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Sutton Hoo at 80: When Suffolk amazed the world

PUBLISHED: 19:40 29 July 2019 | UPDATED: 12:25 31 July 2019

The modern, iconic, model of the Sutton Hoo helmet that has greeted visitors to the historical site near Woodbridge run by the National Trust  Picture: Owen Hines

The modern, iconic, model of the Sutton Hoo helmet that has greeted visitors to the historical site near Woodbridge run by the National Trust Picture: Owen Hines

Archant

Eighty years ago, Britain learned of 'one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries of all time'. This is what it was, and how it happened

EADT journalist Alf Bowden, who broke the story of the Sutton Hoo treasure discovery  Picture: ARCHANTEADT journalist Alf Bowden, who broke the story of the Sutton Hoo treasure discovery Picture: ARCHANT

It's the summer of 1939 and many people are wondering if Britain is about to enter another global conflict. It's not even 21 years since the end of what optimistic folk had dubbed "the war to end all wars".

With Hitler's ambitions only too clear after the spring invasion of Czechoslovakia, Britain has been re-arming and introducing a limited form of conscription. Our thoughts that summer are with threatened Poland.

On the Saturday morning of July 29, the East Anglian Daily Times drops through letterboxes and for a while draws minds away from fears of violence and megalomania.

"Great archaeological find in Suffolk", it reveals, in an exclusive report. "Valuable articles in gold found… unique Anglo-Saxon relics".

Another of the pictures taken by Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack  Picture: The trustees of the British MuseumAnother of the pictures taken by Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack Picture: The trustees of the British Museum

READ MORE: How do you spot a rich Anglo-Saxon?

The article speaks about a "momentous find" on the Sutton Hoo estate on the banks of the River Deben, opposite Woodbridge.

It is an ancient ship burial, dating from about 600AD - "possibly that of an early Anglo-Saxon king".

Sutton Hoo purse-lid. Gold, cloisonné garnet and millefiori glass. Picture: The Trustees of the British MuseumSutton Hoo purse-lid. Gold, cloisonné garnet and millefiori glass. Picture: The Trustees of the British Museum

The discovery might "be as important in this country as the finding of the tomb of Tutankhamen to Egypt", it suggests.

Found with the perfect image of a Saxon longship − preserved in sand, though the wood and metal fittings had long decayed − was an array of highly-valuable gold and silver objects "of great beauty and fine workmanship".

The discovery is expected to throw considerable light on the customs and cultural standards of the early years of the Anglo-Saxon occupation of eastern Britain. It's a period "which archaeologists have been able to visualise but dimly in consequence of the comparatively few remains so far brought to light".

Readers learn the excavation was initiated and funded by landowner Mrs Edith Pretty. It was carried out by Basil Brown and supervised by Ipswich Museum curator Guy Maynard.

Sutton Hoo shoulder clasps. Gold, millefiori and garnets. Picture: The Trustees of the British MuseumSutton Hoo shoulder clasps. Gold, millefiori and garnets. Picture: The Trustees of the British Museum

The finds are likely to be declared "treasure trove". If so, an inquest will decide to whom they belong. "Their final destination is not yet decided upon."

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It wasn't, of course, the whole story.

How the EADT broke the news about Sutton Hoo  Picture: ARCHANTHow the EADT broke the news about Sutton Hoo Picture: ARCHANT

There had been tensions during the excavation. When it was clear what was coming to light, a hint that something special was happening piqued the interest of Cambridge University-based expert Charles Phillips.

Essentially, he took over responsibility for the dig and brought in a team of Cambridge scholars. The spotlight thus moved off the locals who had begun the investigations of the burial mounds and made the early discoveries.

READ MORE: Did Basil Brown get the credit he deserved?

In a bid to ensure the Suffolk involvement wasn't downplayed, Mrs Pretty and the Ipswich Museum authorities gave the story to EADT reporter Alfred Bowden. He produced the world exclusive, working with editor Ralph Wilson and a small trusted team.

The British Museum, which had also become involved and which would later be given the treasures by Mrs Pretty, had wanted the story kept quiet for the moment.

Things soon went a bit quiet once war broke out early in the September of 1939, but more details (and pictures) emerged over time.

In 1940, British Museum expert Thomas Kendrick suggested the burial site was Raedwald of East Anglia's resting place. He was king of the East Angles, thought to have died in about 625AD.

READ MORE: 'Gentleman's daughter' who made it all possible

The artefacts included sword handles and gold buckles, along with a stunning gold and garnet belt and ornate shield-bosses.

Then there was the now-iconic Sutton Hoo helmet, which has become not just the "face of the brand" but a symbol of that period of British history.

It's incredible to think these complex and beautiful pieces (mixing beauty and functionality) were being made 1,300 or 1,400 years ago by skilled craftsmen without the advantage of micro-tools and modern magnifying lenses.

Our sense of awe simply grows with the years.

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