Tag Archives: British Museum

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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Vikings in Suffolk – part 1: who do they think they are?

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I know, it’s been ages since my last post – a legacy of mad hecticness in my other life as a museum curator that has lasted from June last year until now! But, celebrating the 1st anniversary of the publication of the book (well, nearly), off we go again! And back, eventually, to Hadleigh, from where the first photo comes, and where I went to school as a child, living as I did a few miles away in Lower Layham.

I visited the new Vikings exhibition at the British Museum this week, and although the exhibition itself wasn’t all that exciting, it did set me thinking about how we think about Anglo Saxons and Vikings. A slightly depressing 20 years ago this autumn I started an MA in Medieval Studies: the Early Medieval World 400-1100 at York, so you can see that I am a bit keen on this period, and have been for a very long time… Feeling old! But it was a treat to go back to those roots when looking at the Viking material in the exhibition, so I’ll be posting a few blogs about this topic over the next week or so.

There are two stories in Suffolk Folk Tales that directly involve Vikings: King Edmund and The Legend of the Holy Well. In both stories I hope I have painted an ambiguous picture of the Northmen. Certainly characters like Ivar the Boneless and his brothers Hubba and Halfdan are vicious and bent on revenge, but they have come to avenge the great wrong they believe Edmund has done to their father Ragnar Lothbrok. But in fact, in the story, Edmund welcomed and befriended the lost Viking, and their shared culture allows Ragnar to slip into life at Edmund’s East Anglian court with ease. In the Holy Well story things are more complex. The early 19th century poem on which this story is based is itself based on a real battle at Nacton, near Ipswich, in the year 1010 between Ulfketel the Earl of East Anglia, and Thorkill the Tall, a Swedish Jomsviking. This was at the time at Sweyn Forkbeard was making a play for the English throne – on which more in the next blog! – but the names of the protagonists give it away. Thorkill was from Scandinavia, but Ulfketel is a Scandinavian name. Was he a Viking too? And, by the 11th century, after a century of intermarrying among the nobility – and likely below as well! – could you tell who was who, even if you wanted to?

Viking settlement in East Anglia begins after Edmund’s death in 869, in theory. But in fact it was another Englishman – the West Saxon King Alfred – who starts it in earnest. After subjugating Northumbria (867), East Anglia (869) and Mercia (877-9) Wessex was the next prize on the Great Heathen Army’s list, but, so the story goes, Alfred the Great rose up and defeated the Dane, Guthram at the Battle of Edington in 878 and Guthram, defeated, became a Christian. Triumph to the Saxons! And if you’d like to read that story, then check out my other Folk Tales collection, Wiltshire Folk Tales. Triumph to the English? Well, yes and no, as my (Scottish) Grandad would say.

What happened to Guthram after that? It’s a Suffolk story, after all. Guthram, by becoming a Christian with the nice new English name Athelstan, was now Alfred’s ally. They divided up their joint spoils between them, Guthram taking East Anglia, Essex and Eastern Mercia. Guthram seems to have taken his oaths seriously (this time!) and lived and ruled in the region, dying in 890 and being buried in what was presumably a royal vill, Hadleigh. Interesting aside – the Hadleigh Historical Society say in their timeline that Guthram killed Edmund. If true, it would an ironic full circle, given how much Alfred admired Edmund…

In the Vikings exhibition there is one really shocking thing (well, apart from some of the way the exhibition is designed, but that’s another story!). By the longship there is an assemblage of skeletons, heads separated from bodies, clearly hacked about – one hand has been cut through as the man was resisting even as his head was cut off. Here we are in a Viking exhibition. Clearly this is an atrocity by Vikings against the innocent English, isn’t it? Well, no. This was war. These men’s DNA has been traced back to Scandinavia. They are Vikings. Raiders? Warriors attacking from the Danelaw during wars between Alfred’s son Edmund the Elder and the Vikings over Mercian land? We can’t know. But it illustrates that there wasn’t a hair between the English and the Vikings – both were warrior cultures, keen to defend their own self-interest.

I’ll be blogging next time about the remarkable woman who wrote the poem that inspired the Legend of the Holy Well, and also Ulfketel and Thorkill, and about Sweyn Forkbeard and Edmund’s revenge, hopefully providing a small window into a time that must have been unsettling and difficult for the ordinary folk who lived in East Anglia – whether English or Viking.

Images: © Kirsty Hartsiotis

1. St Edmund’s head held by the wolf – a bench-end in St Mary’s

2. St Mary’s Church, Hadleigh: Guthram was buried in an earlier church probably on this site

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