Over time I calculate that I have visited forty-seven of the forty-eight traditional (ceremonial) English Counties (often for pleasure but sometimes for work) but I am fairly certain that I have never visited the County of Suffolk so this holiday was my opportunity to fill this glaring geographical gap in my UK travels.
Today we drove south almost as far as Essex and the plan was to start at Sutton Hoo and then work our way back north.
I don’t want to be accused of exaggeration but Sutton Hoo is perhaps the most important archeological site in the whole of England because it sheds light on a period of Dark Ages history that is on the margin between myth, legend, and emerging historical documentation. It is the site of an Anglo Saxon burial ship for King Rædwald of East Anglia who was in his day the most powerful chieftain/King in all of the South-East of England.
This is King Rædwald…
The discovery is a great Indiana Jones/Howard Carter sort of story. Local folk reported seeing ghostly figures wandering around the mounds and in response the initial excavation in 1939 was privately sponsored by the landowner Edith Pretty and carried out by a local freelance archeologist called Basil Brown and a couple of estate workers as labourers who could be spared for the task. Unsurprisingly when the significance of the find became apparent national experts took over.
The most significant artifacts from the burial site were those found in the burial chamber in the centre of the ship, including a collection of metalwork dress fittings in gold and gems, a ceremonial helmet, shield and sword, a lyre, and many pieces of silver plate from Byzantium.
It is a good story but it has some holes in it. These mounds had been there for a thousand years or so and must surely have generated some interest before Edith Pretty financed the operation. And so it was because four hundred years earlier Henry VIII (no less) authorised a dig to search for treasure and those entrusted with the task began their excavations. They discovered one tomb and made away with the loot but failed to make their way into King Rædwald’s ship and gave up rather prematurely.
The point is if people knew there was treasure in the field in 1540 why did no one look again until 1940. Did everyone just forget?
So is it the most important archaeological site ever uncovered in England? There are some challengers for the title.
The Staffordshire Hoard represents the largest find of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found. Consisting of over three thousand, five hundred items found by an amateur detectorist buried in a field in Staffordshire. The discovery is said to have completely altered our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England and the hoard accounts for over 60% of all the Anglo-Saxon items conserved in English museums.
The last Plantagenet King of England was Richard III and he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and hastily buried somewhere in the city of Leicester. The Richard III Society are obsessed with the King with a bad reputation and one member in particular, Phillipa Langley, was convinced that she knew where he was. She persuaded the University of Leicester to finance an excavation in a city centre car park, pointed to a spot, the excavator started to work and bugger me there he was!
All we need to find now is King John’s Treasure lost in The Wash in 1216 somewhere between Spalding and King’s Lynn, somewhere down the A17 and whoever finds that is going to be very famous and very rich.
Watch this short clip to see what it is all about…
There is a pleasant walk through the gentle Suffolk countryside to the site of the excavation but the reality is that there is very little to see except for seventeen burial mounds which look rather like giant mole hills. This is a place that requires some considerable imagination to appreciate it and it really doesn’t take long to view. The point I suppose is this, some places we visit to spend time and see things, a museum for example but some places we visit simply to say that we have been there for the significance of the place and the Sutton Hoo burial mounds fall firmly into the latter category.
There is an interesting exhibition hall and interpretation centre but there are no original artifacts on display because these are all in the British Museum because although it was decreed that the treasure belonged to Edith Pretty she promptly presented it all to the nation which was at the time the largest gift and most valuable made to the British Museum by a living donor. Edith Pretty was either very generous, very stupid or very rich anyway.
After five days of glorious sunshine it was raining today, pouring actually, so this cut short our visit to Sutton Hoo and with no chance of any improvement we made our way back to the caravan at Kessingland and sat inside for the rest of the afternoon.
This was exactly how I remembered caravan holidays when I was a boy.
Click on an image to scroll through the gallery…