretty gave Basil a small salary, accommodation in her chauffeur’s cottage and the assistance of her gardener and game-keeper. Borrowing jugs, bowls, sieves, pastry brushes and bellows from the house, Basil & Co set to work during the summer of 1938, finding fragments, including what looked like ship rivets from what became known as Mound 2. All digs revealed evidence of earlier gave diggers and robbers. Henry VIII’s agents and John Dee, Elizabeth I’s court sorcerer, dug for treasure at Sutton Hoo – and there is evidence to suggest that the former were quite successful. In fact, Tudor diggers had been at work on the very mound (Mound 1) where the greatest discovery was to be made, but by a happy stroke of serendipity had given up, had lunch in the pit they had burrowed, and left. Bizarrely, there is a report in the Ipswich Journal of a dig that took place in 1860 which says that, “One of these mounds was recently opened, when a considerable number (nearly two bushels) of iron screw bolts were found, all of which were sent to the blacksmith to be converted into horse shoes! It is hoped, when leave is granted to open the others, some more important antiquities may be discovered.” They had no idea what they’d found.
Basil Brown returned to Sutton Hoo in the summer of 1939 and began excavating Mound 1 – which was actually where Edith Pretty had wanted him to start in the first place. Fairly quickly, Brown uncovered a piece of metal, which he correctly identified as a ship’s rivet; he therefore deduced that he had a ship burial on his hands. This was inspired work; only one other ship burial had ever been found in Britain at the time, in the 19th century at nearby Snape. To provide some reference, Brown borrowed a report of the 1904 excavation of the Viking ship at Oseberg in Norway from Ipswich Museum.
Gradually, Brown and his helpers, watched by Edith’s small son, (who left his roller skates buried in the soil that was being dug out) uncovered an entire ship, 90 feet (27 metres) long. It must be remembered that this was not an actual ship, but an impression of one; Basil Brown was carefully exhuming a ghost.
The narrative thereafter becomes marred by unpleasantness. As news of a discovery of national importance leaked out, a team of professionals led by Cambridge University archaeologist Charles Phillips muscled in and took over. The American Bill Bryson in The Road to Little Dribbling is typically forthright about this episode, saying that Brown “was roughly cast aside”. He reports one archaeologist, Richard Dumbreck, describing our Basil as “having the appearance of a ferret”, that he excavated “like a terrier after a rat” but then commenting that “with training he (Brown) might have been a brilliant archaeologist”. In much the same way as, Bryson suggests, “Dumbreck might have become a decent human”. Actually, Basil Brown initially stubbornly ignored requests to stop digging, in any event still remained on site until the end of the dig as Mrs Pretty’s employee and Dumbreck is hardly mentioned in the material I’ve read. However, brilliant Brown was certainly eclipsed and, sadly, what should have been a good news story seems to have all the squalid hallmarks of prejudice as Suffolk accents gave way to the clipped tones of patronising academics. Britain does this type of thing so awfully well. There seems no doubt that Basil Brown’s digging technique could lack care on occasion. But ironically, according to Martin Carver, who led excavations at Sutton Hoo in the 1980s, the quality of archaeology did not improve with the arrival of the new ‘expert’ team – though the work-rate certainly did. An enormous treasure-trove was unearthed in a very rapid timescale and packed into a variety of whatever containers were available, including sweet bags and tobacco tins. An inquest decided that the material belonged to the landowner, Mrs Pretty, who subsequently gave it all to the British Museum (allegedly on the advice of her Spiritualist guide).
War was breaking out in Europe, excavations at Sutton Hoo had to end and the army took over Edith Pretty’s estate. Anti-glider trenches were dug across the burial site, which was also, bewilderingly and barbarically, used for tank training.
Edith Pretty died in 1942. Basil Brown continued to do what he loved, and was good at, travelling round East Anglia finding Roman and Saxon artefacts. He occasionally visited the British Museum to look at the amazing hoard he had discovered and died quietly, without a fuss, in 1977.
What is Sutton Hoo?
The 20 or so mounds (it’s hard to give a precise number due to erosion, including damage by ploughing) at Sutton Hoo form a high-end burial ground in use during the late 6th and early 7th centuries. The cemetery is on an escarpment overlooking the river Deben on the Suffolk coast. This was once part of the kingdom of the East Angles, one of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain, established sometime in the late 6th century by the warlord Wuffa, whose ancestors probably came from present-day Sweden and whose descendents became known as wuffingas. The whole area was most likely the heartland of the East Anglian royal dynasty, and probably relied heavily on overseas trade. 4 miles up the Deben is Rendlesham, where there was once a royal residence. It is said that a gold crown weighing 60 ounces was found there in c1690, but that the crown was sold and melted down. In September 2016, evidence of a 75’ x 30’ (23 x 9 metre) structure was discovered; some believe this could have been the royal hall, or palace. Across the river from Rendlesham is the village of Ufford, a name derived from Wuffa. Near to Sutton is Kingston, indicating a royal estate.
So what was found at Sutton Hoo in 1939? Firstly, there was the ship, long and elegant, an impression only but all of the rivets in place. There would have been a wooden chamber in the centre of the ship. This held the fabulous, probably ceremonial, helmet (in about 500 fragments, meticulously reassembled – initially incorrectly); an ornate sword decorated with gold and garnet; a giant, unused, whetstone which has been identified as a sort of sceptre; a stand, believed to be a type of standard, or banner; spears; a battle-axe; a shield with bird and dragon figures; drinking-horns mounted in silver; 10 shallow Byzantine or North African cross-patterned silver bowls; a large fluted classical bowl; 3 bronze hanging bowls; a pair of silver spoons; a dismantled lyre; a great silver bowl bearing the stamp of Anastasius (Byzantine Emperor from 491-518AD); 19 pieces of beautiful jewellery set with garnets, including a gold buckle weighing nearly 1lb; a huge purse, richly decorated, containing 40 Merovingian (Frankish – modern France) coins. The finds come from as far away as Byzantium and Egypt, evidence of widespread Anglo-Saxon connections, and the workmanship on the helmet and other items of more local origin is exquisite.
However, no body was found in the grave and the experts cannot agree whether there was ever one there. Forensic examination found no trace of human remains in the sandy, acid, soil, either cremated or inhumed. Nor have any personal items – eg rings – been found. So some medical specialists conclude that Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo is a cenotaph. But re-examination in 1979 of the original excavators’ notes revealed that a complete set of coffin fittings had been discovered. Therefore, the general view is that there must have been a body, but that all traces of it have disappeared.
Body or no, the next question is – who was being commemorated in this ship burial? Certainly, someone from the top layer of society. The coins provide us with an approximate date – they were minted between c620 and c640AD. Though there are several potential candidates, the favourite is that this was the grave of Raedwald, king of the East Angles from 599-624AD and bretwalda – ‘over-ruler’ or ‘chief of the other kings’ from c617-624. Some believe that among the treasures discovered at Sutton Hoo are the regalia of bretwaldaship, though we do not know, and indeed do not know for certain the nature of Anglo-Saxon kingship at this time. Their word cyning, from which ‘king’ is derived, has been translated as ‘guardian of the kin’ – a leader of the people.
Apart from the wonder of discovery, the significance of the ship burial at Mound 1, and the artefacts it contained, cannot be exaggerated. As historian Michael Wood puts it, “Before the discoveries of 1939, the things found had only hitherto existed in the stories of Beowulf. Here was a window on the Anglo-Saxon world before Christian Latin culture had taken hold.” The reference to Beowulf, the epic poem written in Old English (that is, Anglo-Saxon), is not casual; many identify the finds at Sutton Hoo with descriptions in the poem. A ship burial is certainly not a Christian burial, but neither is it ritually pagan. If Sutton Hoo Man was Raedwald, Raedwald was anyway an ambivalent Christian. But this is, simply, the burial, or commemoration, of a powerful rich man who valued beautiful things, and whose followers did too. They went to a lot of trouble, possibly hauling the ship up from the Deben (unless it was constructed nearby) and filling it with precious things, in all probability following an old tradition. These people were evidently sufficiently well-connected to obtain valuables by one means or another – pillage, gift, or trade. But they also had their own highly skilled master craftsmen – and their society was sufficiently advanced to allow time for these artists to create. The worshippers of Woden and Thor were manifestly not the thugs they are often portrayed as being.
Subsequently, ten mounds at Sutton Hoo have yielded up burials of one sort or another, though many had been previously plundered. A further ship burial was found in Mound 2 and, in Mound 17, the body of a young warrior was found, with his horse. At least six mounds remain to be excavated (Nos 8-13 inclusive).
Further remains have been found in the vicinity of Mound 5, which post-date the Anglo-Saxon burials. These are the ‘sand bodies’, dark stains showing in the acidic sandy-soil where bodies have lain, and decayed. 37 individuals have been exposed, all of which seem to have been assaulted, mutilated, or hanged. 17 appear to have been decapitated; some show severe dents in their skulls; some have had hands and feet bound; some are face-down. One group seems to comprise a man and two women; one of the women has been beheaded with her skull placed between her knees. There is evidence of perhaps 2 gallows or hanging-trees. It must have been a ghostly, gruesome, spot. These are judicial killings of one sort or another and date from the 7th – 11th centuries. Poly-resin moulds were made of some of the figures and one is on display at Sutton Hoo.
The Sutton Hoo estate has been in the hands of the National Trust since 1997/98, when it was gifted by the Annie Tranmer Trust; Annie Tranmer was the last previous owner, who died in 1993. During the course of excavating to build a new visitor centre, further Anglo-Saxon burials were discovered.
It was a warm September’s day when we visited Sutton Hoo and I was somewhere between a kid heading for the sweetshop and a novice about to meet the Pope. The exhibition hall was absorbing, really excellent, telling the story of the discovery and including first-class replicas of the finds as well as a full size reconstruction of the burial chamber. Then we took in Tranmer House, a little reluctantly on my part because I was impatient to reach the burial ground. Only a small portion of the house is open to the public, but whoever was behind this at the National Trust (a lady called Elizabeth Rohde, actually) deserves a pay increase. Elizabeth, I hope you got one. Externally, to be fair, the house is fairly plain; but two of the reception rooms have been tastefully refurnished in 1930s style, with an exceptional eye to detail. You are invited to make yourself at home as a guest of Edith Pretty – and that’s where the ghosts start to get a little restless. There are little mementoes about the place and you can easily picture Edith, gazing out of the window toward the mysterious mounds. There’s a third room at the house, with an exhibition about the dig in 1939 – though, frankly, I found the layout irritating and was eager to move on.
It was an easy walk along a dusty track to the burial ground. The area itself is roped off and you walk round, like doing a circuit of an old-fashioned grass running track with no lane markings. A series of undulations and low mounds are visible through the slightly waving grass, though only one barrow stands out; Mound 2 has been restored to its original height. The rest, even Mound I, could easily be missed if you didn’t know they were there. There’s a viewing platform near the site of the 1939 dig and an archaeologist’s (shepherd’s) hut, where ‘Basil Brown’ tells you what they’re up to with the help of an actor’s voice and 21st century audio-wizardry. The scenery was pleasant and the heat of the day came up from the ground, bringing the drowsy scent of warm earth with it. I kicked at a stone that looked like a piece of bone, and picked it up. It seems to me that the mounds sit there, quietly brooding, as they have done for something like 1300 summers. They may have been powerless to prevent repeated assaults made on them, and the removal of their contents, but they still hide their secrets. We said at the start that there are many stories behind Sutton Hoo. Raedwald aside, who were all the people laid to rest in this royal burial ground? And who were the poor souls that died in terror and pain for unknown crimes, or for perhaps just being who they were. They all knew life. What were their hopes and dreams? And does their blood flow in your veins? So many stories.
Worldwide interest in Sutton Hoo and its treasures was renewed in 2021, when the film ‘The Dig’ was issued on Netflix. Based on the book of the same name by John Preston and starring Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty and Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown, it tells the story of Basil’s finds against the backdrop of approaching war and Edith’s illness. Some academics disliked the way one of the archaeologists, Peggy Piggott (played by Lily James) was portrayed, and the story certainly includes several fictions. But it is a beautifully made, often emotional, film and the cast are superb – particularly the leads.