In 1939, a select group of guests were invited to attend a party in Woodbridge, England, a small town just eight miles from the North Sea. They were promised the usual festivities—some imbibing on sherry, for one—as well as something more unusual: a chance to take a look at a newly revealed archaeological treasure. Edith Pretty, the wealthy homeowner who was throwing the party, sent out invitations that read: “At Home … to view the remains of a Viking ship burial.” The guests would go on to sip sherry alongside what is now known as the Sutton Hoo burial, which soon became one of the most talked-about discoveries of the day.
Still today, more than 60 years on, the Sutton Hoo burial is considered one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time. Named for the estate on which it is set (Hoo means “spur of land” in Old English), the dig that ensued turned up a host of valuable objects, including an ornate belt buckle, a gold shield, a regal helmet, and remarkable brooches. These artifacts rank among the most important ones ever found in England, and they are now popular attractions at the British Museum in London, where many of them are held.
For historians and archaeologists, the Sutton Hoo burial was crucial—it showed that England was not a dead zone for the arts after the Romans left during the 5th century. As British Museum curator Sue Brunning told the Guardian earlier this month, the artifacts found at the burial, which date back to the 7th century, testify to the fact that, if anything, the period was a vibrant one for the Anglo-Saxons. “England was no cultural backwater,” she said.
This may account for why the Sutton Hoo burial has taken such a prominent place in the country’s collective social consciousness. In yet another sign of just how important the discovery was, it now forms the basis for The Dig, a new Netflix film due to be released on January 29 based on John Preston’s 2007 novel of the same name. The Oscar-nominated actress Carey Mulligan plays Pretty, and Ralph Fiennes stars alongside her as Basil Brown, a local archaeologist who helped uncover the objects.
But, during the late 1930s, when spectacle at Sutton Hoo began to unfold, few would have ever expected the quaint English town to make history—few, that is, other than Pretty herself. Pretty was a spiritualist, and she had a sense that something important lurked in the tumuli—Roman burial mounds—near her villa. (A friend once claimed to have seen the ghost of a warrior nearby one.) Intrigued by these seemingly otherworldly lumps of earth, she brought on local experts to help her with the process of looking into what might lie within the tumuli, and she was ultimately connected with Brown, whose turn as an archaeologist came after gaining a reputation in other fields, including that of astronomy.
Within months, Brown began uncovering the outline of a massive, 89-foot-long ship that likely once held the remains of King Raedwald of East Anglia, who is believed to have died sometime around the year 625. It had been lugged on land to Sutton Hoo as part of a ship burial, a funerary rite in which a leader is laid to rest alongside his belongings in a vessel. (The ship itself has disappeared, along with the remains that may have constituted Raedwald’s body.) At first, Brown’s findings were only somewhat significant—an axe appeared, along with some rivets. But inside the largest mound were extraordinary objects that hinted at something much greater. “It is the find of a lifetime,” Brown wrote in his diary in 1939.
And then there was the rich cultural admixture that accounted for all the objects. Sources for them ranged as wide as Merovingian France and Syria; some artifacts had traveled thousands of miles from their origin before reaching their final destination at Sutton Hoo. But it is the gold objects uncovered that continued to strike Brown, who wrote, “All the objects shone in the sunshine as on the day they were buried.”
Among them was a belt buckle with a triple-lock mechanism, its surface adorned with semi-abstract imagery featuring snakes slithering beneath each other. There were gold coins that had been minted in the Aquitaine region of France, and they were contained inside a purse with an ornate lid featuring wolf imagery rendered in reddish garnet. The purse’s cover is now considered one of the finest examples of cloisonné, a style in which stones are held by gold strips. And there was a shield with animal-like forms formed out of gold carved with a level of detail that appears nearly impossible to re-create by hand. But no object found at the burial has been as beloved as a helmet, its intimidating features marked out by ridging denoting facial hair. It is one of just four full helmets from the era archaeologists have ever found.
In the decades since the initial find, the Sutton Hoo objects have been given grand showcases. In 1939, Pretty gave all the objects to the British Museum, which now exhibits them in its galleries. (Shortly thereafter, amid German air raids, they were stored in a London Underground station, plunging them deeper into the earth than they ever were before.) As for Sutton Hoo itself, the estate has been given over to England’s National Trust, which, in 2019, opened the grounds for public visitation after a £4 million renovation project. The mounds there aren’t too exciting, however—imagine a Maya Lin land sculpture, but not as visually striking—so, in an effort to lure tourists who must travel more than two hours to get there, the National Trust set up a tall viewing tower and audiovisual installations.
Since its rediscovery, Sutton Hoo has yielded more artifacts, helping furnish historians’ understanding of the site and the Anglo-Saxons who once inhabited it. But what accounts for its continued popularity? New Yorker writer Sam Knight suggested in 2019 that, amid Brexit-era isolationism, the wide array of cultures represented at Sutton Hoo offer a more diverse view of British history. “There is a nationalizing myth of Britain’s long history as an island—that it has made us more free and more resilient—when the facts in the ground invariably argue the opposite: that we have always been attached, dependent, part foreign,” Knight wrote.
Others have explained Sutton Hoo’s intrigue in more simple terms, claiming that it allows present-day visitors to commune with the distant past. “This field is the biggest real artifact at Sutton Hoo,” Angus Wainwright, an archaeologist for the National Trust, told the Guardian in 2002. “The Anglo-Saxon kings actually walked here—this is still a landscape they would recognize.”