Sutton Hoo in Suffolk is the site of a cemetery for Saxon kings, and was used for this purpose between 590 and 630AD. The site is a collection of grassy mounds sitting on heath land above the river Deben. One of the largest mounds was excavated in 1939 and revealed a ship burial. Only the most powerful of Saxon leaders were buried with their ships, and it is thought that this was the grave of Raedweld, king of what is now East Anglia. A building at the site displays information about the excavation, and shows pictures of Raedweld's ghostly ship which left its impression in the soil of its enclosing mound.
This is obviously a fascinating and important site, but perhaps the most arresting thing about Sutton Hoo is the way it illustrates our contradictory attitudes to what we might consider "important places. Firstly, in common with many other sacred places, the soil of Sutton Hoo was not very productive. Its thin sandy soil was often only fertile enough to maintain heath land. Since the land was not valuable enough for growing food, it was free for more "sacred" purposes. So from 590 to 630AD, Sutton Hoo, a rather useless area, was sacred ground, a place where great leaders would be buried. People sailing on the river below would look up and see enormous mounds against the sky, symbols of power and tradition. But this sacred place was sacred to a pagan culture which was about to end. An important place was about to become a reviled place. St Augustine founded Canterbury Cathedral in 603 AD, and won over King Ethelbert of Kent to Christianity. Raedweld was a subject king to Ethelbert, and was himself baptised in Kent. Raedweld wasn't quite as convinced as Ethelbert about the new religion, and returned home to East Anglia to set up a temple with two altars, one Christian, the other dedicated to the old gods. So Sutton Hoo sits on the border between pagan and Christian Britain, and after 630AD the pagan world was left behind. Once sacred ground became an embarrassment, the opposite of what it had been. Now Sutton Hoo became a place of execution. People who did not deserve to be buried in consecrated ground were buried in tainted pagan soil alongside great kings of pagan days. Sad, shallow little graves sat between the majestic mounds of kings.
As time continued to pass the land of Sutton Hoo became neither sacred nor profane. Farmers struggled to make a living on this poor soil, the mounds slowly shrinking with the effect of wind, weather, and ploughing. Frequently the soil would become exhausted and Sutton Hoo would revert to heath land grazed by sheep. Then in the 1930s archeologists moved in, and an irrelevant place became important again.
Most of the items taken out of the famous ship burial mound are now at the British Museum which took over excavations from a local archeologist once the site's importance became clear. One item is always on loan from the British Museum and displayed at Sutton Hoo in the exhibition hall. The exhibition hall also has displays illustrating Sutton Hoo's history, and a life size reconstruction of Raedweld's burial ship.
Guided tours of the mounds are available, and are recommended, since you will not be able to reach the mounds themselves if you do not take the tour. Casual visitors have to walk around the edge of the area. One mound has been returned to its approximate original size, which gives an idea of how the site would have looked in its time as a resting place for kings.
Address: Tranmer House, Sutton Hoo, Woodbridge, Suffolk IP12 3DJ
Opening Times: Opening hours at National Trust properties can be complex. Please use contact details below.
Directions: Sutton Hoo is on the B1083, between Melton and Bawdsey. Follow signs from the A12 north of Woodbridge. Click here for an interactive map centred on Sutton Hoo.
Access: The exhibition, shop and restaurant are all wheelchair accessible, and there are adapted toilet facilities. The grounds are partly accessible. There is a level path out to the area of the mounds. Two seater vehicles are available. Booking for these is essential. Braille and large print guides are provided.
telephone: 01394 389700
web site: www.nationaltrust.org.uk