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Sutton Hoo – the Story of a Find

In late 1930s an intelligent and gentle lady looked out of the window of her cosy sitting room over the estate that she owned. Her name was Edith May Pretty.

Edith May Pretty
Sitting Room at Sutton Hoo House – reconstruction

He came from a wealthy family of a rich industrialist, who devoted his ample spare cash to educating his two daughters by taking them on around the world trips, with particular interest in ancient artefacts. While her younger sister got married, Edith remained with her parents and continued travelling until her father died. She was 42 when she married a man who had been in love with her since she was 18, and they bought Sutton Hoo, a large estate in Suffolk with a beautiful house on a hill, overlooking the river Deben.

Sutton Hoo Manor House
Sutton Hoo Manor House, now Tranmer House, in honour of the last owners who gave the estate to the British Heritage

The happy couple had a son, but soon her husband died, and Edith devoted herself to charitable work and her young boy, – and spiritual healing, which was a popular fad at the time.

1930s interior of Sutton Hoo House

Her health was failing, and she must have spent quite a while looking at the mounds across the ditch visible from the window of her sitting room. This is what she saw

View from the window of Sutton Hoo House

She heard stories of ghosts of warriors marching atop those hills. She also knew that they had been plundered hundreds of years previously, with some metal nails found, and she wondered if there was more to them than just spiritual apparitions.

Edith organised – and paid for – an archaeological dig, by a local archaeologist Basil Brown, who was recommended to her by the Ipswich Museum. This is his workshop, reconstructed in a little building next to Edith’s manor house.

Basil Brown’s workshop

A smaller mound excavated in 1938 revealed a ship burial, previously dug up by 19th century, yielding some ship rivets. Now this one, known as Mound 2, is built up to its original height.

Mound 2

In fact, all mounds had been ransacked, as became apparent during excavations later, some as early as 16th century.

The works returned in 1939, when Edith insisted that the biggest, Mound 1, was to be dug up.

The famous Mound 1 – what remains of it

And this is what they found – a ghostly imprint of a ship in the sandy soil.

The ship was filled with belongings of an Anglo-Saxon king.

Some of the treasures found at Sutton Hoo

Quite soon it became apparent that this is one of the biggest Anglo-Saxon finds in England. Dignitaries from the British Museum told Basil Brown to ‘move over’ – Edith insisted on his involvement and ensured that his job was secure, – this is the kind of woman she was.

Sutton Hoo site in 2017

What they found was a real treasure – in terms of both material and historic value. The 18 mounds sitting close together on one plot of land turned out to contain two ship burials (out of only 3 known in England), 6 cremation burials, a burial in a (possible) coffin and a burial of a young warrior and his horse.

Reconstruction of the horse harness found at Sutton Hoo

Some artefacts are in Ipswich museum and in the visitor centre at Sutton Hoo, but the whole of the most important ship burial in Mound 1- thought to be of Anglo-Saxon king Raedwald – is in the British Museum.

This was the generous gift of Edith Pretty – the courts established that everything belonged to her, and she donated the treasure to the nation, with the provision that it will be displayed in the British Museum. This was the most valuable gift made to the British Museum in the lifetime of the owner. Sadly, Edit did not live to see her gift on display. She died in 1942.

It was lucky that Mount 1 was excavated in summer 1939 – the First World War starting in autumn 1939, and the estate was commandered by the military, with the house being used as, and the fields as a training ground for military vehicles.

During the war the Sutton Hoo hoard was stored in Aldwych Tube Station and now form the main part of the British Museum’s Anglo-Saxon gallery.

Sutton Hoo display at the British Museum

After the war the estate Edith’s son sold the estate, which became a farm. Edith’s will stipulated that the estate can be sold only on condition that the excavation rights belong to the family, who subsequently passed them to the British Museum.

After the death of the last owner in 1990s, Sutton Hoo became a National Trust property, and now offers a 1930s interiors reconstruction in the manor house, a visitor centre telling the history of Sutton Hoo finds, and, of course, a walk around the mounds, which brings us closer to the great mystery of the Dark Age Anglo-Saxons.

View of the house from the mounds
Visitor Centre

 

 

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How to be a good tour guide – telling stories is the key!

When I was doing my Blue Badge guide cause, one of the teachers told us that if a tour is interesting for children, it is more than suitable for adults – because it is interesting. One may quote dates and numbers, but it is the stories that bring history to life, and make it fun to go on a tour.

This is what I want to do – in my work, and now in this blog.

One of the best examples of exciting history story-telling that I ever came across is the British History Podcast. I came across is when researching Anglo-Saxons for the British Museum tour, and have been absolutely captivated by Jamie the presenter’s style.

British History Podcast

The website says, ‘The BHP is a chronological retelling of the history of Britain with a particular focus upon the lives of the people.’ 

Actually, it is much more than that. It is just the right mixture of meticulously researched historical content and a captivating manner of presenting it. To me, it goes like a detective story, with a cliff-hanger at the end of the episode!

The best example is the first Sutton Hoo podcast – a must for everyone doing Anglo-Saxons as part of  primary school history curriculum:

104 – Sutton Hoo: The Finding of Raedwald… and Rabbits

Lilia loved that one, and the first part of the following episode, which gives a vivid imagery of what it was like to be present at a cremation ceremony of a real life Anglo-Saxon, with sounds and smells of burning a body on a huge funeral pyre!

Well, some episodes are more exciting than others, but for me, every little detail of historic importance is worth knowing, and I am savouring every one of them, being only half way through Anglo-Saxons, and they are over 230 episodes, and only up to King Alfred!

It felt a bit weird at the start to listen to British History in an American accent, quite used to that after the first few episodes.

I became a member, not just because I can get special members only episodes and transcripts, but also I love supporting this great project. I met Jamie in person during last months’ BHP in London, and although I was there only briefly, it was a great pleasure to have a chat with the BHP team and other followers, hopefully, they will have more of those going in the future.

In the meantime, I will do my best to tell stories from history, from everywhere we go on our adventures.