Friday, 30 October 2015

Storytellers, kings and warriors

It feels like death is all around: from the graves of mighty warriors to the impressions of once solid human flesh deep in the sandy soil. And, as we walk, more evidence of death and decay—the torn, spiky remains of a hedgehog and its entrails like grey string discarded by the path, a skull complete with maggot or caterpillar (which made its way home with us), and all manner of fungi feasting on dead matter.

Sutton Hoo, world famous as a resting place for Anglo-Saxon warriors and kings—and the treasure they took with them to the grave—is a special place, mystical and full of stories to be told. But the further you explore, the more you discover that it is not so much a place of death but a vibrant backdrop to the story of a people considered the founders of the English nation.

The 255-acre estate in east Suffolk offers peaceful walks among woodland and sandy heath punctuated by pine trees, with views to the  River Deben and Woodbridge…and the discovery of the famous burial mounds that lay unprobed for hundreds of years.

Only in recent times have their secrets been revealed. They lay undisturbed for almost 1,400 years until Edith Pretty, the then owner of the estate, instigated an archaeological investigation of the mounds that she could see as she looked out of her windows at Tranmer House (at that time Sutton Hoo House). It is said that she was inspired by supernatural visions of a funeral procession amongst the mounds and an armed warrior guarding one of them.

The 1939 excavation by Harold John Phillips, via Wikimedia Commons

Self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown began the excavations in June 1938. The third mound to be dug revealed some tantalising clues to the purpose of the site: remnants of ship rivets, followed by cremated human and animal bones, the tip of a sword blade and fragments of glass and textile. Brown returned the following summer and excavations resumed, starting with a previously undisturbed mound (Mound 1). Before long, a series of ship rivets were found, providing an imprint of what had been a magnificent 27-metre ship, now rotted away.

Once the enormity of the find had been realised, a team of professional archaeologists were dispatched to Sutton Hoo.

Over the course of 17 days, a treasure trove of seventh century goods were unearthed —gold and garnet jewellery, coins and buckles, silver bowls—as well as items associated with warriors—the remains of a helmet and a sword. Without doubt, the person buried here was a prominent Anglo-Saxon figure—believed to be Raedwald, King of East Anglia from around 599 to around 625. 

Replica of the helmet by User Robroy, via Wikimedia Commons

As Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, the site at Sutton Hoo was covered over, and the treasures, donated by Edith Pretty to the British Museum, spent the war years stored in the London Underground.

Later excavations revealed more, including a warrior buried with his horse and the macabre remains of executions.

A mixture of the original and replica treasures are now on view at Sutton Hoo’s Exhibition Hall, while the iconic helmet and other items can be seen at the British Museum.

It turned out to be the richest burial chamber ever found in Britain, revealing previously unknown details about Anglo-Saxon life.

These warrior-farmers were skilled in many areas – as the quality of the treasure’s craftsmanship testifies. We also know that they enjoyed entertainment such as dice and board games, lyre music and storytelling, an essential part of passing on their history and culture as the Anglo-Saxons were not at this time writing down their history. Sadly, not many Anglo-Saxon stories survive. By the time they were written down years after the end of the oral tradition, many aspects had been lost. Of course, one such story that has survived from this era is the famous Beowulf, an epic poem written between the eighth and early eleventh centuries. Perhaps we can draw some parallels between the treatment of a Danish king after death as described in Seamus Heaney’s 2000 translation and the discovery at Sutton Hoo: 

A ring-whorled prow rode into the harbour,
ice-clad, outbound, a craft for a prince.
They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,
laid out by the mast, amidships,
the great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures
were piled upon him, and precious gear.
I never heard before of a ship so well furbished
with battle tackle, bladed weapons
and coats of mail. The massed treasure
was loaded on top of him: it would travel far
on out into the ocean’s sway.
They decked his body no less bountifully
with offerings than those first ones did
who cast him away when he was a child
and launched him alone out over the waves.

 Gold belt buckle by Michael Wal, via Wikimedia Commons

The treasures themselves tell their own story: gold buckles, jewelled and enamelled clasps and fittings, a gold, garnet and enamelled purse lid, the helmet—all crafted to the highest standards and with exquisite detail. Some of the treasure was found to have originated from as far afield as France, the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, demonstrating the reach of Anglo-Saxon connections. There’s a tendency for us modern folk to think of our forebears as less sophisticated than us, but I wonder if the poetry and the treasures alone say otherwise.

A visit to this atmospheric site offers a glimpse into their mysterious world and conveys a sense of the debt we owe to the Anglo-Saxons for the many aspects of everyday life they established: language and literature, laws and place names, even the names of our days of the week. And at this time of year, as the dimmer light sets the scene for contemplation and  All Hallows’ Eve draws near, you may even catch glimpses of those warriors guarding the mounds and the flash of golden treasure against the pewter sky…

See the National Trust Sutton Hoo website for more information.

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