The celebrated site of an Anglo-Saxon royal burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk has undergone a £4 million transformation by the National Trust to offer new experiences for visitors.
The multi-million pound project is the largest ever investment made by the Trust at Sutton Hoo and comprises a range of new displays, exhibitions and immersive experiences to tell the story of one of the UK’s most fascinating archaeological discoveries.
The site has also opened a new walking route designer to connect visitors with the wider landscape that surrounds the world-famous Royal Burial Ground.
In 1938, local landowner Mrs Edith Pretty called in archaeologist Basil Brown to investigate a series of mysterious mounds of earth on her estate near Woodbridge.
What he uncovered during the following year, on the eve of the Second World War, made headline news: the 1,300-year old ship burial of a man believed to be 7th century Anglo-Saxon King Rædwald, along with priceless treasures including his helmet, gold belt buckle, sword and shield.
The discovery revolutionised historians’ understanding of the period and revealed that a time previously seen as dark and insular was in fact cultured, sophisticated and vibrant.
Visitors to the revamped site are greeted in the courtyard with a full-size, 27-metre long sculpture representing the burial ship, while the Exhibition Hall and Tranmer House, the former home of Edith Pretty, have both been completely transformed. Along with a new route through the landscape, these will reconnect the stories and people associated with the ship and its discovery with the Royal Burial Ground itself.
Laura Howarth, Archaeology and Engagement Manager at Sutton Hoo explained, “The significance of the Anglo-Saxons at Sutton Hoo continues to resonate today through our language, law, culture and connections to the landscape. We wanted to create an experience which really does justice to this incredibly important heritage site and we hope our transformation will fire the imaginations of our visitors and help them to feel a part of this story.”
Within Tranmer House, the focus is the excavations in 1939 and those since, offering the chance to absorb the atmosphere of the discovery as it unfolded, as Edith Pretty, Basil Brown and others faced a race to complete as much as they could before war broke out.
Recorded interviews, vintage projections, extracts of diaries, letters and newspapers, along with photographs of the 1939 dig – including the first colour photographs from an archaeological excavation – immerse visitors in the story before they follow a new route from the house to the Royal Burial Ground beyond.
Other single yet important original items will tell their own stories, including in Tranmer House, one of the first ship rivets unearthed, alerting Basil Brown that something significant lay beneath his feet.
In the Exhibition Hall, dramatic new displays will greet visitors, showcasing finely-crafted replicas of the glittering treasures, now in the British Museum, that were buried with the King to accompany his journey into the afterlife.
Original pieces from the later digs will be displayed, such as items from the 1991 excavation which uncovered a warrior and his horse buried alongside bowls and sword, as well as a comb to remind him to stay presentable in the next life.
The Hall will also offer a window on the world of the Anglo-Saxons, through the eyes of various characters, using film, sound and displays to explore their culture, food, trade, rituals and the skilled craftsmanship used to produce the many items discovered.
Later this autumn, the final part of the project, a 17-metre high observation tower, will be opened to offer birds-eye views across the Royal Burial Ground to the wider landscape.
The £4 million project at Sutton Hoo was made possible by a £1.8 million grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and has been supported by the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership through the Growing Places Fund and the generosity of many National Trust members, supporters and donors.