The day was rainy, not really a surprise for October in England, and puddles seemed to dominate the small Suffolk roads. Fields lined the sides of the roads, doing their best to funnel the water back into the path of the sparse traffic, or at least so it seemed to my eyes, and I was thankful to not be the one driving. The gray of the clouds served to amplify the green of the countryside, the beauty only interrupted in moments of pure terror as the car attempted – always successfully, somewhat surprisingly – to navigate either a large puddle or small lake that had formed in the roadway.
Our destination on this crisp English morning? A series of fields I’d never heard of, a place called Sutton Hoo. You see, apparently I did this all in the wrong order. Confused? Ok. Let’s begin.
A mound in the fields of Sutton Hoo
That morning was about a year and a half ago, back in the simpler times of 2019, before Covid. Here in March 2021, in the absence of travel, one is left in the company of Netflix which, to its credit, has done a decent job of continuing the pipeline of interesting shows and movies. One of these, fairly critically acclaimed, is the story of archaeologist Basil Brown and landowner Edith Pretty digging through some mounds in her backyard, only to make one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. It is called “The Dig” and it takes place at Sutton Hoo. The film is lovely, a feel good story through and through, and quite fantastic for history or travel buffs, both titles of which I like to claim for myself.
“The Dig” guides viewers through the discovery and excavation of burial mounds dating back to Anglo-Saxon England in the 6th or 7th century. Brown and his team unearth the remains of a ship, now thought to be the grave of Rædwald of East Anglia, and the treasures a ruler would have been buried with at the time, things like weaponry and armor, a purse and golden belt buckle, and drinking horns, all preserved remarkably well inside the rich Suffolk dirt. The team not only competes with other, more experienced archaeologists to excavate the site, but also with time, as this was 1939 and World War Two was about to begin.
Brown and Pretty stand over the partially uncovered ship in “The Dig”
This story would have been amazing to learn before my rainy day at Sutton Hoo, but lost to me in a future not yet lived, it kept my eyes blind to where I was.
Fast forward a few weeks from my visit, and I enjoyed another rainy October day in England, this time at the British Museum in London. My visit to Sutton Hoo barely registered in my mind until, lo and behold, I stumped upon an exhibit fully dedicated to the spot, containing the treasures excavated by Basil Brown. While World War Two raged on, these priceless artifacts were kept safe – along with most of the British Museum’s collection – in subway stations, far below the effect of German bombing. Signage talks about why the discovery was so important.
A helmet, what has seemingly become the emblem of the Sutton Hoo collection
Prior to the excavations at Sutton Hoo, relatively little was known about Anglo-Saxon times, the “Dark Ages” following the collapse of the Roman Empire. Few records existed, and almost no artifacts. From the burial chambers at Sutton Hoo (while Rædwald’s was the largest and most important, it was not the only one), archaeologists have been able to piece together the technology of the time, trade routes (some artifacts have been matched to those found in Scandinavia or the Mediterranean), customs, and even lifestyles of the elite of the day. While the shiny helmet and ornate drinking horns captivated me, no less important were game pieces, cooking implements, and remnants of textiles.
Ornately carved drinking horns
Back at Sutton Hoo, I wandered the fields in the rain, ignorant of either the story or the treasures contained in the mounds dotting the area. After the team finished, they covered the site back up, leaving the mounds much as they would have been prior to 1939. For someone unaware of the other components to the Sutton Hoo legacy, the site is a bit disappointing. Even inside the museum, which does a good job of trying to explain those missing pieces, something just didn’t come together for me. Maybe it was the lack of ability to see the site as an archaeological find since it was left covered. Maybe it was the lack of the backstory rendering some of the original correspondences and photographs of Basil Brown out of context. Maybe it was the replicas of artifacts having to sub in for the originals that are on display at the British Museum.
The recovered mound, with indications of where each end of the ship would have been (you can see the other at the top of the mound in the background)
My experience at Sutton Hoo was made magical after the fact, at seeing the treasures two weeks later, and at watching the story more than a year after that. Had I had the experiences in reverse, perhaps the mud and the rain would have also been made of the magic of an era long past.
Sutton Hoo is a place worth seeing. But more importantly, it is a story worth knowing, and a time in history worth studying. And just as importantly, it is key to know the story and study the history before seeing the place.
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