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Sutton Hoo now rivals Stonehenge as England’s premier ancient site

The burial mound at Sutton Hoo
The burial mound at Sutton Hoo - Alamy Stock Photo

It is a cold afternoon in the dying embers of November, and the Suffolk countryside is starting to embrace the winter. The paths that criss-cross Sutton Hoo’s gentle slopes are wet under foot, their stony surfaces made unhelpfully slippery by a combination of autumnal leaf mulch and the general dampness of the air.

The famous Sutton Hoo helmet is now on display in the British Museum
The famous Sutton Hoo helmet is now on display in the British Museum - Getty

There is even a shroud of mist, keeping close to the grass, beyond the mounds of the Royal Burial Ground, where the land slips down through the trees to the broad curve of the River Deben. And the wan end-of-year daylight plays its part, slanting in low through the increasingly bare branches.

Squint – and, with the angle of the sun, I have to, holding my hand to my face – and you might think yourself in a different time. But for the low grumble of a tractor on the farm next door, it might easily be the seventh century – and all quiet on the East Anglian front.

Many consider Sutton Hoo to be Britain’s most important ancient site
Many consider Sutton Hoo to be Britain’s most important ancient site - PA / Jim Pullen/Suffolk County Council

It is so quiet, in fact, that I have the place to myself. Almost. Apart from a retired couple walking their dog through this perfectly pastoral landscape, there is nobody else here. A remarkable situation, really. For there is an increasingly strong argument that Sutton Hoo is Britain’s most important ancient site; a crucial sliver of the past that tells a vivid story of our country, shining a torch onto the undocumented gloom of the supposed Dark Ages.

It is a story – of Anglo-Saxon warlords carving out new kingdoms on the far edges of a changing Europe – which continues to unfurl. Only this summer, an archaeological dig in nearby Rendlesham uncovered something astonishing – the purported remains of a temple used by the kings of East Anglia.

This tirelessly pretty village is thought to have been their seat of power. Sutton Hoo, just four miles to the south-west down the A1152, was their graveyard. A significant chapter of Dark Age history is shimmering in the light.

Released in 2021, The Dig reimagines the events of the 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo
Released in 2021, The Dig reimagines the events of the 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo - Larry Horricks / Netflix

“[The site] is similar to buildings elsewhere in England that are seen as temples or cult houses,” Professor Christopher Scull of University College London told The Telegraph last month. “It may have been used for pre-Christian worship by the early kings of the East Angles. The results of these excavations at Rendlesham speak vividly of the power and wealth of the East Anglian kings – and the sophistication of the society they ruled.”

Of course, this is not the first time a discovery here has sparked excitement. Sutton Hoo originally made headlines in the summer of 1938, when the owner of the site – the recently widowed magistrate Edith Pretty – called in local amateur archaeologist Basil Brown to see if he could solve the riddle of the giant earth mounds at the south end of her property.

A replica of an ornate shoulder clasp believed to have belonged to King Raedwald on display at Sutton Hoo
A replica of an ornate shoulder clasp believed to have belonged to King Raedwald on display at Sutton Hoo - Alamy Stock Photo

It did not take Brown long to establish that the largest of these artificial hillocks held the metal vestiges of what had once been a sizeable sea-going ship. A ship to which careful estimation gave a length of 89ft (27m). A ship in which a king had been buried.

The events of that very English excavation – very soon, more senior figures at Ipswich Museum, Cambridge University and the British Museum would become involved, before the Second World War interrupted – is story enough in itself. So much so that, in 2021, it was turned into a film, The Dig, with Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown, and Carey Mulligan breathing emotion into the sad tale of Edith Pretty, who would die a mere four years later.

But the greater narrative is the one that had lain hidden – at that point – for 1,300 years. And, approaching it along those slippery November paths, I can see it without difficulty.

Guests enjoy an Anglo Saxon re-enactment
Guests enjoy an Anglo Saxon re-enactment - National Trust Images/Richard Scott

Although the Royal Burial Ground has, to an extent, been returned to nature since those various excavations – spreading out behind a small fence as a sort of unkempt pasture – the shape and scale of it is immediately apparent to the naked eye. It is Mound Two that you encounter first – a large earthen swelling, telling you that you have reached the cemetery.

There are 18 such lumps in total – including the most important, Mound One, which waits a little further back. It is best seen via the 81-step climb to the top of the observation tower which rises at the far south corner of the property – a clever addition to the Sutton Hoo site that was installed in 2021.

A medieval manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People can be found at Sutton Hoo
A medieval manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People can be found at Sutton Hoo - Alamy Stock Photo

From up here, the picture is even clearer. To date, only three Anglo-Saxon ship burials have been uncovered in the UK. All three have been found in Suffolk. The first emerged via an excavation at Snape Common, near Aldeburgh, in 1862. The other two are directly underneath you, in Sutton Hoo’s two biggest mounds.

From the observation deck, you can appreciate the effort that must have been involved. Behind the tower is the slope, the land dropping away to the Deben. The boats would have had to be hauled – by rope, by hand and sinew – up that same riverbank, warriors doing their duty, the veins in their necks bulging, sweat beading on Anglo-Saxon brows.

It would have been a great honour as well. Particularly in the case of Mound One. There is no exact proof as to the identity of the king who was interred here – the acidic Suffolk soil had devoured his mortal remains centuries before Basil Brown broke into his tomb.

But analysis of coins found within the outline of the ship have narrowed the burial to a time-frame of 610-635 AD, while the wealth of artefacts found elsewhere in the mound – and the (to echo Professor Scull) wealth and power that they suggest – point to one man: Raedwald of East Anglia.

The Ship Sculpture at Sutton Hoo
The Ship Sculpture at Sutton Hoo - Chris Leadbeater

Here was a ruler to whom wealth and power clung. Though it was written more than 200 years after his reign, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – one of the main sources on the events of Dark-Age Britain – calls him a Bretwalda; a “Britain King”. This is supported by the works of the Venerable Bede, the monk-historian who was alive (672-735) much closer to Raedwald’s time, and wrote of the East Anglian monarch’s triumph at the Battle of of the River Idle (in modern-day Nottinghamshire) in around 617.

This was a seismic fight; a victory over Aethelfrith of Northumbria. And while it came at a personal cost to Raedwald – his son Raegenhere was killed that day – the East Anglian was able to seize the lands pertaining to the Northumbrian crown and place his vassal Edwin on the throne.

Bede gives us further information – that Raedwald ruled East Anglia between (roughly) 599 and his death in 624; that he was the first East Anglian king to covert to Christianity, probably in 605. But his purported tomb adds colour and shade to the words on the page.

An Anglo-Saxon royal burial ground
An Anglo-Saxon royal burial ground - Getty

The bronze helmet found in fragments next to where the body would have been – now carefully reconstructed, and on display in the British Museum – is an artefact of immeasurable value. It sings of skilled craftsmanship in a period when Britain is meant to have fallen away from the elevated standards of the Roman centuries; part a pragmatic piece of armour that would have offered real protection during combat, part a decorated quasi-crown with dragon motif, its ornateness designed to show its wearer’s regal status.

Nor was it alone in the grave. There was a sword, its patterned blade still in its scabbard. There was a gold buckle of astonishing intricacy, and a purse-lid for a money pouch of similar hand-forged wonder. And there were items that spoke of deep-seated trade links – a set of 10 silver bowls hailing from the Byzantine Empire, away on the far side of the Mediterranean; a pair of silver spoons from the same region.

Further precious pieces were unearthed in 2000 when early preparation work for the new visitor centre revealed a second burial ground – in which was found a sixth-century bronze drinking vessel, adorned with Syrian or Nubian friezes of naked warriors in battle. A message upon it, in ancient Greek type, says: “Use this in good health, Master Count, for many happy years”.

An early reconstruction drawing of the Sutton Hoo ship burial
An early reconstruction drawing of the Sutton Hoo ship burial - Heritage Images / Historic England Archive

The dead, it seems, can speak, in what they left behind. And at Sutton Hoo, they speak of a Dark-Age Britain, not closed off from the world on its own stagnant island, but open to mainland Europe and the Middle East; connected to and in ready conversation with both.

In fact, it is no overstatement to describe the Sutton Hoo mounds as “Britain’s Pyramids”; tombs that have filled holes in our knowledge, long, long after the powerful men – and, in the case of Mound 14, woman – who were interred within them had been lost to memory.

So with the fresh archaeological findings up the road at Rendlesham, has Sutton Hoo eclipsed Stonehenge to become Britain’s most important ancient site? Perhaps. And then again, perhaps not. It depends, for one thing, on how you define “ancient”. Sutton Hoo, which was at its most significant well over a century after the fall of Rome, sits at the very outer limit of the term; the noble blocks of Stonehenge, which were (probably) piled high on Salisbury Plain at some time between 2600 and 2400 BC, is distinctly prehistoric.

You might argue that even to compare the two is a case of apples and oranges; that a gap of three millennia renders such discussions worthless. But where Wiltshire’s key landmark is blighted by over-tourism, and the rumble of traffic on the A303 just metres away, Sutton Hoo retains an air of mystery, while giving up more and more of its secrets.

What will come now? Further research will surely shed light on whether the Rendlesham site is Raedwald’s bet-hedging temple – with altars to both the old pagan gods, as well as the “new” Christian one – as described by Bede. And there is no proper answer as to who lay in Mound Two (Raedwald’s battle-slain son Raegenhere is one possibility). But whatever the Suffolk soil throws up next, the story will continue, a distant era leaking into our own.

Essentials

Tickets to Sutton Hoo (01394 389 700) cost from £15 per adult. The museums are only open at weekends in winter; the full site is open year-round.