Releasing the Sutton Hoo Story

Published: Friday 20th Sep 2019

Written by: Cathy Yeoman

Guest Blog from the National Trust

Sitting in an elevated position in the Suffolk countryside overlooking the River Deben and Woodbridge, is Sutton Hoo – a place that can boldly lay claim to being home to one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of all time.

Cared for by the National Trust, Sutton Hoo will this year see the completion of a multi-million pound project to transform the experience for visitors.

 

Sutton Hoo helmet sculpture 1 ©Phil Morley.jpg
Sutton Hoo helmet sculpture  ©Phil Morley

Sometimes referred to as the first page in English history, the story of the Anglo-Saxons who settled in East Anglia and chose Sutton Hoo as the burial ground for a king, is a story of royalty, riches and a discovery that would only be made centuries later.

Sutton Hoo was the once of the home of Edith Pretty, a widow who had lived there with her husband Lt. Colonel Frank Pretty. After Frank’s death, Edith became curious about the mysterious mounds that could be seen from her windows and in the late 1930s enlisted the help of Suffolk archaeologist Basil Brown to begin a dig.

That dig would go on to unearth some of the most famous treasures ever found, from Byzantine silverware and precious gold jewellery to, of course, the now famous and iconic Sutton Hoo helmet.

Mrs Pretty (centre in cane chair) at 1939 dig ©Trustees of the British Museum
Mrs Pretty (centre in cane chair) at 1939 dig ©Trustees of the British Museum

Sutton Hoo has been open to visitors since 2002 under the care of the National Trust, and this year the fruits of a £4million project to transform the experience of visiting are gradually being revealed.

The project is the biggest investment the National Trust has ever made in Sutton Hoo and it’s all been made possible thanks to a £1.8million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and has been supported by the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership through the Growing Places Fund and the generosity of many National Trust members, supporters and donors.

Called Releasing the Sutton Hoo Story, the project has touched every part of the site and has been designed help visitors discover more about this very special place and to unlock the stories of the people in its past – from the Anglo-Saxons who buried their king here, to Edith Pretty and Basil Brown, and those who have continued to unearth Sutton Hoo’s secrets over the years.

With multiple elements to the new experience, the Trust has been gradually revealing them in stages.

Greeting visitors as they emerge from the new welcome building, a full size – 27m (90ft) – sculpture of King Raedwald’s burial ship now fills the courtyard. Commissioned and made especially for installation at Sutton Hoo, this commanding sculpture gives a true reflection of the sheer scale of the ship, and the effort it would have taken to drag it from the banks of the river and up the valley to its final resting place.

Sutton Hoo ship sculpture ©Phil Morley (1).jpg
Sutton Hoo ship sculpture ©Phil Morley

Unveiled this summer, were new exhibitions and experiences, as well as a new walking route around the site follows in the footsteps of the Anglo-Saxons, revealing the route King Raedwald’s burial ship was taken on, before arriving at the top of the valley.

It was from the River Deben that the Anglo-Saxon ship was hauled up the valley before it formed the burial found in Mound One, where the famous treasure would be discovered.

Tranmer House, the former home of Edith Pretty, has been transformed with a new exhibition exploring the people and stories behind the Sutton Hoo discovery, such as Basil and Edith and the team who worked with them.

The Exhibition Hall has been renamed the High Hall, in recognition of the Anglo-Saxon ceremonies, and visitors here will discover more about their lives and how Sutton Hoo came to be such a significant place in English history.

With exciting new installations, the chance to closely see the intricate craftsmanship of the Sutton Hoo helmet thanks to an impressive replica and explore more about King Raedwald and the treasures chosen for his burial, the High Hall is an immersive experience.

The popular Sutton Hoo guided tours have made a return too, together with activities and a whole host of events throughout the year.

The final piece of the puzzle will be the completion of a 17 metre observation tower, late in the autumn, which will give views over the entire burial ground and to the River Deben beyond, revealing the fascinating story of this evocative landscape.

Outside, visitors can head out on a brand-new River View walking trail across parts of the estate not previously open. With stunning views across the river Deben towards Woodbridge, this new walk meanders through woodland and offers a chance to indulge in peaceful exploration.

Sounds like hard work? The Kings River Café has had a complete makeover too – so there will be homemade food and plenty of tea on offer as well as a new shop and visitor welcome building.

To find out more and plan your visit, go to https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo

Cover image: Sunset over the Sutton Hoo Royal Burial Ground © Justin Minns.


Cathy Yeoman

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