Everything you need to know about Sutton Hoo

The Dig reimagines the events of the 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph

The Dig reimagines the events of the 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo, and stars Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes - Credit: Larry Horricks/Netflix

What is Sutton Hoo? 

Dubbed by many as one of the most significant archaeological discoveries dug up from British soil, Sutton Hoo is a medieval cemetery that was excavated in 1939. It has just been given the silver screen treatment in the upcoming Netflix adaptation The Dig, which stars Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes and Lily James. 

The Dig reimagines the events of the 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph

The Dig reimagines the events of the 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo, and stars Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes - Credit: Larry Horricks/Netflix

Where is Sutton Hoo? 

Located near Woodbridge in Suffolk, Sutton Hoo spans across 245 acres of land and consists of 18 mounds. Since its discovery, it has as played a pivotal role in helping historians and archaeologists uncover more about the region’s ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom. 

Tranmer House from the mounds at Sutton Hoo

Tranmer House from the mounds at Sutton Hoo - Credit: Paul Geater

Who discovered Sutton Hoo? 

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In 1937, landowner Edith Pretty decided she wanted an excavation conducted on her vast expanse of land. Shortly after, Ipswich Museum’s curator Guy Maynard put her in touch with Bucklesham-born archaeologist Basil Brown. He was paid 30 shillings a week during his time at Sutton Hoo, and lodged with Edith’s chauffeur. 

Starting at one of the land’s many grassy mounds, Basil took to the site in June 1938 and began digging – but to no avail. It is thought much of the ground had previously been dug up by grave robbers during the Tudor era, and at a later excavation attempt in the 19th century.  

Mrs Edith Pretty, the owner of Sutton Hoo estate, standing on the veranda of Tranmer House. Picture:

Edith Pretty, the owner of Sutton Hoo estate, standing on the veranda of Tranmer House - Credit: National Trust/Archant Archives

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Moving onto other mounds, he sadly only unearthed smaller artefacts such as Saxon pottery, an iron axe, ship rivets and glass. It wasn’t until May 1939 that Basil, with the help of Edith’s gardener John Jacobs, gamekeeper William Spooner and estate worker Bert Fuller, worked together and began digging a trench.  

At first, the group found a large iron rivet, but after hours of meticulous excavating, soon realised the enormity of what was actually beneath them.  

What did they find at Sutton Hoo? 

What Basil Brown and his diggers had uncovered were the remains of a 27-metre-long Anglo-Saxon ship.  

Believed to be dated between the 6th and 7th centuries and crafted from oak, the wooden ship itself wasn’t actually there, but rather a ‘ghost’ imprint in the soil where the ship once was. 

Once the group realised what they had found, word had gotten out and attracted the attention of Cambridge archaeologist Charles Phillips. It was Phillips who ultimately went on to lead the rest of the excavation with his team, taking over in July that year.  

Before Charles officially took over however, Basil and his team managed to uncover the ship’s stern and burial chamber before they were unfortunately sidelined from the project. Peggy Piggott was bestowed the honour of actually excavating the chamber, and soon uncovered its treasures. 

Artefacts found within the burial chamber include gold jewellery, a shield, a sword, silverware from the Byzantine Empire, and of course the iconic ornate iron helmet we’re all familiar with.  

Who was buried at Sutton Hoo? 

While it’s hard to ascertain due to lack of written records from the time, many historians and archaeologists have come to the conclusion that it's the grave of Rædwald, King of East Anglia, who is thought to have died in 624. 

Who reported the story of the Sutton Hoo find first? 

As these magnificent and historically-important finds were being uncovered at the time, one local reporter was the first to break the story - none of other than East Anglian Daily Times senior reporter Alf Bowden, who beat the national newspapers to the punch.  

Due to Charles Phillips and his team taking over the dig, Edith and the Ipswich Museum authorities wanted to ensure that Suffolk’s key role in the discovery wasn’t brushed aside, so Alf worked with editor Ralph Wilson to ensure they could be the first to report this world exclusive.  

East Anglian Daily Times journalist Alfred "Bow" Bowden broke the story back in 1939. Picture: ARCHA

East Anglian Daily Times journalist Alfred "Bow" Bowden, who broke the story of Sutton Hoo back in 1939 - Credit: Archant Libraries

In a 1979 interview, Alf recalled the events that led up to that ground-breaking story. He said: “They were sorting out who should get the credit for the discoveries. We had agreed with Mr Maynard to keep quiet about the discovery as they didn’t want the public walking all over it. 

“Because we were the main paper in the area and had kept quiet about it, they were going to let us have first bite. I was chosen to write the story because while I was working at Colchester, I had written a good deal on archaeological subjects. You only have to turn over soil in the garden there and you find something.’’ 

“Great archaeological find in Suffolk”, the paper’s Saturday July 29 edition read. “Valuable articles in gold found… unique Anglo-Saxon relics.” 

The article described it as a "momentous find", and once the news had broken, all eyes were on Suffolk and the tiny village of Sutton. 


The EADT's July 29 1939 edition, which broke the news of Sutton Hoo - Credit: Archant Archives

What happened to the treasures from Sutton Hoo? And where is the Sutton Hoo helmet? 

After a summer of lengthy digging, and following an inquest at Sutton village hall, the historic finds were deemed to be the property of Edith Pretty as she owned the land on which they were excavated from.  

Keen to share this discovery with the rest of the world, she donated the treasures to the nation, and most of them, including the Sutton Hoo helmet, can now be found on display at the British Museum in London. However, due to lockdown restrictions, the museum is temporarily closed. 

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