Flat out for Sutton Hoo

The Easter holiday was short in the UK last year, but this didn’t stop some of us making good use of it, and for me this included, somewhat to my surprise, an Anglo-Saxonist roadtrip. This excellent idea was one of the many such ideas of Dr Eleanor Barraclough, who was then an Extraordinary Junior Research Fellow at the Queen’s College Oxford with me, that have led to her being named a BBC New Generation Thinker and snapped up by Durham University, but thanks to the blog’s fourteen-month backlog I get to talk about her as if I still worked with her, hurray! Or something. Anyway, it was her idea to gather a posse of interested undergraduates, and hey, why not also graduates and staff members and even bits of family and we finished up with a minibus quite packed with English undergraduates and their teachers, one lone history student, a lecturer in Spanish and her son, the college’s Provost’s wife and chaplain and there were probably some others too, and me. Our itinerary was ambitious: to Maldon, because of the Battle, on which I had to do an impromptu lecture on the way; then to Sutton Hoo, because of the burials; and finally to Ely, because of St Audrey and Archbishop Wulfstan but also for fish and chips; and then home. And it all went more or less perfectly and I took pictures, as follows…

View from the Essex coast at Maldon, with the sea up over the causeway

First stop, Maldon. The tide was in, for our safety should any Vikings have landed before we arrived. Somewhere under that water is the causeway across which Byrhtnoth fatally allowed his opponents…

Recitation and reenactment of the Battle of Maldon by a small number of weatherproofed academics with scripts on the actual Maldon shoreline

Eleanor had printed scripts for a rapid reenactment of the battle, in what as you can see was painstakingly authentic costume… Yours truly with the shield, Eleanor’s direction obscured by my arm

Nonetheless, although excitement and the thrill of simulated bloodshed helped somewhat, you can probably tell from these pictures that it was not the perfect day to be by the North Sea-side so we quickly piled back into the bus and drove onwards to Sutton Hoo. The National Trust have done a really nice job of Sutton Hoo: there is a good exhibiton hall with an excellent café, even if I doubt the authenticity of some of their themed recipes, and the site itself is well marked out. There isn’t a whole lot of signage, because they expect you to have a guide; we did and he was excellent, though he did check first to see if there were any knowledgeable people present as he had given the beginners’ speech to two professors only the previous day… We could not necessarily offer comfort on this, as some of us knew nothing about the site and others of us lecture on it. Anyway, around we went…

The edge of the burial ground at Sutton Hoo

Significant-looking mounds in the distance…

Reconstructed burial mound at Sutton Hoo

Of course the actual digging destroyed the mounds that were dug, none of which were this high by then anyway, but the clean-up process involved reconstructing one of the smaller ones to what was probably its original height

Locations of execution burials at Sutton Hoo marked out in the ground

The later execution burials, now all lifted, have had their locations marked with these infills of broken stone, which is quite effective not least in showing the pattern of their layout. What you don’t see, of course, is the mound that they encircled…

Marked hypothetical perimeter of one of the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo

Most of the mounds have had their probable perimeter marked, however

Cast of the 'Ploughman' sand-body at Sutton Hoo in the hole where it was excavated

In some of the execution graves, where the sand-bodies I’ve pictured here before were uncovered, casts of the remains have been left in place. This is the peculiar one known as the `Ploughman’…

The climax of the tour for us, and probably for everyone, is Mound 1, where the ship and all the treasure was found in the 1939-1939 excavations.

Visitors standing above the location of the burial chamber of Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo

Mound 1 is triply marked out, for its perimeter, for the approximate space that the ship’s hull would have taken up when it was in there, and for the burial chamber on board. Here we stand roughly amidships, over the chamber, and learn from our guide. One of the actual modern custodians of the site grazes in the background…

Here, Eleanor was again prepared with scripts, and with the sky darkening, we read the burial scene from Beowulf, with actions:

Your bloggist pretending to be a dead Anglo-Saxon ruler on top of the burial chamber of Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo

The hero, defeated by dragon and death at last, lies amidships with the gifts of his followers laid about him, cleverly reading out a poet’s account of his own obsequies. Doesn’t he look familiar?

I have to say that although this might seem a bit childish to some, there is nonetheless something fairly heavy about lying down full-length over the space where a king, or something very much like that, lay for probably 1300 years, until nothing remained of him but his treasure, with people intoning something like his language about you. Sometimes the imagination of those who can think like children is the best route we have to engaging with the Other…

Museum reconstruction of the burial from Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo

The Museum’s reconstruction of the burial, for comparison. We only saw this afterwards, of course, so I think we did quite well given our lack of archæologists…

By the time we reached Ely the light was definitely leaving the sky. Here, figuring that I would be back again soon enough (which actually hasn’t been true) I hived off from the party to catch up with an old friend, but although I did not actually go through to the ambulatory to meet the saints as I should have, I did get a few photos of the wonder that is Ely Cathedral. Of this building, the so-called ship of the Fens, said friend once wrote: “It has been said that architecture is frozen music. If so, I would imagine that if you melted Ely Cathedral, you would get a single, world-shaking burst of something like Bach’s Toccata in D Minor.” You can see what he means…

West-work of Ely Cathedral in low evening light

Some of the west-work, in declining light

Vaulting in the nave of Ely Cathedral

Vaulting in the nave

Vault of the south transept and some of the crossing of Ely Cathedral

Vault of the south transept and some of the crossing

Arcades in the nave of Ely Cathedral

Arcades in the nave

I shall, in fact, have to go back and do it properly some day. After all, I have been known to read chunks of the Sermon of the Wolf to the English in full fire and brimstone style in lectures, I really ought to go and see what is memorialised of its author. And I gather there is an actual patron saint too

7 responses to “Flat out for Sutton Hoo

  1. ” to Ely … for fish and chips”: Petrou Brothers, I trust?

    • I believe so! But I went to either the Prince Albert or the Fountain, can’t now remember which. It was good, which may help those with local knowledge determine…

  2. “Sometimes the imagination of those who can think like children is the best route we have to engaging with the Other…”

  3. Hello Jonathan, I’m not sure how I ended up at your blog (I’m a scientist, not a historian), but you got me fascinated with Sutton Hoo. I can’t fathom how they thought someone was worth that much effort and treasure, yet didn’t put his NAME anywhere. So alien. Plus, I want to hear history together with the story of the historians, and this is a great one — imagine racing to excavate before the war started. I’ll be in London for a few days from the US and was all set to put Sutton Hoo on the itinerary, but considering it’s 2.5 hours each way from London and the originals of the flashiest pieces are in the British Museum, can you help me convince my husband it’s worth the trip?

  4. Probably not, I’m afraid! As you say, the shiniest stuff is at the BM, and archaeologists I know who have been have been unimpressed with what’s visible at the actual site. I had read the site report, so it all meant something to me, but that isn’t true for many people. If you want a feel for life in the period, West Stow Anglo-Saxon village may repay your visit better.

    As for your other point, I should say, we don’t know that the individual wasn’t named, either with something on the mound or on something perishable in it. The whole area had been under the plough for centuries by the time it was dug, and used as an execution cemetery later on. It’s not even impossible that the people who turned the place into an execution site would have taken down such memorials as might have been there because of their evident paganism. This is anything but an undisturbed site…

  5. Thanks for the response! Sadly, our dates in England just miss an Archaeology Festival at Sutton Hoo, where the public can participate in field walking and using a geophysics scanner. I would have absolutely gone for that. And the West Stow village takes even longer from London. Instead, we’re going to the London Docklands Museum and its exhibit on Roman burials. They’re having a public workshop on forensic anthropology: hands-on instruction on identifying biological profiles of individual skeletons, and learning about excavation and curation of human remains.

    And especially thanks for the discussion about memorials possibly being removed — I hadn’t realized that. “England is a palimpsest,” Jill Paton Walsh said, and that’s the feeling I’m hoping to get.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.