Sutton Hoo Centre Opened By Seamus Heaney

By Jon Pratty, Editor, 24 Hour Museum | 14 March 2002
Photo by Jon Pratty

Left: Seamus Heaney and the replica Sutton Hoo helmet

Sixty years after the discovery of Europe's richest Anglo-Saxon burial site at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, a £5 million National Trust visitor centre has been opened by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney.

The National Trust

Right: burial mounds at Sutton Hoo

"I walked, myself, this morning, on my own, around the edges of the burial mounds," said Heaney.

"The stillness is there. The land is flat. There are trees, a river and the sky. As a creature of the planet, just an animal, a creature moving around, you realise this site has a potency, by being where it is."

"It is understandable that rather solemn burial rites should have taken place here. It has a stillness, it is a special place."

Heaney won the Whitbread Prize in 1999 for his translation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf - a tale handed down through the ages that tells historians most of what we know about the Anglo Saxon age.

British Museum

Left: sword from the burial in mound one

Key treasures from the burial, including a sword and shield thought to have belonged to Raedwald, warrior king of the East Angles, have been loaned by the British Museum to the new centre.

British Museum

Right: belt buckle, detail

Sutton Hoo ranks alongside Stonehenge as one of Britain's most important archaeological sites. The site, overlooking the river Deben, had long been thought to be important - and grave robbers had been busy in antiquity, removing unknown riches from many of the nineteen burial mounds.

In 1939, spurred on by stories of ghostly figures seen on the hilltop site, landowner Edith May Pretty persuaded local archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate 'Mound One.'

British Museum

Left: the ship as revealed for the first time 1939

To their immediate consternation, Brown unearthed, first some rusty iron rivets, then section by section, an entire 90 foot long boat, complete with a burial chamber full of unimaginable riches. Brown was said to have walked round shaking his head in shock as the gold was discovered.

The timbers of the craft rotted away long ago, but the outline was perfectly preserved in the sandy soil, complete with fastenings laid out in the shape of the ship.

British Museum

Right: Byzantine plate

Working in complete secrecy, under police guard, Brown and a small team uncovered priceless weapons, symbolic objects, Anglo-Saxon gold ornaments, Byzantine silver and other valuable artefacts of Scandinavian design.

British Museum

Perhaps the most famous find of all was a complete warrior's helmet - one of only four known Anglo-Saxon examples.

The finds, the most important evidence yet found of the richness of Anglo Saxon culture, were taken to the British Museum where they have been ever since.

Seamus Heaney's own introduction to Sutton Hoo came in the late'fifties, at Queen's University in Belfast in the Anglo-Saxon class conducted by lecturer John Braidwood.

"He read Beowulf out to us, first in the original language - it was a bit of a forced march for us! On one occasion a little slide projector was dragged out and the Sutton Hoo discovery was shown to us in technicolour - the purse lid, the cauldron, the buckle, the sword, the garnet fittings, they shone, and it was unforgettable really. All of us could say after that slide show that the hoard was laid bare..."

British Museum

Right: detail, purse lid.

"For me, personally, there is something terrifically corroborating about seeing at Sutton Hoo the actual things mentioned in the poem. Treasure is a word that is constantly used. It's an abstract thing now - but when you see the gold, the weapons, the dimensions of the shields, the weight of the swords, there's a terrific fulfilment in that."

Seamus Heaney remembered a passage from his Beowulf: "The hoard is laid bare - I have been inside and seen everything amassed in the vault. Let us go again swiftly and feast our eyes on this amazing fortune heaped under the wall, I will show the way and bring you close to those coffers packed with bars of gold..."

photo by Jon Pratty

Left: mound two - robbed in antiquity - may have held the remains of Raedwald's son in another ship burial.

Walks around the burial mound site have been open to the public for some weeks, but now the purpose-built visitor centre, designed by architects van Heyningen and Haward, will be there to thrill visitors as well.

There is also improved access to the mound site, complete with new interpretation boards and a raised viewing platform.

photo by Jon Pratty

Right: Raedwald's burial reconstruction

The exhibition includes a full-scale reconstruction of the ship's burial chamber with replica treasures, crafted using authentic materials and methods.

Exhibition designer Chris Hudson took the text of Beowulf as his inspiration when the project began - and he's set out the exhibits to align with the orientation of objects and body found in the burial mound.

photo by Jon Pratty

Left: the exhibition is set out in alignment with the burial mounds

"It's an extraodinarily evocative landscape," said Fiona Reynolds, Director General of the National Trust. "What we've been able to do here is to recreate for people some of the treasures, to allow people to see for themselves something about the ways of life of the Anglo Saxon communities, their extraordinary skills and their enormously ambitious vision. We think of ourselves as being sophisticated. Actually I think they were."

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