75 years ago this week, a discovery was being made in the East of England that was to change our understanding of the past forever.
|Mound 2 - showing what the mounds might originally have looked like|
While war clouds gathered in the summer of 1939, a self-taught Suffolk archaeologist called Basil Brown was uncovering the remnants of a much earlier Germanic invasion force, in the form of an Anglo-Saxon ship burial. It turned out to be the grave of King Raedwald, the king of the East Angles who died in c.625.
|The Deben Estuary. The ship was hauled up the hill from here|
The King's identity was revealed by the high-status nature of the items that lay next to him: beside the sword, shield, bowls and other decorative items was the famous Sutton Hoo helmet which now occupies centre stage in the recently re-opened Room 41 of the British Museum.
The find put Sutton Hoo firmly on the map. There had been no archaeological discovery of this importance in Britain before 1939 – and there has not been since. A heathland plateau above the Deben estuary was revealed as the hugely symbolic resting place of a king, and, it turned out, many others too. In fact, I learned yesterday that there are still burial mounds at Sutton Hoo that await archaeological investigation, even while the site has suffered over the centuries from the depredations of grave-robbers, the plough, and even second world war defences.
I enjoyed this evening’s garden party at Sutton Hoo, which recreated the sherry party that Mrs Edith Pretty threw on this day in 1939 to celebrate Basil Brown’s discovery. (Mrs Pretty was the owner of Sutton Hoo at the time; after half a century of further archaeological investigations the place came into the National Trust's care in the 1990s.) We noted the contribution made by Basil Brown, who was forced to watch from the side-lines as a team of professional archaeologists moved in to take command of the subsequent investigations – a drama that will be recreated on film soon. Cate Blanchett will apparently play Mrs Pretty – I wonder who will take Basil’s role?