Recently, I got the chance to visit the National Trust Sutton Hoo site for the first time post-COVID pandemic. Especially since I have a forthcoming book chapter in the collection The Public Archaeology of Treasure critiquing the public archaeology and cultural heritage of the Sutton Hoo cemetery and the ship-burial found in 1939 beneath Mound 1, I was keen to see the latest developments. So, I took the opportunity to evaluate the brand-new overhauled on-site heritage interpretation installed since 2019 through to 2021.
There was so much new to see, alongside the so much old to see!
I cannot, however, do this in one single blog-post. Instead, I will split this up over multiple posts, here focusing on one new striking aspect: the Ship Sculpture.
The BBC news story about the ‘rusted-steel sculpture’ comes from April 2019, part of a £4m regeneration project calleld ‘Releasing the Story of Sutton Hoo’ to help visitors ‘walk in the steps of the Anglo-Saxons’. The aim is to build a ‘full-sized ghostly representation of the ship…’ so that visitors can ‘begin to digest just how remarkable this story is’ said Mike Hopwood.
Madeline Walsh and I reflected – in our 2019 critique of the heritage interpretation – that Sutton Hoo is a contemporary landscape of ghosts – and not only ghosts from the royal burial mounds which ‘haunted’ Edith Pretty. The Sutton Hoo apparitions also take the form of the executed dead of the late 7th-11th centuries AD, found by Professor Martin Carver’s campaign of excavations, both around Mound 5 and in the Eastern Cemetery. In addition to these mounds and their absence of tangible traces of a body/bodies from Mound 1, the cremation practices found elsewhere in the cemetery, and sand bodies surviving as traces of the inhumed ‘deviant’ dead, this ship sculpture further emphasises the ‘haunting’ presence of the early medieval past. These shifting apparitions conjure the past for visitors, and to these we might now add the stories of the generations of archaeologists who have worked on the site and whose stories are accessible through the visitor experience of the exhibitions inside Tranmer House.
So, I was particularly struck with the idea of a sculpture that was intended to deliberately materialise the intangible – the shadow of the ship first uncovered by Basil Brown. The sculpture explains also the denuded tangible elements of the earthwork mounds close by. It simultaneously accurately recreates the shape and form of the 27-m long ship interred beneath Mound 1 while leaving so much to the imagination, the strakes are absent but the beams and keel create a skeletal presence.
Meanwhile, within the ship, the plan of the grave as reconstructed by Carver’s research (although perhaps one of several possible interpretations) based on the excavations directed by Phillips and work subsequently by Bruce-Mitford and others, visualising the burial chamber’s assemblage and the outline of where the cadaver may have once been situated. The chamber is left implied, but the body is outlined as well as many of the artefacts from the weapons to the feasting gear and the ‘regalia’.
Beside the sculpture is information explaining the relationship with the archaeological evidence and the story of Sutton Hoo and early medieval East Anglia more broadly. There is also a timeline for early medieval East Anglia.
The result is a haunting wreck, very much akin to Rekyavik’s The Sun Voyager sculpture but far larger and to scale with the original archaeological find. It serves as a focal point for visitors to engage with and appreciate the lives and death rituals of early Anglo-Saxon period communities and kingdoms, and their maritime connections, and to identify their story in relation to the indoor heritage interpretation of the Exhibition Hall and Tranmer House, and the outdoor experience of the burial mounds themselves.
In short, I was very impressed by how this sculpture spoke to the lives and landscape of early Anglo-Saxon people as well as replicated via art the tangible character of Mound 1. It’s evocative scale and form, relating to both the cemetery and the death rituals in which it constituted a prominent element, making this a memorial and effective aspect to the Visitor Centre.
I do have some issues, however. In terms of access, perhaps inevitably, the tactile nature of this sculpture cannot be fully engaged with. This is because no one is permitted to step into the burial chamber. In this regard, the removal of the three-dimensional reproduction of the burial chamber once on display within the Exhibition Hall is a backward step. Certainly those with visual impairments cannot fully engage with the sculpture in a manner which might benefit their understanding of Mound 1.
Further criticisms might be pitched at this sculpture, including the reduction of the entire cemetery and landscape to the significant but over-played focus on Mound 1: one of only two ship-burials known from the cemetery. The broader valorisation of ‘early English’ maritime culture and royalty, integral to the story of England’s naval and later mercantile supremacy, might be a further area of critical discussion. Indeed, as I will explore in future posts, the exceptional nature of Mound 1, and the cemetery, is still a problem for the ‘Sutton Hoo story’ and its focus on Anglo-Saxon origins.
Despite these concerns, the Sutton Hoo Ship Sculpture is a prominent, appealing and therefore welcome addition to the National Trust site. It also serves the additional role of sparking interest in the ongoing project by The Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company to reconstruct a replica of the Mound 1 ship taking place nearby in Woodbridge.