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Want to visit Sutton Hoo? This unassuming place in the Suffolk countryside is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world and is now the subject of 2021 Netflix film The Dig.
While The Dig is a dramatised version of events that unfolded around the discovery of the treasures at Sutton Hoo, the site itself is managed by the National Trust and is fascinating insight into the excavation and discoveries in the ancient burial mounds.
What is Sutton Hoo?
Deep in the English countryside, not far from the city of Ipswich, the rolling green hills of England hid a secret for over 1,200 years. The only clue to the existence of something out of the ordinary was a series of raised mounds covered in grass that were not in keeping with the topography of the area.
Intrigued by these mounds, in 1939 land owner Edith Pretty commissioned local archaeologist Basil Brown to start excavating the land. What he found was to be one of the most important archaeological sites in Britain.
Sutton Hoo is home to 18 burial grounds dating from the 6th and 7th century. Inside Burial Mound 1, the largest, and now most famous of these, Brown found an enormous wooden ship.
An important Anglo Saxon burial ship
The ship was most likely the undisturbed and magnificent burial site of a very important leader, perhaps a king. Inside the Anglo Saxon boat was a well-preserved treasure trove of artefacts including jewellery, weapons, textiles and household goods.
Among the treasures found, the most famous item is the iconic and fabulously ornate helmet crafted from gold and precious stones. The helmet is world famous and is known simply as ‘the Sutton Hoo helmet’.
Examining the items discovered at Sutton Hoo has enabled historians to gather vital clues about life in Anglo-Saxon times.
Exploring the Sutton Hoo site
We visited Sutton Hoo on an overcast spring day. The site is found among the rural pastures and beautiful heathland of Suffolk and was covered with daffodils and bluebells.
Our first point of call was the Exhibition Hall where we learnt all about the excavation and history of the site. We found the displays interesting and they provided great insight into life in Anglo-Saxon times and the reasons for building the burial mounds.
The centrepiece of the hall is a replica of the ship burial chamber complete with furnishings, weaponry and ceremonial jewels giving you a sense of pageantry and symbolism of the original burial.
Next we ventured out to the fields and walked among the mounds. Mound two was reconstructed to show what it would have looked like prior to thousands of years of erosion.
Its appearance definitely signals that something interesting is hidden inside. I find it fascinating that the original mounds lay undisturbed for so long. Mound seventeen is the final resting place of a warrior and his horse.
There is a 2 mile circuit walk that takes you round the estate and past the burial sites. You can also visit Edith Pretty’s 1930s house to learn more about the estate.
The site at Sutton Hoo is managed by the National Trust who have done a brilliant job of bringing history to life. Our visit coincided with a festival celebrating the skills and legacy of Anglo-Saxon craftsmen and women.
Throughout the grounds of the site there were potters, weavers and metal workers demonstrating centuries old skills and crafts that were common centuries ago.
But the highlight of the day was running into this imposing looking man striding out towards the burial mounds. “Is that the King?,” my children cried.
He certainly looked regal. Research is ongoing to confirm the identity of the dignitary buried in the ship at Sutton Hoo however many historians believe that he is Raedwald, an Anglo-Saxon king.
Sutton Hoo for kids
A certified history nerd, I am hell bent on passing on this passion to my children. The displays at Sutton Hoo made my job easy with dress ups, family trails and colouring in suitable for a wide range of ages.
Of course the children were impressed with the “King” and enjoyed making a brooch in the Anglo-Saxon style at the craft table.
Practical information and FAQ
Where is Sutton Hoo
The Sutton Hoo site is at Tranmer House, Sutton Hoo, Woodbridge, Suffolk, IP12 3DJ
You will need a car to get there and the drive from London takes about 2 hours. There is plenty of car parking on site. Visiting by train is possible but the nearest large station at Woodbridge is 3 miles away.
Opening hours and prices
The visitor centre is currently open for estate walks only from 10am for 4pm in line with current government guidance. Please check the National Trust website for more information.
Can you see the original burial ship and helmet found at Sutton Hoo?
Sadly no. The 27 metre long ship no longer exists. It disintegrated after being buried in acidic soil for over a thousand years. The helmet and other treasures are safely kept at the British Museum. Inside the visitor centre you can see a replica of the boat and helmet and there is also an impressive life sized steel sculpture of the boat’s hull in grounds.
We did not eat on site but there is a large cafe overlooking the estate. Instead we had a lovely Sunday pub lunch just outside the estate at The Wilford Bridge pub.
The treasures of Sutton Hoo at the British Museum
If you are interested in learning more about Sutton Hoo and are not able to visit the site itself, the British Museum houses and displays some of the important artefacts discovered there.
Visit Room 41: Europe 300 – 1,100 AD at the museum to see the iconic Sutton Hoo helmet, jewellery and weapons from the site bequeathed by Edith Pretty to the British people.
Final thoughts on Sutton Hoo
If cost was no object how would you like to exit this world? I am quite taken by the thought of going out in a burst of fireworks. (Yes, it is possible – just Google it.) It seems like our predecessors knew a thing or two about dramatic exits and a trip to Sutton Hoo reveals exactly that.
We may never know if the burial ceremony at Sutton Hoo included an Anglo-Saxon form of fireworks. However thanks to the discoveries at the site and ongoing efforts to preserve and further explore the treasures found, we have a deeper understanding of the culture of this time.
I think if I couldn’t be farewelled in a shower of fireworks then a magnificent wooden ship would be quite acceptable.