Sutton Hoo is an eerie place but not like I was expecting. It’s eerie in a strangely material sense.
Its failures of presence and failures of absence define everything about it. Myths and legends, loans and leases, geologically and archaeologically.
At first, it’s all a bit tragic.
The greatest archaeological find in British history was discovered on this site in the late 1930s. The Sutton Hoo ship burial. Echoing the plot of an Indiana Jones film, the final resting place of the Anglo-Saxon King Rædwald of East Anglia was uncovered on the eve of war in 1939. He was buried along with his ship and a host of treasures, much of which remained perfectly intact and undisturbed. (Everything inorganic at least.)
The find was so significant it was later gifted to the British Museum, where it remains. At Sutton Hoo itself, you’ll only find — nonetheless ornate — replicas of King Rædwald’s glittering stash. The museum seems to have undergone a huge recent refurbishment recently and, having worked in museums, I reckon the redevelopment has been done to such a high standard with the eventual goal being to return the treasures to their home. (Loaning anything from the country’s biggest institutions is almost impossible unless you’re able to match their own conservation standards, creating something of a catch-22 for less well-funded sites.)
So the treasures were here but they’re not here now. You can see their heavily documented traces but we’d need to go back to London to see the real thing. It’s a shame, and also not really a big deal, but it feels like the tip of an eerie iceberg as far as faltering presences are concerned.
Inside one of the site’s buildings, displays are given over to the context in which the ship burial was first discovered, with comments from curators and archaeologists past and present, commenting on the history of the place and the fascination it still provokes within various archaeological fields.
On one display panel there is a quote taken from testimony given by Mercie Lack, a photographer who documented the initial excavation process. She explains:
The impression of the ship, alas, was of a fleeting nature, a kind of ghost-ship, revealed for a short time during which it was possible to make records, photographs and sketches and then the original was gone for ever.
At first, I didn’t think much of this, but later, going on a guided tour, we were informed by our guide that the ground around Sutton Hoo is highly acidic. Anything organic buried here is dissolved completely — well, almost completely….
Corpses buried create “sand bodies” — imprints of matter which preserve the shape of an previously present organic object but which crumble and dissolve like old sandcastles at the slightest encouragement. Bone or bark: it leaves only a trace. Having been used as a spot for executions a few hundred years after the death of King Rædwald, there were plenty of sand bodies at Sutton Hoo, but what can you learn from sand? It turns out a lot but, to the layperson such as I, it seems like chasing smoke.
In this sense, what the fortuitously-named Lack was documenting was precisely a succession of ghosts. Her description is far less poetic and analogous than it sounds. There was no corpse of the King and no wood from his ship. Just geological echoes, hastily copied and documented before the inevitable.
This elusiveness is everywhere. Out by the burial mounds, even these have been partly reconstructed, with their prior stature eroded by the weather. A multi-storey viewing platform was being constructed whilst we were there — the mounds appear far more pronounced when seen from above, we’re told — but, to the untrained eye, you’re in a lumpy field. This is only unusual relative to the absolute flatness of the majority of the Suffolk landscape. Intriguingly, surrounded by such emptiness, even traces and echoes are deliriously enticing, something M.R. James demonstrated well in its Suffolk ghost stories.
Sutton Hoo is beautiful and mysterious and the story of its discovery is like an adventure, with curses and deaths and drama and war and uncertainty and tragedy. None of the above is a critique of its management. I loved it all the more for its sand-through-our-fingers futility. Like at Dunwich and in Sebald, this county’s accelerated sense of the inevitable feels particularly important to the Suffolk mindset.
I think I’m coming to understand this place more as each day goes by.