Recent Excavations at Sutton Hoo – A Talk by John Newman

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Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome John Newman to the Parish Room last night, where he inspired our 40 plus audience with his description of the most recent archaeological excavation at this famous site, undertaken just before construction of the new visitor centre, and with his incredible knowledge of all things Anglo Saxon – truly a master class performance by an expert in his field.

John explained how the first excavations uncovered some ancient material – prehistoric rubbish dumps and odd bits of pottery etc – but nothing of significance. However, after the site of the proposed visitor centre was moved some yards away, to the surprise of the archaeologists further trench digging identified another smaller and hitherto unknown Saxon cemetery some 500m north of the famous royal burial ground.

In 2000, a rescue dig examined the footprint of the planned National Trust Visitor Centre, revealing nineteen inhumations (the act of burying the dead) and seventeen early Anglo-Saxon cremations. This site, known as the Tranmer House cemetery, was not of elite status, unlike the famous ship burial mounds, but began as a ‘folk’ cemetery where rites of cremation and inhumation were practiced; evidence of prehistoric occupation was also recorded.

John told us that over thirty early graves were recorded, with some juveniles and infants, and unequal proportions of males to females. It was probably just a small sample from a larger cemetery because finds to the north-west of the site suggested continuation of the burials, whilst grave-goods from the inhumation sites and radiocarbon dates for the cremation burials indicated the majority dated to the second half of the C6th. These findings suggest a wealthy local population in the period just prior to the founding of the mound cemetery at Sutton Hoo, and it most probably influenced the location and layout of the later Anglo-Saxon cemetery.

John advised that thirteen weapon-burials were recorded, from probably all male inhumation graves, with two or three with swords and one with an animal-art decorated shield; just four inhumation burials contained individuals in female costume. Skeletal survival in the graves was very poor, due to the acidic nature of the soil which just left ‘sand bodies’ from the staining that was all that remained; however, calcined bone from the cremations were better preserved as this is more resistant to the effects of the soil.

Aspects of the cremation rite identified parallels with Sutton Hoo: some animal offerings, one cremation in a large bronze ‘hanging’ bowl (which is believed to be Celtic and from the north west of the country) and the employment of burial monuments, albeit on a smaller scale.

Dating showed burial customs ended at Tranmer House at the close of the 6th century, just as the earliest cremations began at the Sutton Hoo mound cemetery, raising the possibility of an ancestral connection between the buried populations of the two cemeteries. The findings ultimately present a key new episode to understanding the origins of Sutton Hoo and potentially of the kingdom of East Anglia and its dynasty according to John.

Many questions were asked by our audience, who demonstrated a keen interest in our shared Anglo-Saxon heritage, which John was delighted and more than able to answer; all in all, it was a very good presentation indeed.

However, the Sutton Hoo story is far from over since the Heritage Lottery Fund released a statement in November 2015 entitled “Releasing the Story of Sutton Hoo”.

The aim of a new National Trust project is to create an experience that appeals to a wide range of visitors. Although still in the early development stage, ‘Releasing the Story of Sutton Hoo’ will hopefully see visitors take a new route through the landscape, with the importance and setting of the burial mounds playing a central role. Plans also include building a raised platform to provide views over the entire burial ground to the River Deben, from where the Anglo-Saxon ship was hauled before being buried in Mound One – the project is scheduled for completion in 2021.

 

We now look forward to welcoming guests new and old to the Parish Room on Wednesday 20th April, when our old friend Pip Wright will tell us “What it was like to live in Suffolk at the time of the plague”; its sure to be a fascinating talk, hopefully with some of Pip’s macabre and ghoulish light touches presented in his own humorous way – I can’t wait.

 

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