An exciting new project will unlock Sutton Hoo’s Anglo Saxon past and reveal how it has helped shape who we are today
The next chapter in the unfolding story of Sutton Hoo is about to be written as the National Trust embarks on a major project to transform visitors’ experiences of the site and bring to life the Anglo Saxon realm of King Raedwald.
The trust has won a £1.8 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund towards a £4 million project called Releasing the Sutton Hoo Story. Plans include creating new walking routes to link the various aspects of the site, a new visitor centre, displays, exhibitions and a 17 metre viewing tower with views over the burial mounds and the River Deben where the ship carrying Raedwald is believed to have arrived.
Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge, is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. Its 7th century burial mounds, excavated from the late 1930s onwards, have yielded the country’s most significant Anglo-Saxon archaeological discoveries, which have helped to shape our understanding of the origins of English history. These include the remains of a burial ship, believed to belong to King Raedwald, and the items which accompanied him on his journey to the afterlife, including the iconic Sutton Hoo helmet.
Sutton Hoo’s archaeology and engagement manager Laura Howarth, has been working with the British Museum, archaeologists from the Museum of London, and the local community to shape the project and which will help visitors to discover more about the people who settled on the shores of the Deben, and those who took part in the digs that uncovered the world famous finds.
“They’ll get a better understanding of the burial mounds, how they fit into the landscape and how people left their mark on the landscape,” she said.
The visitor experience will start with an enhanced welcome area and new visitor centre created out of an existing building, currently used for storage. The iconic helmet sculpture will be moved and a plan to build a life-size replica of the burial ship, hatched at the time the site was first opened to visitors, will finally be realised in a huge metal sculpture, currently in the process of being commissioned.
Tranmer House, the former home of Edith Pretty who instigated the dig that led to the discoveries, will be transformed with a new exhibition revolving around archaeology and
discovery. It will explore the timeline of Sutton Hoo, Anglo Saxon society’s connections to the rest of the world through trade and culture, and the ongoing research at this and other archaeological sites.
A new walking route around the site will lead visitors from Tranmer House, walking in the steps of the Anglo Saxons. They’ll be able to trace how they hauled the vessel, probably transported by river from nearby Rendlesham, up the valley from the River Deben before it formed the burial chamber found in Mound One, where it was discovered by Suffolk archaeologist Basil Brown in 1939. It will also prompt visitors to think about how the enormous ship was moved – by human effort alone, with the help of horses perhaps, maybe using trees as rollers.
As they reach the burial mounds, visitors will be able to climb a 17-metre observation tower to gain views over the entire burial ground and across to the Deben, putting the whole scenario into context. Four trenches, dug as part of the archaeological survey prior to building the tower, have already revealed prehistoric flints and possibly a prehistoric ditch.
It is also planned that the burial mounds, which are currently roped off to protect them, will be made accessible, although Laura said careful monitoring will be required to measure erosion.
Enhanced guided tours, thought-provoking activities and installations, innovative interpretation and creative programming will all sit alongside a schools’ education programme.
The exhibition hall will also be transformed, creating a more dramatic experience and evoking an emotional connection to events of the past.
It will explore the 1,400-yearsold culture that shaped England’s character and still influences our lives today – our position in the world, global trade, governance, the status of women, crafts and skills, poetry, art and more.
The transformation of Sutton Hoo will also enable the National Trust to offer more opportunities for volunteers in a range of activities, such as making accurate historical costumes and public archaeology sessions.
The Sutton Hoo site will close at the end of September, so the work can be carried out, and is scheduled to reopen in the spring of 2019. N
For more information about visiting Sutton Hoo, what to see, events and future plans, visit nationaltrust.org.uk/ sutton-hoo
ABOVE:The burial mounds. Photo: Justin Minns/ National Trust
RIGHT:Prehistoric flints found in the dig
TOP RIGHT: The iconic Sutton Hoo helmet
BELOW RIGHT: Excavating a trench in the archaeological survey prior to building the tower