Sutton Hoo celebrates 70th anniversary of discovery with garden party

By Culture24 Staff | 21 May 2009
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a photo of a woman and a man in 1930s dress with digging trowels

Live interpreters at Sutton Hoo.

One of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made in Europe is being celebrated at the National Trust’s Sutton Hoo site in Suffolk on May 24 2009.

It was in 1939 that the astonishing discovery of an Anglo Saxon ship burial and Anglo-Saxon warrior king together with his most treasured possessions was made at the site. And to commemorate the event the National Trust is inviting the public to join them for a 1930s garden party to mark the 70th anniversary of this amazing discovery.

At the time of discovery in 1939 the Sutton Hoo Estate was owned by Mrs Edith Pretty who brought in local archaeologist Basil Brown to investigate the mounds located on the site, under the supervision of Guy Maynard, curator at Ipswich Museum.

The mounds he excavated had previously been looted, but several ornaments and remains left behind suggested the graves were of important pagan Anglo-Saxons.

However, in the spring of 1939, as the outbreak of the Second World War loomed and Hitler was threatening to invade, Basil Brown made the discovery of a lifetime.

a black and white photo of a man in a jacket and flat cap holding a pipe

Basil Brown, © British Museum

With the help of Edith Pretty’s Gardener John Jacobs and Gamekeeper William Spooner, he discovered the remains of a 27 metre long ship and the undisturbed remains of a burial chamber of what is now thought to be Raedwald, Anglo-Saxon king of East Anglia.

Realising the importance of the discovery, Edith Pretty sought the advice of Charles Phillips of Cambridge University, who was then brought in to take over the excavation. Before long a breathtaking array of treasures was uncovered, the most impressive being the numerous large gold ornaments of the finest workmanship.

It was to become one of the richest graves ever excavated in Europe and to unlock many mysteries of Anglo Saxon England. At the time, not many knew what was unravelling at Sutton Hoo and the discovery was kept highly secret. Despite this Edith Pretty sent out 300 invitations for a sherry party to give selected guests the chance to ‘view the excavations of a Viking (sic) Ship’.

It was in fact an Anglo-Saxon ship and referring to it as something else would have enraged Phillips. Charles Phillips and Guy Maynard were both in attendance at the party. There had been bad feeling between the two for some time and it reached a head on the day of the party, consequently the story of the find was prematurely leaked to the press the following day by Maynard.

photo of a saxon helmet

The iron helmet of Sutton Hoo has become the iconic image of Anglo Saxon England. © British Museum

Seventy years later, the National Trust, which now cares for the site, will be holding its own 1930s garden party to celebrate the anniversary.

Re-enactors will be dressed as characters from the period creating the ambience of the era; you may find them in the archaeology shed cleaning up some of their finds! There will be small vignette plays throughout the day by Peppy Barlow and her team of professional actors recreating different aspects of the discovery, such as the procession from the mounds to the house after the treasure had been discovered.

Visitors will be able to see inside Tranmer House, Edith’s former home, which is not normally open to the public. Listen out for the sounds of swing music or sit back and enjoy period style sandwiches, orange squash and a cup of tea. As well as all this, there will be old cars on display, talks by experts and guided tours of the burial mounds.

As a reminder of the times when the discovery was made, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, which will include a Spitfire, Lancaster and Hurricane, will also fly past

The 70th anniversary garden party will be held on Bank Holiday Sunday, May 24, from 10am to 5pm. Normal admission applies.

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