As Martin Carver outlined, it was a tough job converting Sutton Hoo into a heritage site following the generous decision of Mrs Annie Tranmer to give the estate to the nation. He stated with justifiable and characteristic acerbity:
‘English Heritage did not seem to regard the acquisition of the earliest burial ground of English kings as appropriate or opportune and maintained a stoical lack of interest in acquiring it’Carver 1998: 158-159.
After other routes failed, Carver determined:
‘… Sutton Hoo was worthless to the nation and had failed to get itself exported’Carver 1998: 160.
This is a salutary reminder to those who sometimes overplay English nationalism’s grasp and power over archaeological research and heritage interpretation. I’ve repeatedly critiqued the way that the archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England plays into nationalistic discourses. However, this has always remained a downplayed, neglected nationalist discourse. It’s a nationalism with a laissez faire twist: a pride in the origins of England that isn’t worth investing in. It’s a story of Anglo-Saxon origins that is worthy hot air and lip service as long as someone else pays up and it doesn’t get in the way of the profit motive! Therefore, despite ramping up the rhetoric about the unique and pivotal identity of Sutton Hoo for telling the story of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, as well as escalating the hyperbole about the origins of England and English kings revealed by Sutton Hoo, it was a tough ‘sell’ to get the burial ground preserved for the nation and for visitors.
Fortunately, the National Trust did step up where others would not.
With the Heritage Lottery Fund providing £3.6 million to develop the 96 hectare estate, a future for the mounds and their story was possible beyond the British Museum where the ‘treasures’ from Mound 1 now reside and are on display.
Since acquisition in August 1997 (according to Carver 1998; not 1998 as the latest versions of the National Trust guidebook claim: Bullen 2014; Hanks 2019) and open from spring 2002, the National Trust has adapted and curated Sutton Hoo as a heritage site, with its Exhibition Hall and Treasure, cafe and shop, exhibitions at Tranmer House and circular tour around the ‘royal burial ground’, with the addition of guided tours permitted to cross the barriers are walk onto a selection of locations within the cemetery itself. There are also broader walks around the estate, now constituting 5 different colour-coded walks in total.
This is a distinctive archaeological site for the National Trust. Moreover, the National Trust created their own new archaeological story – work on the National Trust Visitor Centre itself required archaeological investigations and a second Anglo-Saxon burial site was uncovered (Fern 2015).
The National Trust not only inadvertently uncovered a second cemetery, and not only did they inherit the low, denuded robbed and/or excavated burial mounds restored after the seasons of excavation by a team led by Professor Martin Carver. In addition, they acquired a reconstituted Mound 2 – reconstructed to its presumed original height calculated from the volume of earth that would have filled its excavated quarry ditches.
From 2015, funding was available to redevelop the Sutton Hoo site and now, following the COVID-19 pandemic, and following the strikingly successful film The Dig (dramatising the 1939 discoveries and the personalities involved) which boosted visitors to the site in 2021, I’ve now found an opportunity to revisit and evaluate the site’s heritage interpretation. I was particularly intrigued to evaluate the site following reports from September 2021 of the new viewing tower open at the site.
In a previous post I’ve reviewed the striking new piece of sculpture near the Visitor Centre. While I had some critical points about it, I found it to be a marvellous and inspired addition to the visitor experience and an iconic focus to foster the visitor imagination for what lies unseen and thus intangible: the scale and form of the 27m-long seagoing craft hauled up from the River Deben to be interred in Mound 1. The sculpture lays out the burial chamber too, affording a sense of its surface area if not its architeture.
Here, I want to talk about the experience of visiting the burial mounds and how this has been enhanced.
In many ways, much is the same as before the pandemic and my last visit at the very end of 2016. The circular route around the cemetery is still intact; there remains the option for a guided tour (which I’ve never taken to be honest), and a standard-sized guidebook (if now updated); plus exhibitions (again updated and for discussion in a future post) can be found inside the Exhibition Hall and Tranmer House. Yet, there are 4 key elements that enhance visitor experience with the story of the landscape and how the cemetery fits into it:
- Updated interpretation panels, waymarkers and seats;
- Beast lanterns;
- Sculpture trail;
- Viewing tower.
Let’s discuss each in turn.
Interpretation panels, waymarkers and seats
Considerable efforts have gone to explain more than Mound 1, including giving brief stories and identities to the other burial mounds: those explored and those not investigated by archaeologists. Mound 14 is now ‘The Queen’s Mound’ and Mound 17 ‘The Horseman’s Mound’, notably. The cemetery as a coherent entity is encircled and explained throughout as the ‘Royal Burial Ground’.
First up, we have the waymarkers, which are great, but sometimes become comedic as alternate directions point to the same things on a circular trail around the cemetery!
Then there are seats and interpretation panels that help explain the topography and the relationship with the cemetery and the funerary rituals associated with the burial mounds. Also, note the wonderful use of stone to map out the relationship between the burial mounds, the ‘hoos’ and the river! Most importantly, I was delighted to see the discussion of early Anglo-Saxon cremation practices to capture the imagination of visitors regarding the spectacle of a funeral unfolding on the ridge! This is a truly rare and distinctive addition to the site, and a rare emphasis on the majority rite of the cemetery: burning the dead on open-air pyres! These are a triumph of multimedia engagement – text and maps-in-stone, carefully situated at striking viewing points. As with the Viewing Tower, this work hard to emphasise the riverine setting of the cemetery, almost obscured by vegetation to those unfamiliar with the surroundings.
I also particularly liked this sign – ‘between two of the ‘hoos’. Certainly, it made me laugh, but also helped to explain the topography of the site and the likely origins of its place-name.
The interpretation panels around the cemetery are good and helpful but I must point out (again) the erasure of the execution graves associated with the later Anglo-Saxon phase of the cemetery. Also, the anti-glider trenches from the Second World War are not pointed out. I do feel the fixation on the mounds, and the limited detail about the contents of each mound where excavated, is rather frustrating and prevents visitors fully connecting up the cemetery to the information and finds they get to see in the Exhibition Hall.
Each with motifs from the gold-and-garnet items from Mound 1, these lanterns must be fantastically evocative for evening events and punctuate the landscape around the cemetery. They have been advertised as ‘Lanterns in the Landscape’ and as the ‘Beast Lantern Trail’. There are six in total, although I have photographs of 5 here. I think they are fabulous, although I feel the emphasis on the art from Mound 1 has perhaps unhelpful and misleading consequences for considering the site as more than the focus on this single exceptional grave (i.e. it unravels some of the efforts in the signs and interpretation panels of explaining the entire cemetery to visitors).
There is a broader sculpture trail around the estate, although I confess I only photographed the pre-existing boat sculpture and one additional sculpture of one of the horns. Whilst fixating on the identity and ‘treasures’ from Mound 1, which is an unfortunately (as with the lanterns) a form of ‘branding’ of the landscape as Mound 1’s/Raedwald’s. Still, I cannot but compliment the beauty of these sculptures and how they create striking waystations for walkers.
The Viewing Tower
The striking new addition to the site is the Viewing Tower. At first, I hated the look of it, akin to a Cold War frontier work. Having said that, I was fully aware of how difficult it is from ground level to comprehend the heavily denuded low mounds, despite the aforementioned rebuilding of Mound 2.
The Viewing Tower not only affords a striking vista and vantage point over the early Anglo-Saxon burial site with further information panels explaining each mound: from the top you also gain a panorama downhill and over the River Deben. This view over the river was something simply not possible before its installation. The screen of High Hat Wood is thus overcome, and visitors can not only walk around the estate but more effectively appreciate the crucial relationship between the cemetery and the river. Interpretation panels further extend the story, talking of the international contacts via the Deben across the North Sea. The information panel emphasises the landscape before and during the cemetery’s use.
In short, whilst ugly, I consider this Viewing Tower to be a triumphant addition to help visitors understand the burial mounds themselves and the wider landscape.
Putting the last post about the ship sculpture and this one together: what do I make of the open-air visitor experience at Sutton Hoo?
Overall, I feel the critique of Madeline Walsh and I in 2019 in the book The Public Archaeology of Death still stands: the deviant burials and ‘dark’ elements of the site have been expunged almost completely beyond brief mention on the interpretation panels on the Viewing Tower. Moreover, despite description of the cemetery as a whole and the contents of the other mounds, the fixation upon Mound 1 is, whilst understandable, tenacious and overly pervasive. The location of some of the Tranmer House burials had been marked out around the Visitor Centre and these are now gone: so the location of the second burial site has now been obscured too: this is a backward step! My fourth and most specific criticism is that, while I very much appreciate the mention of cremation practices on one of the heritage interpretation panels, the displays and art around the site present a very ‘unburnt’ Sutton Hoo: nothing of the pivotal importance of cremation practices in the story of the ‘royal burial ground’ is articulated or visualised
These critical points aside, despite my anticipate dislike of the Viewing Tower, I think together with the interpretation panels, the stone-carved maps of the landscape, and the sculpture and lanterns, the revitalisation of the site’s heritage interpretation is a striking success.
Bullen, A. 2014. Sutton Hoo. London: The National Trust.
Carver, M. 1998. Sutton Hoo. Burial Ground of Kings? Stroud: Sutton.
Fern, C. 2015. Before Sutton Hoo: The Prehistoric Remains and Early Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Tranmer House, Bromeswell, Suffolk. East Anglian Archaeology 155. Bury St Edmunds: Suffolk Count Council.
Hanks, N. 2019. Sutton Hoo. London: The National Trust.
Plunkett, S. 2002. Sutton Hoo. London: the National Trust.