Fresh dig at Sutton Hoo may shed light on life before ship burial

The first dig at Sutton Hoo in more than two decades is beginning on a section of the site away from the famous Anglo-Saxon ship burial that was discovered in 1939.

A National Trust archaeologist hopes that the excavation, near to the visitor centre, may reveal more of the history leading up to the ship burial.

The imprint of the 88ft-long (27m) ship, and a chamber filled with treasures, was discovered inside a mound in 1939.

It is thought to have been the final resting place of King Raedwald, who ruled East Anglia in the seventh century.

Angus Wainwright, regional archaeologist for the National Trust, said the last dig at Sutton Hoo was in 2000 when the site’s visitor centre and car park was developed.

The new four-week dig, together with Time Team, was beginning on Tuesday.

A fresh dig is due to start at the National Trust's Sutton Hoo site, near to its visitor centre. (Joe Giddens/ PA)
A fresh dig is due to start at the National Trust’s Sutton Hoo site, near to its visitor centre (Joe Giddens/ PA)

Mr Wainwright said a 25m-long trench will be opened up near the visitor centre. It will be eight metres wide and around 50cm to 70cm deep depending on what is found.

He said it follows ground-penetrating radar survey work which identified anomalies beneath the ground, which will be investigated during the dig.

He said that the trouble with the geophysical work is that results are “often difficult to interpret and that’s why you need to prove them with some excavation”.

He said that what the anomalies are will not be known until after they have been examined during the dig.

“Some things can be natural, just geology, you get things like tree pits where a tree’s been blown over,” said Mr Wainwright.

“Those are the boring, disappointing things.

“But there’s a possibility we might have Anglo-Saxon graves here as we’re on the edge of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery.

“Not the famous one with the mounds – another one on the Sutton Hoo site.

“We’re also looking for the prehistoric and Roman periods, so what happened before the famous Sutton Hoo.

“And maybe also a little bit of the story of what happened after Sutton Hoo.

“We’re trying to get the mounds in the context of what was happening in the area at the time of the burials in the seventh century and what was happening in this landscape before and afterwards.”

He said the Anglo-Saxon cemetery discovered in 2000 when the visitor centre was built dates “just before the ship burial”.

“It’s almost like maybe where people were being buried beforehand,” he said.

“Maybe one of these families who were being buried in what you might think of as a modern cemetery with all classes of people in it, they rose up through society and eventually became kings and they didn’t want to be buried with the hoi polloi any more so they moved a little bit down river to the site of the mounds.

“It’s sort of maybe part of the origin story of the ship burials and the more famous site.”

He said the site of the new dig “was ploughed so there might be a lot of damage” and called it an “everyday cemetery”.

He added: “A woman might be buried with a bead necklace and some bronze brooches and a man might be buried with a shield and a spear and the shield boss – the bit in the middle – and the spear head survive as rusty iron.

“We’re not expecting anything super spectacular like came out of the ground over on the ship burial.

“It’s more the everyday story of Sutton Hoo folk.”

He said there will also be test pits in another areas of the estate “where we have no archaeological knowledge really, so that will be boosting our knowledge of the Sutton Hoo estate in general”.

“Geophysics doesn’t find everything,” said Mr Wainwright.

“We might find things that haven’t shown up at all. That’s very common.”

He added: “We’ll just have to see what comes up when we start digging.”