Sutton Hoo Part 1: the Importance of Place

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How important is the place to the story?  With local folk tales, it can be everything.  Just as in the Australian Dreamtime where locations are mapped and explained through the stories, so in folk tales the place often dictates the story, and the story gives the place a distinctness that once known, can’t be forgotten.  Can you pass the place where Black Toby was killed without a shudder?  I know I can’t, now – which is a shame as it is very close to where my parents live, on the A12 near Blythburgh.  I can’t see Orford Castle now without thinking of the Merman.  And Sutton Hoo – well, the very name conjures up another era, of warriors and gold, of monsters and heroes, of poetry and silent ships slicing along the Deben.  Does the place match up?  And can you now experience the story of the place – and the story of Rædwald, King of East Anglia and Bretwalda of all the Anglo-Saxons – in the landscape?

The first time I went to Sutton Hoo I lost a button.  I was really cheesed off – I loved that coat, and it had good buttons with fake Roman emperor heads on them.  It was Christmastime, and in my memory the mounds were dusted with a light sprinkling of snow.  My friend ran up and down the mounds.  I didn’t.  I was sulking about the lost button.  This was in the days before the visitor centre and the tours, the café and costumed warriors.  There was, if I recall it correctly, only the mounds and a signboard.  Thrills.

But I should have been more thrilled. I had just finished an MA in Medieval Studies: the Early Medieval World 400-1100.  My friend was in the throes of her dphil, also about early Medieval stuff (pesky Vikings), having also done said MA.  Not only that, but I had had a truly thrilling Sutton Hoo experience whilst doing my masters.  Our tutor had been one of the main players in the dig at the site in the 80s, and when he arranged a trip to London to the British Museum he made sure we were given very preferential treatment.  I work in a museum now – I now realise just how preferential this was.

Our little group, all studying Anglo Saxon Art and Archaeology, were invited into a room with a large table on which were shown various pieces of the famous Sutton Hoo treasure.  One of the shoulder clasps was passed around, and I got to put the pin into the loops to join the two halves together.  You have to be very impressed that I managed to type that without putting it in capitals.  It was amazing.  A really key moment in my life, up there with seeing the Grand Canyon, living in Venice, the bliss of swimming in the sea in Greece and standing in MoMA surrounded by Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Sunflowers, I and the Village and The Sleeping Gypsy. The jewels are stunning in a display case – but how much more beautiful when held in your hand so you can see the perfection of the cloisonné and the delicacy of the filigree work on the pin?  The sense of connection I felt with both the goldsmith and with the wearer was one of the most intense I have ever felt – the chance to handle the real thing.  Walter Pater talks of objects have an ‘aura’, and having worked in museums for over two decades now, I believe strongly that that is true – but often you need both the story and the object to get that numinous feeling of connection.  William Wordsworth’s pen without Wordsworth is just a pen.  But these ancient things stir you even without a named owner – but you need that hint of story, a story imparted by the boars and the knotwork and the gold of the shoulder clasps, and by our knowledge of Norse gods and Beowulf.

But what about the place now?  These two trips just described took place in the mid-1990s. Sutton Hoo now is a much more exciting experience.  Of course – it is now an ‘experience’ and thus you have to pay, but my feeling is, that in this case, it’s worth it.  I don’t always think that – I still don’t think they have things quite right at Stonehenge.  Unlike Stonehenge and Newgrange, the mounds are a quick walk from the visitor centre.  Hardly anyone visited before.  I was in my early 20s before I first went, and I didn’t go back until after the visitor centre was built.  Mum and I proved how quick a walk it was on one of the field trips for the book, as it was bloody freezing when we went, so a route march around the mounds taking record shots was undertaken, pretty much alone as the biting wind and spitty rain assailed us.  Hey ho – not one of my most exciting trips, though atmospheric!  Too atmospheric…

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I really like the visitor centre.   The temporary displays – well not so much!  Come on British Museum – lend some of the good stuff!  Oh no – you can’t can you? – you’ve slapped it all into your shiny but sadly rather dull display in London.  I love that you can walk right into the replica burial chamber and see all the things laid out.  It’s interactive in the best way – it puts you in the story in your imagination.  But, no longer can you go out onto the mounds to conjure up the spirits of the dead into a procession of warriors carrying the body of their beloved king up the hill from the river and across the graveyard to the ship that has been prepared to take him to the next world, there to either feast with his fellows  in Valhalla or, possibly, go to singing the praises of the Lord for eternity.

I should have been more alert when I visited with my friend back in the 90s.  Because now, like at Stonehenge, like at Newgrange, your visit is a managed experience with interpretation and guided tours giving you the received wisdom on the site.  But half of the pleasure of going on field trips for this project – as well as the previous ones over in the west – is using the imagination to conjure the scene for yourself while stripping back the centuries to try to reveal how the landscape looked when the story took place.  At Sutton Hoo now it is more difficult to tell the story to yourself, and for many people that’s fine as they wanted to gain information about the site and the people who are – were – buried there.  But it’s difficult to experience the unique atmosphere of this estuarine hillside, shrouded by tall trees when you are listening to a guide.  Difficult too to fully experience the site without the guide as you can no longer get onto the mounds without one…

Some of the most magical field trips for this project were in forgotten places – a snowbound wood next to Pin Mill’s Butt and Oyster, searching for dragons on a hot hillside, poking about the farm near my old home in Layham, exploring a hidden Ipswich.  But I’m lucky – I went with information and knowledge already locked in my head.  And I know Rædwald well – I’m both a historian and a storyteller.  Guides and interpretation are good – just let us have the personal experiences as well.

Images © Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2012

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