What is Sutton Hoo?
It’s been 6 years since I last visited Sutton Hoo, the ‘burial ground of kings’. Located on marginal land on a prominent ridge above the River Deben opposite Woodbridge, Sutton Hoo is many things to many people. In archaeological terms, it is a prehistoric landscape of field systems and settlement. It is primarily known as a late sixth-/early seventh-century elite (‘princely’) burial ground for many archaeologists and almost all visitors. Yet it is also the site of two later Anglo-Saxon execution cemeteries.
The medieval and modern landscape is also to be found at Sutton Hoo. It is a marginal pastoral landscape with trackways in the Middle Ages. Equally important it is an early focus of barrow-digging. It is furthermore a 20th-century military landscape with anti-glider ditches crossing the flat landscape.
Sutton Hoo is also a famous site for the history of British archaeology and the story of the origins of English royalty, national heritage and senses of Englishness in the UK since the 1940s to the present day. These stories are the product of archaeology, narrated by archaeologists, and widely disseminated. Sutton Hoo is therefore a modern cultural and political environment, straddling between Suffolk and the British Museum and many other environments – virtual and physical – besides.
Digging Sutton Hoo
The mounds and their environs have been the subject of successive phases of archaeological research. These began with the 1938/39 burial mound excavations by Basil Brown, culminating in the discovery of the ship-burial beneath Mound 1. Then came the 1960s re-investigations of Mound 1 by the British Museum.
Following that there was the key work by Martin Carver’s team in the 1980s/early ’90s, in terms of both survey and excavation. Two large transects were explored through the ‘princely’ graves from north to south and east to west, decoding the disturbed and fragmentary evidence left by previous excavators, as well as uncovered new mortuary contexts.
Most recently the excavations ahead of the building of the NT Visitor Centre by Suffolk County Council have been reported on by Chris Fern. Here, a series of 6th-century graves were discovered, a seemingly earlier, separate burial ground showing the ridges above the Deben had been a place for the burial of the dead long before the installation of the princely graves.
This last weekend, I conducted a very long and exhausting road-trip with two of my offspring – part research trip, part family trip, part pilgrimmage. We were off to see the site where I dug in 1991 during the campaign of fieldwork directed by Professor Martin Carver. This was before time itself, before I even went to the University of Sheffield to study Archaeology as an undergraduate student. I had revisited a few times in the early noughties, filmed there in 2009 for Channel 4, and last came back here with a group of Chester students in 2010.
Since my brief time here as a proto-archaeologist, Sutton Hoo has changed and my thinking about Sutton Hoo has changed too. The excavations were concluded, the land was acquired by the National Trust, a Visitor Centre was built (which involved the discovery of more archaeology), Tranmer House was opened , walks were established around the estate and around the mounds, a play ground and car park were built, and together the National Trust have become custodians of an attraction for visitors and locals alike.
I thought I would start a series of blogs about Sutton Hoo in response to my recent visit. Let’s begin by flagging up where and how I’ve written about this site in my previous academic work, since this might help readers navigate my current and future research.
It should be said that it is not only the evidence from Sutton Hoo that has inspired by work. Perhaps more enduring is my responses to the theoretical approaches applied to the graves. Both the experience of digging there, and exploring the writings of Martin Carver, in particular, have been influential for me. Martin’s fieldwork approach is one area of inspiration, but particularly useful is his sensitive interpretations of the burial evidence, which I’ve tried to carefully consider and respond to, through my own studies. Martin and I disagree on many things I’m sure, but that doesn’t change the debt anyone tackling this site owes to the intellectual force he has brought to its study which has had ramifications across the wider field of the archaeology of early medieval Europe.
Monuments and the Past at Sutton Hoo
I’ve discussed Sutton Hoo’s mounds as representing a transformation of a well-established practice of deploying ancient monuments to constructing dialogues with the past. My MA thesis explored the reuse of prehistoric and Roman monuments as burial sites in early Anglo-Saxon England and I subsequently wrote this work up for publication (Williams 1997; 1998). While Sutton Hoo had sparked debate in the 1980s regarding the possibility/hypothesis that a prehistoric mound (or mounds) were adopted and adapted, and Carver had noted that subtle traces of prehistoric field system might have prompted or directed mound-builders in their spatial arrangement, there is no demonstrable evidence that large prehistoric monuments were the foci of activity in the princely burial ground. We might have missed this evidence; not every mound has been excavated and prehistoric monuments might have been denuded and as yet not identified close by. Still, this is a distinctive feature: Sutton Hoo does something different.
Alongside my PhD, I conducted a side-project looking in more detail at the locations of 7th-century isolated high-status barrow burials; while focused on Wessex, Sutton Hoo inevitably came into the discussion (Williams 1999). Here, I tried to look at multiple factors influencing barrow location: visibility, viewsheds, relationships with land routes and navigable water courses, connections with boundaries and topographical thresholds, and, of course, relationships with prehistoric monuments. I considered the role of ‘primary’ (as in built anew) mounds as key to understanding the ideology of barrows in the 7th century.
In this work on monumentality and memory, Sutton Hoo was key. At Sutton Hoo, the elaborate mounds built to cover cremation graves, chamber graves and (in two cases at least) ship-burials, were demonstrably new and sizeable constructions. Rather than seeing this as a break with the past and with tradition, I have argued that this is a mnemonic transformation, almost a deliberate inversion, of established mortuary practice. Rather than citing the past in the form of earlier monuments, the ‘royal’ mounds were attempting to become the past, assert themselves as ancestral presences in the landscape (Williams 1998). Let’s be clear: this is not to say that the early medieval populations regarded ancient monuments as deriving from the hallowed or ancestral past situated deep in prehistory – such time-depth is a modern conception. Instead, I was suggested barrow-building was attempting to manipulate senses of time and memory to install their own ancestors in relation to imagined pasts that might have existed only a few generations before the present. A time of legend, an time open to manipulate and recasting. The creation of continuity, as Richard Bradley called it.
In many ways, the archaeological evidence has finally caught up with this argument, since the Tranmer House cemetery, the aforementioned burial ground of cremation burials and inhumation graves of the 6th century, seems to focus upon prehistoric burial mounds in a fashion comparable with many other East Anglian early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. Sutton Hoo grew out of this wider tradition of burial location.
Time and Memory among the Princely Graves
I subsequently returned to Sutton Hoo for a further study of the relationship between death, time and memory in operation at the cemetery (Williams 2001). Rather than focus solely upon the citations to ancient monuments, in my 2001 paper, developing from a York Medieval Seminar in 2000, I discussed the mnemonics of not only the construction of large mounds, but other dimensions of mortuary practice at Sutton Hoo.
I took on the landscape. I considered a series of observations regarding the siting of the cemetery that different significantly from those pitched previously. Notably, my points have been miscast in a subsequent publication by Tom Williamson and seemingly ignored by other commentators. The relationship between the mounds and the river was not incidental, I argued, as indeed Williamson later does, but I focus less on the view out, as upon the view in. I suggested there was a careful interplay of sight-lines and movement along the valley enhanced by the careful positioning of the mounds. The modern trees are unlikely to have been present, the mounds would have been higher, and they might have been marked by posts and flags, and possibly structures. With people in attendance, they would have been prominent individually and, over time, collectively (for context, see Semple and Williams 2015).
I also discussed the mnemonics of the mortuary performances involving the fiery transformation of the dead, and the consignment of items that might have possessed long biographies and evoked contrasting stories and origins. Myths and memories were generated – I argued – through the assembling and deposition of portable artefacts, and the performances that transformed and consigned them into the landscape.
I also talked about how, once established, the mounds cited each other, creating a monumental genealogy that was adapted and developed in seemingly deliberately contrastive fashions in terms of funerary performance, but each leading to a (relatively) comparable mound. Rather than representing a new order associated with kingdom formation, or a fixed social organisation, Sutton Hoo was a performative experiment. Indeed, it needn’t be regarded as a success, but a messy series of loud assertions. This approach was attentive to the importance of sensory experience, mortuary process and monument-building, each seen a integral to broader projects within and between funerary sequences.
Memory and violence also play a part in the early medieval archaeology of Sutton Hoo. In my 2001 chapter, I extended this approach to death and memory to reinterpret the significance of the execution graves found on the site. My series of comments build off the early work of Andrew Reynolds, and Martin Carver’s commentaries on the material, but mark a different perspective on the mnemonics of interring execution burials on the site. I would note that my interpretations have been steadfastly ignored by subsequent research on later Anglo-Saxon deviant graves; make of that what you will.
I reprised these ideas regarding the mnemonic performances of assembling ‘treasure’, closing it off, and building mounds, in a subsequent book. Here, Sutton Hoo appeared across multiple chapters and part of broader debates regarding the interpretation of death, memory and material culture within princely graves (Williams 2006). I’ve also used Sutton Hoo to tackle debates regarding the significance of cremation practices, grooming practices, and the emotive force of mortuary practice, as well as how we interrogate the supposed ‘paganism’ of furnished burial (e.g. Williams 2010).
Ocular Agency at Sutton Hoo
So I never really left Sutton Hoo behind. Indeed, I returned to discuss Sutton Hoo’s Mound 1 in more detail in a 2011 paper in the Journal of Social Archaeology, an article stemming from a 2009 Durham TAG session on archaeology and the senses. Here, I picked up my 2001 points regarding the multi-sensorial character of the Mound 1 assemblage. In particular, I focused on a reinterpretation of the inherited and acquired, assembled and displayed, deposited and enclosed ‘ocular artefacts’ within Mound 1. Working across items and groups of items of contrasting provenance and usually considered separately, I suggested that for those enacting and experiencing the funeral culminating in the Mound 1 ship-burial, the ocularity of artefacts might have been especially significant. I was not attempting to suggest all items ‘belonged’ to one ‘man’ (the occupant). Instead, I suggested they power came from their accumulation during the funeral, and the deliberate staged consignment of them into the chamber within the ship.
I focused the argument upon the rich ornamentation and fittings of the helmet and shield, not only identifying monsters and humanoid figures with emphasised eyes, but also many elements that implied faces staring out at those engaging with it. The Sutton Hoo Mound 1 helmet, I argued, quite literally was an ocular corona, asserting the artefact’s ability, and therefore its wearer when worn, to see in all directions.
I extended this argument to , but extended it to consider the many monstrous faces with staring eyes that adorn the feasting gear and personal items interred within Mound 1. I proposed that the dead of Sutton Hoo, at least for Mound 1, were installed as ‘seeing’ agents in the landscape, not concealed and enclosed, but potential animate through their mounds. By displaying and burying these ocular material agents, the dead were equipped with an enduring place in the landscape, regardless of what ideas might have circulated regarding their afterlife destination.
This argument speaks to debates regarding late-pagan conceptions of the dead in early England. (see also Williams 2010). It also relates to the roles and significance of princely graves in claiming past, present and future through their installation as landmarks and timemarks.
A Landscape of Ghosts
In some ways, the archaeological story of Sutton Hoo began with ghosts: figures Mrs Pretty thought she saw from her window at Tranmer House…
In an earlier article, I have discussed how we envision the early medieval dead through art, and how even absent bodies can be ‘brought to life’ in illustrations and museum installations (Williams 2009). I talked about Victor Ambrus’s work, which has been applied to Sutton Hoo through Martin Carver’s 1998 book. Likewise, I discuss Kelvin Wilson’s art, as found in the Sutton Hoo Visitor Cenre.
Most recently, I’ve returned to consider Sutton Hoo from the perspective of public archaeology, and thus addressing the wider roles of human remains in popular contemporary engagements with the dead.
In the introduction to my latest book – Archaeologists and the Dead – I deploy Sutton Hoo’s sand bodies, cremated dead and absent dead (the robbed mounds outnumber those that have survived intact), to talk about how engagements with mortality through British archaeology do not focus exclusively, or indeed primarily, on fleshed and articulated bodies that resemble people in a simple or direct way.
Sutton Hoo shows that our ethical and political debates regarding the archaeological dead have been skewed towards (in particular) mummies, bog bodes and single inhumed skeletons that are the exception, not the rule, in our museums and heritage environments. Sutton Hoo, I contend, is a landscape of ghosts, and Britain is a cenotaphic culture used to contending with absences: this is the challenge and holds considerable potential for future engagements between mortuary archaeology and the public. Sutton Hoo challenges our near-obsessive focus on debating the display and interpretation of well-preserved cadavers and skeletons from the distant past. Instead, we need to contend with the public mortuary archaeology of corporeal fragments, traces and citations.
Sutton Hoo seems to have never left me, or I have never left Sutton Hoo.
I have cited work and ideas (particularly those of Professor Martin Carver) about Sutton Hoo in other research papers in the past. In addition, my most recent article in Internet Archaeology – Tressed for Death – returns to consider Sutton Hoo’s graves once again, seeing the deposition of combs as a continuance and adaption of pre-existing East Anglian mortuary rituals.
Sutton Hoo will be addressed directly in further forthcoming I am authoring/co-authoring. With a former-student, I’m writing a paper on the heritage display of the deviant dead at Sutton Hoo. A further co-authored piece in preparation tackles the subject of four- and five-post timber structures associated with early Anglo-Saxon cremation practices; in this instance the evidence from Tranmer House comes into the discussion.
As part of the Past in its Place project, I’m also planning to return to the issue of Beowulf and Sutton Hoo, following my 2015 chapter critiquing the interpretation of archaeologists of the ‘megalithic’ monument perceived in the description in the poem of the dragon’s mound. Rather than the link being historical or poetic, I aim to suggest the link hinges on materiality and landscape. I also have aspirations to write about the axe-hammer…
Revisiting was an exhausting trip but in archaeological terms it felt like coming home. As such, it has energised my enthusiasm for this particular corner of Suffolk, but more significantly, in thinking again about early medieval mortuary practice.
My Published Work on Sutton Hoo
Note: the classic texts – including the studies by Bruce-Mitford, Carver and others – are cited in these publications if you would rather read the ‘authentic’ narratives. 2 pieces are on Sutton Hoo primarily – Williams 2001 and Williams 2011. The rest addressing aspects of Sutton Hoo as part of wider arguments.
Giles, M. and Williams, H. 2016. Introduction: mortuary archaeology in contemporary society, in H. Williams and M. Giles (eds) Archaeologists and the Dead, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1–20. http://hdl.handle.net/10034/618943
Semple, S. and Williams, H. 2015. Landmarks for the dead: exploring Anglo-Saxon mortuary geographies, in M. Clegg Hyer and G. R. Owen-Crocker (eds) The Material Culture of the Built Environment in the Anglo-Saxon World, Vol. II of The Material Culture of Daily Living in the Anglo-Saxon World, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, pp. 137–61 http://liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/products/60534 http://hdl.handle.net/10034/594429
Williams, H. 1997. Ancient Landscapes and the dead: the reuse of prehistoric and Roman monuments as early Anglo-Saxon burial sites. Medieval Archaeology 41: 1-31.
Williams, H. 1998. Monuments and the past in early Anglo-Saxon England, World Archaeology 30 (1): 90-108.
Williams, H. 1999. Placing the dead: investigating the location of wealthy barrow burials in seventh century England, in M. Rundkvist (ed) Grave Matters: Eight Studies of Burial Data from the first millennium AD from Crimea, Scandinavia and England. Oxford: BAR International Series 781, pp. 57-86.
Williams, H. 2001. Death, memory and time: a consideration of mortuary practices at Sutton Hoo, in C. Humphrey & W. Ormrod (eds.) Time in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer. pp. 35-71.
Williams, H. 2009. On display: envisioning the early Anglo-Saxon dead, in D. Sayer. & H. Williams (eds) Mortuary Practices & Social Identities in the Middle Ages: Essays in Burial Archaeology in Honour of Heinrich Härke. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, pp. 170-206.
Williams, H. 2010. At the funeral, in M. Carver, A. Sanmark & S. Semple (eds) Signals of Belief in Early England: Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revisited, Oxford: Oxbow, pp. 67-83.
Williams, H. 2011. The sense of being seen: ocular effects at Sutton Hoo, Journal of Social Archaeology 11(1): 99-121. DOI: 10.1177/1469605310381034
Williams, H. 2015. Beowulf and archaeology: megaliths imagined and encountered in Early Medieval Europe, in M. Diaz-Guardamino Uribe, L. García Sanjuán and D. Wheatley (eds) The Lives of Prehistoric Monuments in Iron Age, Roman and Medieval Europe, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 77-97. https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-lives-of-prehistoric-monuments-in-iron-age-roman-and-medieval-europe-9780198724605?cc=gb&lang=en& http://chesterrep.openrepository.com/cdr/handle/10034/336898
Williams, H. 2016. Tressed for death in early Anglo-Saxon England, Internet Archaeology 42. http://dx.doi.org/10.11141/ia.42.6.7