Sunday 31 August 2014

Sutton Hoo

I grew up in the East Midlands. This meant that every night for 18 years I had to watch a local news programme called Look East. Except there was nothing local about it; it was all King's Lynn this and Bury St Edmunds that and Felixstowe the other. For a twelve year old girl doing her homework in a house near Kettering, Ipswich may as well have been Papua New Guinea. 

But guess what! It turns out Ipswich wasn't that far away after all! I just looked it up and Sutton Hoo, the site of an Anglo-Saxon king's burial ground, is 109 miles away from my old school! In America, that's practically NEXT-DOOR! You could be there in two hours! Amazing!

What a shame then that we didn't have to learn about the Anglo-Saxons when I was at school...oh wait a minute, we did. Yes, my teachers spent a good 20 hours or so making us read textbooks about pre-Roman Britain, when all the time we could have got on a bus and gone 109 miles down the road to see it brought to life.

Sutton Hoo mask

I spent my day at Sutton Hoo in a bit of a fury, as you can probably tell. It's the perfect place for an educational tour - the burial ground itself needs a bit of imagination but the museum explains everything. 

Let me summarise the history of Sutton Hoo:
  • Sutton Hoo shot to stardom in 1939, when a local archaeologist called Basil Brown unearthed the remains of a massive wooden ship, 90 feet long, that had been buried on the site.
  • Basil had been asked to excavate the area by its owner, Mrs Edith Pretty, who had often wondered what the mounds on her land contained.
  • In 1938, he explored a few of the mounds and found evidence of a burial site - each of the mounds had clearly been plundered, probably in Elizabethan times.
  • In 1939 he returned to excavate Mound 1 and, just 3 days into the dig, he uncovered iron rivets like those found in other excavations of Anglo-Saxon and Viking ship burials.
  • He was amazed at the size of the boat that he was uncovering. In the middle was a shaft that suggested the site had been robbed.
  • However, the burial chamber had not been breached and the team were soon uncovering gold jewellery, coins, weapons, leather and more.
  • The most famous item is the great iron helmet (picture of the replica above), which is now in the British Museum, along with many of the other treasures.
  • The burial site is thought to be that of King Raedwald who died in 625 AD.
  • In 1992, Mound 17 was excavated and a double grave was found, containing a young man and a horse. 

The museum at Sutton Hoo tells the story of the site very well and there are replicas of some of the finds, plus a treasury containing genuine artefacts.

And then you can walk around the actual burial site itself. I did at this point think of some of the kids that I was at school with and how they'd probably have run up the mounds and caused destruction, so it was probably just as well we didn't get to go.

This mound once contained a smaller ship burial - it has been rebuilt to its former size to give you some idea of how the site would have looked when there were 20 mounds looming out of the earth:

Sutton Hoo mound

And this mound, which hasn't been restored, is where Basil Brown found his ship:

Sutton Hoo mounds

The Sutton Hoo scone
It was an all-round day of education for me, as I also learnt something else: if you have to deliver bad news then just cut to the chase and do it quickly (I didn't get this from Sutton Hoo though, this came from The X Factor). So here goes: the Sutton Hoo scone wasn't great. It was very dry and although it was nowhere near as bad as the Wakehurst scone, it just wasn't very enjoyable to eat. The clotted cream was really strange too - it had solidified for some reason, and it just flaked into little tiny bits like a really old soap.

Sutton Hoo scone

It was a real shame because it was a very good-looking scone and the tearoom was great - it's big and there's a lovely outdoor bit.  

But I recommend Sutton Hoo - the treasures might be in the British Museum but you really do get a sense of what old Basil Brown and Edith Pretty must have felt, stood in a Suffolk field, brushing away at the soil and not knowing that they were about to make one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time.

Sutton Hoo: 4 out of 5
Scones: 3 out of 5
School trip organising skills of my teachers: 0 out of 5

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