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Sutton Hoo (Woodbridge)

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Address: Tranmer House / Sutton Hoo / Woodbridge IP12 3DJ / Suffolk / Tel: 01394 389700

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      01.09.2011 21:05
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      A site of major archaeological significance - and some nice walks as well

      When the Pretty family moved to Tranmer House on the Sutton Hoo estate in 1926, it seemed doubtful that their actions were ever destined to become anything more than an inconsequential footnote in the history of Suffolk. Just four years after their move to the house, however, Frank Pretty died, leaving his wife Edith and their young son Robert alone in the 15-room Edwardian mansion. Edith took solace in spiritualism, travelling to see mediums in London on a regular basis as she attempted to make contact with her late husband. It was this growing interest in spiritualism that probably made Edith take more notice than many would have done of a guest's reported sightings of ghostly soldiers around the strange field of mounds that lay on her estate. Put together with persistent local rumours that treasure had been found at the site in the past, Edith thought it was high time that some serious investigation took place. As it turned out, Edith's decision was to be anything but inconsequential.

      In the summer of 1938, she commissioned local archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate the mysterious mounds that lay within sight of her house. Aided by the estate's gamekeeper and gardener, Brown spent two months digging up three of the mounds - all, it turned out, had been robbed, probably in the 16th or 17th centuries. They did, however, find a gilt bronze disc that suggested that the mounds were Anglo-Saxon, rather than Viking as first thought. Not to be put off by the ransacking of the site, Brown returned the following summer and began work on another mound. What was found that summer was to become recognised as one of the most important archaeological finds ever uncovered in Britain - some even referred to it at the time as "Britain's Tutankhamen" - although the declaration of war towards the end of the digging season threatened the loss of it all. As Edith Pretty later wrote, "'It was extraordinary to be uncovering the remains of this lost civilisation at a time when our own seemed about to be blown to smithereens".

      That find was a magnificent 7th century ship burial, 90 feet (27.4m) in length and with a fabulously rich burial chamber within it - including the intricately patterned helmet that has now become the iconic symbol of Sutton Hoo. Other important archaeology has been found at the site since then, but it is this burial (in what has now been designated "mound 1") that remains synonymous with the name Sutton Hoo.



      == Sutton Hoo Today ==
      The 254 acre Sutton Hoo estate was donated to the National Trust in 1998, and opened to the public in 2002 with a newly built visitor centre and facilities. The estate lies just outside of Woodbridge in Suffolk, about 9 miles northeast of Ipswich, and is clearly signposted from local main roads. We had no problems in finding it and access roads were good.

      A short distance from the entrance to the estate, you are greeted by a member of staff, and directed into the site car park. The car park was the one point of complaint I had from my visit. Given the scale and importance of the Sutton Hoo estate, the number of visitors you might therefore expect to visit it, and the point that it was laid out so recently, the parking area is tiny and parking bays are not marked. The result is plenty of spaces that would comfortably take two well-parked cars being occupied by one badly parked car instead (the superfluous greeter might have been better used getting people to park more considerately). It took several circuits of the car park to find a space, and even then it was one that required a tricky seven-point turn to get out of again when we left. My advice: if you are planning on visiting in peak season, plan to arrive early if you are driving to the site.

      From the car park, you have two buildings head of you: the services building that houses the reception, cafe, gift shop and toilets on your left, and the exhibition building that acts as a visitor centre for the site on your right. Head to the reception area first to get your tickets and map of the site, and then you are free to explore Sutton Hoo in any way you chose. If you are new to the Anglo-Saxon period or unfamiliar with the finds made here, I would strongly recommend heading to the exhibition first to get some context for the site, as otherwise the all-important burial mounds risk looking disappointingly like bunkers on a golf course.



      == The Exhibition Rooms ==
      The exhibition room has three things to offer visitors - a short introductory video, the main gallery and the smaller "treasury room" that has changing exhibitions on themes relating to Sutton Hoo.

      We were greeted by possibly the most enthusiastic National Trust volunteer I have ever met, who quickly checked our tickets, and offered us the chance to watch the introductory video, which was just about the start. The film lasts 8 minutes, and I think it is an excellent introduction to Sutton Hoo, especially for anybody unfamiliar with the period or site. The film tells you a bit about the Anglo-Saxons: who they were, where they came from and why they would have been living in Suffolk. This is nicely complemented by a reading in Anglo-Saxon, so you can hear what these people would have sounded like. The film also shows an actor dressed as the man found in the ship burial from mound 1 that Basil Brown found in the summer of 1939. I thought this was very engaging; the helmet found in the ship burial is the iconic symbol of the site, and to see it worn helps you appreciate it as the impressive symbol of power it would once have been to the man buried with it. The video re-starts about every 15 minutes, so although the seating area to watch it isn't very big, there is plenty of opportunity to watch it during your visit (and the volunteers announce that it is starting so you don't miss it).

      As you leave the video area, you are directed to head around the gallery starting from the left. The information panels were clearly written and presented, although what struck me straight away was that for a site that has produced such an abundance of finds, very few objects were on display. The most important of finds - the iconic helmet and the other "treasure" from the mound 1 burial - were donated to the British Museum by Edith Pretty in a remarkable display of generosity, given that the treasure trove inquest in 1939 awarded all finds from the site to her (it was actually the largest gift given to the British Museum by a living donor at the time). Having seen these objects in the British Museum (they are amongst my favourite items there) I was well aware of this, but I still expected to see other finds here. There is one set of horse harness fittings and a garnet brooch from mound 17, but beyond that almost everything you see is a replica. Given the value of the most famous items found in Sutton Hoo, they will never realistically be housed in an exhibition such as this, but I found it a shame that more items - perhaps the smaller things that would be overshadowed or crowded out in the British Museum - couldn't be loaned to Sutton Hoo for display.

      The centrepiece of the exhibition room is a full-scale reconstruction of the burial chamber from the ship in mound 1 that visitors can walk through. The chamber is laid out with a full set of all the items known to have been buried there, and a figure of the dead man himself; nobody knows who this man was, but there have been suggestions that anyone able to command such a rich burial in this area at this time might have been a member of the East Anglian royal family, possibly Kind Raedwald himself. I thought this was a very effective use of gallery space, and in the absence of objects from the ship burial, this was a great way to show visitors how the man was buried, and why the discovery of his intact burial chamber was just so important to archaeologists.

      The smaller treasury room temporary display when I visited took a look at the lives of Anglo-Saxon women and children, who otherwise fade into the background somewhat behind the "kingly" burials discussed in the main exhibition. Mound 14 from the burial ground did contain the remains of a woman, and the objects found with her are taken as a starting point for showing the lives of her and her hypothetical children. The display did seem to be attracting a lot of positive attention from women in particular, but I felt it was a little too light on substance and I would have liked to have read a bit more detail about the women in mound 14 specifically because she was the only woman found buried here. A great deal of attention was given to thinking about who the man from mound 1 was - why not the same attention to the only woman important enough to be buried here?



      == The Burial Ground ==
      There are three circular walks mapped out around the estate, each colour-coded and marked clearly on the visitor map and on signposts around the grounds. The map claims that the walks will take between 30 and 50 minutes to complete, but we found this to be a very conservative estimate; for a group of even moderately fit adults, the walks will take barely half the stated times. I would add that the paths are uneven and hilly in places, though, so anyone unsteady on their feet or not wearing practical footwear may want to give the woodland walks a miss. The shortest of the routes, which goes straight to the burial ground and back to the visitor centre, is fairly flat and is marked as accessible by wheelchairs.

      The burial ground is of course the core of the importance of Sutton Hoo. Originally the field would have been filled with 17 burial mounds of varying size, most of which are now greatly reduced due to a combined effect of excavation, robbery and erosion. Interpretation of such a site is not an easy thing, but I loved that the National Trust have rebuilt mound 2 (which originally held another, smaller, ship burial) to its original 7th century size and shape, so you can get an idea of how impressive they would have been to Anglo-Saxon society - and how irresistible they must have seemed to medieval robbers. Imagine 17 such mounds in this relatively small space; it would have been a great symbol of wealth and power, not only to those living locally, but to anyone passing by on the nearby River Debden, who could clearly see the mounds along the horizon. Whoever chose this site and ordered these burial mounds built was clearly powerful - it is no wonder that they have been considered the burial places of kings.

      For me, seeing these mounds after reading so much about them for so long sent a chill down my spine; this was where those magnificent items in the British Museum had lain undiscovered for so long. I appreciate that the field may seem anticlimactic to many visitors, however, with just a small viewing platform and two interpretation panels to enliven a few shallow mounds of earth. One small graphic on the panel left a big impression on me, though, as it shows how close we were to never finding the famous artefacts of mound 1 - a robber trench had been dug into the mound in the past, but stopped an alarmingly short distance from the top of the burial chamber. Another foot and we wouldn't know anything about it.



      == A Very Pretty House ==
      Tranmer House, where Edith Pretty once lived, is also part of the Trust's Sutton Hoo estate and is open to visitors on some days. While the upstairs of the building is now converted into holiday lets (and if you fancy staying there, visit the National Trust's website for details - address given at the end of this review), the downstairs has the site's education room for school groups and a couple of rooms reconstructed in the style of a 1930s house (the furniture is all genuine to the period, but alas none of it is originally from the Pretty family). Occasionally the Trust arranges for re-enactors to dress up as 1930s archaeologists in the house, to talk to visitors about how the original excavations would have been carried out and give children some hand-on activities. I would have loved to have seen this as it sounds like a great way to link the archaeology of the site with its history, but unfortunately it wasn't available on the day I visited Sutton Hoo.



      == Visitor Services ==
      If all this history is getting too much for you, you can head over to the courtyard behind the services building, where we found a second-hand bookshop. The bookshop was great for a rummage, and to my great surprise, I saw that it was unmanned; visitors are trusted to take their purchases over to the main gift shop to pay for them. There were a few bargains to be had amongst the books, although sadly fewer in the main gift shop. Almost all of the items on display there were not specific to the site, expect for a few uninspiring t-shirts and pens, and a couple of books that I had already read. Prices were dear, but given that the National Trust is a charity, I always seem to manage to forgive them this.

      The cafe is also worth visiting. While the selection of food wasn't massive, there was plenty of seating both indoors and out, and everything was very clean and well laid out. The cafe also has lovely views across the estate, making lunch there a rather relaxing affair. Food isn't cheap, but is very good quality - we paid about £12 for two soft drinks, a sandwich, a scone and a piece of flapjack, and all the food was homemade and delicious. If you decide to take your own food instead, there are some picnic tables outside.

      I was particularly impressed by how the National Trust tries to make all visitors welcome to Sutton Hoo. As public footpaths run close to the site, ramblers' toilets (which you don't have to pay the NT entrance fee to use) and lockers are made available to those walking in the area. Likewise, a good number cycle racks and dog water bowls are provided outside the services building. As someone who gets around quite a lot by cycling, I always appreciate being given easy access to somewhere secure for my bike - it is something I notice, even when I arrive by car.

      For those of you concerned that this site may not be suitable for families with children, please don't be. There is an outdoor play area - complete with wooden Anglo-Saxon ship - a free quiz sheet for children to take around the exhibition and the walks around the estate, and plenty of activities for them to get stuck into in the galleries and the children I saw during my visit seemed to be enjoying the quiz in particular. The best of all had to be the dressing-up box, though - complete with child-size Sutton Hoo helmet replica!



      == The Final Word ==
      I accept that I was not the typical visitor to Sutton Hoo. Having read so much about the site and having long wanted to see it for myself, it was always going to be hard for me to be disappointed with what I found - and I certainly wasn't. Interpreting a site of great importance - not only in terms of the objects found, but also what we have learned in terms of burial practice and ship building techniques - where there is very little in the way of tangible remains is never going to be easy, especially when your audience is likely to understand history in terms of much more solid remains: cathedrals, castle, country houses. The technique of reconstructing a burial mound and inviting you to rebuild the site with your imagination worked for me, although I accept this may not be the case for every visitor. I would have been interested to see the theme of 1930s archaeology developed into something more permanent for the site, however, as that has to capacity to offer a lot for both child and adult visitor alike.

      Martin Carver, one of the more recent archaeologists to explore the site has written that, "Sutton Hoo is a constant provocation to thought and the imagination". I certainly found it so, although alas to fully appreciate it you really need to see the objects held by the British Museum as well - something not feasible for a good many visitors. Having been fortunate to have seen them and the site, just one thing lingers in my mind: if the other mounds hadn't have been robbed, what else might we be looking at in wonder?

      Highly recommended.



      == Visitor Information ==
      Address: Sutton Hoo, Woodbridge, Suffolk IP12 3DJ

      Telephone: 01394 389700

      Web: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-vh/w-visits/w-findaplace/w-suttonhoo.htm

      Admission: National Trust members free / adults £6.50 / child £3.30 / family £16.30 / reduced rates if arriving by cycle, on foot or by public transport

      Open: 10.30 to 5 daily in summer / 11 to 4 in winter, weekends only between November and February half-term / open all Bank Holiday Mondays

      Public transport access: Nearest train station is Melton, 1.25 miles away / First 63/4/5 buses from Ipswich pass Melton train station

      Allow between 90 minutes and half a day for your visit, depending on whether you plan to take the estate walks or not.

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