How Sutton Hoo ship project will 'bring the past to life' in Woodbridge

Simon Steel and Jacq Barnard in the Longshed in Woodbridge. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

Simon Steel and Jacq Barnard in the Longshed in Woodbridge. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Building work is preparing to step up a gear in Woodbridge to carefully bring one of Britain’s greatest archaeological treasures back to life. 

The Sutton Hoo longship, which inspired the new Netflix film The Dig, is being carefully restored from scratch after it was buried more than 1,400 years ago. 

The ship is being built using tools that our Anglo-Saxon predecessors would have used, such as axes, and is being spearheaded by the Sutton Hoo Ship's Company, at The Longshed along the River Deben. 

Trustee Simon Steel with the hand made traditional tool that are being used to build the Sutton Hoo

Trustee Simon Steel with the handmade traditional tools that are being used to build the replica of the Sutton Hoo Ship. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

The build has been going on for the past few years, just a few miles away from the mound at Sutton Hoo, where the iconic burial ship was found in 1939. 

The project is now just days away from laying the ship's keel – which is a huge moment for the build – and its team have now raised more than 30% of its £40,000 fundraising target. 

Project Manager for The Sutton Hoo Ship and captain of Woodbridge Rowing Club, Jacq Barnard Picture:

Project Manager for The Sutton Hoo Ship and captain of Woodbridge Rowing Club, Jacq Barnard. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Philip Leech, who has been the chairman of the Sutton Hoo Ship's Company for the last three years, said his team are learning so much about ancient times and techniques, while admiring the skills of the people who did it.

"It is the biggest experimental archaeology project in Europe, and an important part of English history," said Mr Leech.

"It's already attracting people to Woodbridge and there is a huge interest worldwide in Saxon England.

"It will be a thing of beauty, which will have a lasting legacy."

Philip Leech, Director and Chair of The Sutton Hoo Ship's Company. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

Philip Leech, Director and Chair of The Sutton Hoo Ship's Company. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

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Mr Leech said the real excitement will begin when the boat is out on the water – which has now been pushed back to 2023 – but said his team of 20 volunteers have learnt so much during the build.

Around 120 people will be trained to row the ship, to allow for three complete rowing crews. This means they will need to handmake 120 oars as well. 

How will the boat be operated?

Jacq Barnard, who is the project manager and captain's Woodbridge Rowing Club, has been working to establish exactly how the Saxons operated the boat. 

Project Manager for The Sutton Hoo Ship and captain of Woodbridge Rowing Club, Jacq Barnard with one

Project Manager for The Sutton Hoo Ship and captain of Woodbridge Rowing Club, Jacq Barnard with one of the handmade oars. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

"We are going to find out how people would have been crewed in the boat, where they would have been sat, the height they would have been sat at, where their feet would have been and how they held the oar," she explained. 

"When you have got up to 40 people rowing at the same time there is a lot of room for error, so we need to work out the command systems so people can communicate and work out whether they would have been sitting or standing.

"By trying different things out we will ultimately discover how the Saxons would have rowed it."

Project Manager for The Sutton Hoo Ship and captain of Woodbridge Rowing Club, Jacq Barnard Picture:

Project Manager for The Sutton Hoo Ship and captain of Woodbridge Rowing Club, Jacq Barnard on a model of the middle part of the ship, due to set sail on the River Deben in 2023. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

The coronavirus lockdown has made the build's progress much slower, however they have completed a number of models for the ship which have been attracting passers-by. 

These models include a complete 1:5 scale model and a full-scale 12ft section of the centre of the ship.

Once complete, the longship will be 27 metres long – or 90ft – and will weigh between seven and nine tonnes depending on the oak used.

Trustee Simon Steel with a hand made traditional hammer made from a holly tree that is being used to

Trustee Simon Steel with a handmade traditional hammer made from a holly tree that is being used to build the Sutton Hoo Ship. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

The latter model helps the team to decide how floors and seating on the ship might work, as these elements of the original Sutton Hoo ship were long gone by the time the site was discovered.

'What a tangible way to bring the past to life'

Jules Hudson, presenter of the BBC's Escape to the Country, has been watching the project unfold, having developed a love for archaeology after growing up in Colchester, which is Britain's oldest recorded town. 

"I've always been a huge fan of experimental archaeology, and as a proud East Anglian and a historian, the story of Sutton Hoo has long pervaded my love of the past," he said. 

TV presenter and Woodbridge local, Jules Hudson at The Longshed. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

TV presenter and Woodbridge local, Jules Hudson at The Longshed. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

"It's all very well going to a museum, even a glorious one like the British Museum and seeing stuff in a case, but actually the story of this excavation is the story of the ship. As it was the ship which was the backbone of that society, of that community and the king.

"To see this ship come back to life in the place it was discovered is absolutely remarkable."

Mr Hudson said we shouldn't underestimate the challenge the trust has taken on in trying to recreate it but said for Woodbridge it is "really exciting". 

Project Manager for The Sutton Hoo Ship and captain of Woodbridge Rowing Club, Jacq Barnard with one

Project Manager for The Sutton Hoo Ship and captain of Woodbridge Rowing Club, Jacq Barnard with one of the handmade oars. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

"What a tangible way of bringing the past to life, and when you see it out there on the water, I think it will be just fabulous," he said.

"All the treasure is in London, but now is the chance to bring its most treasured discovery back to life and back to where it was found.

"For me it's the ship that launched the nation. So, to see it being built on the shores of the River Deben is just fantastic.

"I think as this takes shape Woodbridge and Suffolk will see this very much as their ship."

Philip Leech, Director and Chair of The Sutton Hoo Ship's Company. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

Philip Leech, Director and Chair of The Sutton Hoo Ship's Company. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

It's hoped the hull will be completely planked by the end of the year. From there the interior will be fitted in 2022. 

If all the work is completed on time, it's hoped the ship will set sail in 2023.

You can support the build by donating here.

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