This is a third and final reflection on the new displays at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, where the National Trust Visitor Centre and early Anglo-Saxon cemetery have received brand-new revitalised and extended heritage interpretation.
In part 1, I focused on the new Ship Sculpture.
In part 2, I considered the new viewing tower and heritage interpretation panels of the cemetery.
While I have been critical of a range of aspects to each, I regard them as significant improvements for the visitor experience and understanding of the early Anglo-Saxon mortuary practices, monuments and their landscape context.
In part 3, I want to briefly review the indoor exhibitions at Tranmer House and the Visitor Centre’s exhibition hall. This is more tricky and complex to evaluate as there are so many elements. I don’t think I can do justice to a full evaluation and detailed comparison with what came before. However, my impressions presented here might prove useful and offer context to my past publication (Walsh and Williams 2019) and one on the verge of publicatoin (Williams 2022).
My impressions were mixed at best. Many elements of the displays are vastly improved: telling stories about a range of ‘personalities’ linked to the graves from two cemeteries (the ‘royal’ burial mound and the Tranmer House cemetery) – four occupants and two additional characters. This is done through artefacts found and replicas made of the Mound 1 assemblage now in the British Museum. The problem is that this approach comes at a cost of removing key components of the story of Sutton Hoo and its landscape from prehistory to the present. This evaluation very much enforces and extends upon my earlier critique of the shift and reduction of attention to the later Anglo-Saxon ‘deviant dead’, as presented in Walsh and Williams (2019). In other words, the new exhibition is even more warranting of criticism on the points I’ve already raised prior to the refurbishment.
I think this was my first proper exploration inside Tranmer House, so I cannot really compare it with what was there before in any detail. Last time I was here was in December 2016.
I found this new exhibition to be excellent, but of course I have some criticisms. As well as an explanation of the house itself, one gets a detailed story of the archaeological discoveries focused (sadly almost fixated) on Mound 1. Artefacts on display include Basil Brown’s tape measure; indeed, the cult of Basil Brown and Edith Pretty pervades the narrative at the National Trust site. Still, something of the broader context of the activities in 1938/1939 and subsequent archaeological investigations is addressed and a timeline helps you understand the process of excavation and its immediate aftermath. There is also a display about the photography of the ship by Lack and Wagstaff. Taking the story (partially) up to the present, there are profiles of some key researchers and indications of the results of the 1990s and early 2000s excavations too, if only in a secondary capacity to Mound 1. The agenda is very much to time-jump from the late 1930s to our day.
A wonderful series of inspiring and insightful quotes from Professor Martin Carver line the walls expounding on the significance of archaeology and of Sutton Hoo’s significance in the past and the present.
Also noteworthy: the term ‘treasure’ is prominent in the discussions of the discovery (see also Williams 2022).
The Exhibition Hall
The narrative of the Exhibition Hall is about the location itself and what the archaeology tells us for the early Anglo-Saxon period. However, the focus is almost exclusively upon the pair of early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries: the ‘royal/princely’ mounds and the cemetery found ahead of the construction of the Visitor Centre and Exhibition Hall. Both sites are integrated into the story, but only partially, with the plans of each cemetery are missing. Also, parallels with burial practices found elsewhere for each cemetery are left unexplored. Likewise, the prehistory of the site is not discussed. The story after the site’s early Anglo-Saxon period use is left equally unexplored.
The attention afforded to Mound 1 is perhaps inevitable, but it is set within some wider discussions of kingship, kingdoms and their emergence from earlier ‘tribal’ groupings of ‘Anglo-Saxon peoples’ settling.
While the reconstruction of the chamber has sadly vanished, there is a plan on the floor of the chamber matching the Ship Sculpture outside. For the remainder of the ‘royal cemetery’ and for the Tranmer House graves, real artefacts tell the story, whilst for Mound 1 there are a series of replicas including the weapons, armour and ‘regalia’, plus feasting gear. The artefacts from Mound 1 are called ‘treasured possessions’ and their expressions of status and aspirations for an afterlife destination are articulated (Williams 2022). The agency of the Queen in orchestrating the funeral is emphasised, suggesting that she allowed the dead king to be remembered through material culture as both an ‘heroic warrior king’ but also a ‘generous host’.
Matching the ‘royal’ cemetery itself, some further attempts have been made to move the narrative away from simply Raedwald and Mound 1. This is expanded from the previous exhibition but only in a fragmentary way. This involves the creation of a series of fictional personalities to balance the gender and social status variability; four other grave-occupants are conjured to life from their artefacts and two further fictional living persons are depicted who had contributed to the funerals. This mix of occupants of the graves and others those participating in society and/or the death rituals is distinctive as a departure but the evidential base for each character is left unclear to the visitor. These are each represented with a model dressed in appropriate clothing and reflecting the imagined ages and genders of the individuals:
- The Queen (based on Mound 14)
- The Wise Woman (based on one of the Tranmer House cremation graves)
- The Slave Girl (a fictional enslaved person participating in the lives and mortuary rituals of the East Anglian royal family)
- The Master Craftsman (a fictional maker of the precious things)
- The Horseman (inspired by the finds from Mound 17 which are laid out in a vertical representation of the grave-plan.
First up, we have the Queen, inspired by Mound 14, with quotes from Beowulf to emphasise the story and a panel inviting you to find what kingdom you are from a stylised set of options from southern and middle Britain. This is a powerful choice, since of course ‘history’ (i.e. Bede) doesn’t record the name of Raedwald’s queen (whether she was actually the occupant of Mound 14 or not).
Then, we have the Slave Girl – a loyal and devoted menial participating in the life and deaths of the Wuffingas dynasty. At least a non-toff gets a look in!
Next we have the Master Craftsman, the second of our fictional personalities and an opportunity to show replica elements of the fabulous iron and precious metals and stone finds.
Beowulf gets a look in too with regard to social structure and martial identities for The Horseman. The display of the weapon burial in its entirety is very welcome as an addition.
However, what is striking about the new exhibition is not only the removal of the architectural reproduction of the chamber but the striking absence of discussions and representations of the later Anglo-Saxon execution graves. Thus, the criticisms pitched by Walsh and Williams (2019) can now be amplified in the face of the complete omission of them from the story of the early medieval use of the locality. Hitherto, the exhibition itself had been the only environment in which is phase of the site’s use and the ‘sand bodies’ had been properly explained: now this is all gone!
Of particular interest to me is the display of cremated human remains as part of the Wise Woman’s display, retrieved from a wealthy cremation burial within a bronze hanging bowl from the very site where her remains are now displayed. While the display is reaching in its attempt to cococt a singular personality from the bones and grave-goods, this is a rare and distinctive prominent narrative based on real early medieval grave-goods from a cremation grave. Of course it is disappointing that nothing of the process, variability and context of the cremation practices found in both early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries is explained via text or visualised.
Those are my reflections on the new display – rich in replicas, featuring new dimensions of the Tranmer House cemetery, and including a more balanced perspective on personalities from the early Anglo-Saxon period with clearly school groups in mind. And yet, to achieve this, there are with stark omissions regarding the story of the landscape from prehistory through to the present day including the later Anglo-Saxon use of the site as an execution cemetery.
Walsh, M. and Williams, H. 2019. Displaying the deviant: Sutton Hoo’s sand bodies, in H. Williams, B. Wills-Eve and J. Osborne (eds) The Public Archaeology of Death, Sheffield: Equinox, pp. 55–72.
Williams, H. 2022. Destroy the ‘Sutton Hoo Treasure’? in H. Williams, P. Reavill and S. Clague (eds) The Public Archaeology of Treasure. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 162–185.