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Sutton Hoo at 80: Will there ever be another archaeological dig?

PUBLISHED: 01:26 30 July 2019 | UPDATED: 18:02 02 August 2019

Angus Wainwright, pictured in 2002, with a replica of the famous Sutton Hoo helmet  Picture: JAMIE NIBLOCK

Angus Wainwright, pictured in 2002, with a replica of the famous Sutton Hoo helmet Picture: JAMIE NIBLOCK

Research hasn't come to an end. 'There are many new non-destructive techniques for looking under the soil which could be used on the site'

The new ship sculpture at Sutton Hoo   Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNThe new ship sculpture at Sutton Hoo Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Only days to go before the wraps come off the latest improvements at Sutton Hoo. The National Trust, custodian of the ancient site near Woodbridge, unveils the new-look exhibition hall and Tranmer House (once the home of landowner Edith Pretty) on August 5.

Tranmer House has been transformed, with a new exhibition looking at the people and tales behind the historic discoveries at Sutton Hoo and its intriguing landscape with those curious earth mounds.

The exhibition hall, rechristened the High Hall, will focus on the lives of the Anglo-Saxons and how Sutton Hoo gained its reputation as such a significant place in English history.

Later in the year (early autumn, probably) the opening of a 17-metre observation tower should be the final piece of the project. It will offer views over the royal burial ground and on to the River Deben.

Is Sutton Hoo really so important?

"In the months preceding the Second World War, a journey of discovery began here that would trigger decades of research that would re-write English history," says a National Trust spokesman.

Another of the pictures taken by Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack.  In it, Charles Phillips is showing Edith Pretty, right, and Princess Marie Louise documents relating to the dig   Picture: The trustees of the British MuseumAnother of the pictures taken by Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack. In it, Charles Phillips is showing Edith Pretty, right, and Princess Marie Louise documents relating to the dig Picture: The trustees of the British Museum

That's the impact of the 1939 discovery of a 7th century ship burial, the resting place of Anglo-Saxon nobility and a wealth of treasure and other precious artefacts described as the richest from this period to survive in Northern Europe.

"These burial mounds testify to the ambitions of the Wuffings, a dynasty of pagan lords and a resourceful queen who created the kingdom of East Anglia and shaped the history of England.

"Their legacy is evident in this country's common law, with its emphasis on personal rights and freedom - and the legacy of English itself, the global language. Their superb expertise in the arts, poetry and shipbuilding inspires new makers and visitors alike."

And archaeologist Basil Brown's findings were just the start?

"The 1939 discovery led to decades of conservation and research into the artefacts, led by the British Museum.

"Rupert Bruce-Mitford was the person who actually got the task of leading the post-excavation work on Sutton Hoo. He got started on that as soon as he finished military service after World War II in 1946, so it was him that really spearheaded all that hard work. He also organised and arranged a series of excavations at Sutton Hoo in the '60s and '70s.

One of the photographs of the Sutton Hoo dig taken in the summer of 1939 by two visiting school teachers, Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack  Picture: The trustees of the British MuseumOne of the photographs of the Sutton Hoo dig taken in the summer of 1939 by two visiting school teachers, Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack Picture: The trustees of the British Museum

"That work revisited the ship burial itself but also looked at the wider context of the site, finding it had roots that went all the way back to the Neolithic period. "As well as leading work on the post-excavation work and publications, Rupert Bruce-Mitford also undertook further work that expanded our knowledge of Sutton Hoo.

"The excavations in 1939 themselves only took 3-4 months, but the publications took 38 years before they were actually fully published - the first one was in 1975 and the last one was in 1983.

"These are three monumental publications, around 2,500 pages of meticulous discussions, illustrations, photographs and ideas. Even today, they are still the main authority on the ship burial."

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That still wasn't it, though?

"From 1983-2005, Professor Martin Carver, currently an emeritus professor of the University of York, was the director of the Sutton Hoo research project that excavated new ground, and re-excavated some of the old barrows that had been opened in 1939.

Angus Wainwright, in 2009, with a replica of the Sutton Hoo h  Picture: Lucy TaylorAngus Wainwright, in 2009, with a replica of the Sutton Hoo h Picture: Lucy Taylor

"This work led to the discovery of new mounds and burials. This included Mound 17, which had an intact burial in it: of a young warrior complete with weapons and the richly decorated harness of his horse, buried beside him.

"This series of excavations also better informed us of the prehistoric settlement beside the River Deben. A slice of rural England of perhaps 3,000 years.

"And the 1939 discovery continues to give up its secrets. Recently, at the British Museum, a scientist explored some black deposits that were inside the burial ship. These were previously thought to be tar that was waterproofing the inside of the ship, but it was actually identified as bitumen which was potentially shaped into artefacts.

"The origins of this bitumen were traced to a source in the Middle East, further re-enforcing knowledge of the complex trade links of the Anglo-Saxons.

"Research continues on the objects discovered and we continue to benefit from Edith Pretty's initial curiosity and generosity.

"We are also excited by the research happening nearby at Rendlesham, one of the residences of the kings of East Anglia. This will throw light on the lives of the people buried here at Sutton Hoo."

Will there be any more digs? Are there more treasures waiting to be discovered?

"When deciding to excavate a site we have to be certain that the knowledge we gain will outweigh the destruction we cause," says Angus Wainwright, National Trust archaeologist for the East of England.

"We have to remember that excavation is a destructive process. If we dug the King's Mound (Mound 1) today, we would have got much more information out of it than our predecessors did in 1939 but, unfortunately, due to the old excavations there is now nothing left of the burial chamber and the mighty ship for us to investigate today.

"Most of the critical remaining questions about the history of the burial ground were answered by Professor Carver's excavations in the 1980s, so the un-excavated mounds ought to be left for future generations with new questions and new techniques.

"This doesn't mean that research is over at Sutton Hoo. There are many new non-destructive techniques for looking under the soil which could be used on the site.

"Some of these were recently successfully trialled by a team from Bradford University. New scientific techniques are also being used on the objects in the British Museum.

"Another area for future research might be the Anglo-Saxon cemetery discovered before the construction of the visitor centre in 2000. This is a forerunner of the royal burial ground and could answer some of the questions about the ancestors of those buried in the royal burial ground.

"The National Trust would always encourage new research and it would always be exciting for us and our visitors to see archaeologists back at Sutton Hoo."

Will we ever see more of the most stunning Sutton Hoo treasures residing permanently in Suffolk, rather than London?

"In our new exhibition hall, new objects on long-term loan from The British Museum will be displayed alongside those on existing loan to allow us to better tell the stories of some of the people buried here," says Laura Howarth, archaeology & engagement manager at Sutton Hoo.

"Our Treasury space is also a space for temporary exhibitions, where we will be hosting a rich and varied programme… to include exhibitions featuring loans from The British Museum and other lending institutions."

Historian and broadcaster Michael Wood talks to John West about Sutton Hoo and Rendlesham

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