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Rendlesham: Nighthawks may have raided Saxon treasure at Suffolk’s ‘village of the kings’

PUBLISHED: 18:32 11 March 2014 | UPDATED: 18:32 11 March 2014

Sutton Hoo burial grounds

Sutton Hoo burial grounds

Archant

Illicit treasure hunters may have stolen some of the most precious finds from the site of Suffolk’s “village of the kings”.

A picture takien during the 1960s dig at Sutton Hoo A picture takien during the 1960s dig at Sutton Hoo

County council archaeologists were only alerted to the site at Rendlesham after nighthawks – unauthorised people with metal detectors – had been discovered digging on the land, strongly believed to be where King Raedwald had his palace.

The official team immediately walked one field which had been raided illegally, but in the two days between the crop being harvested and a full survey beginning, it was looted again.

English Heritage says Suffolk has been one of the worst affected counties for nighthawks stealing items from known heritage sites.

One site, a Roman settlement at Icklingham, has been raided frequently in the last 30 years – as often as every couple of weeks at certain times of the year – and on one occasion more than 200 holes were dug in one incident.

Archaeologists began urgently investigating at Rendlesham, where it is now thought there was a site of a royal settlement, palace or gathering place for high-status Anglo-Saxon leaders, in 2008 after the landowner alerted them.

Writing in the Sutton Hoo Society magazine The Saxon, archaeological officer Jude Plouviez said: “Archaeologists hoped to survey the field that had been raided illegally, and which lay beyond the survey area originally intended, as a quick walk on it while under a crop of onions produced several handmade Anglo-Saxon pottery sherds, but access proved impossible for magnetometry as it had just been ploughed.

“It was surveyed by metal detector but in the two days between cultivation and survey, the field was looted again by the nighthawks.

“After this, the Suffolk unit’s detectorists were so keen to thwart the thieves that they worked on for a couple of days unpaid on the field north of the church, which was outside the budget for that year.”

Later five men were arrested.

She said the scale of what had been lost from the field was suggested by the stunning finds that were unearthed by her team.

One archaeologist has described the site – which has links with the Sutton Hoo ship burial – as “exceptional” and another told the EADT the site was “internationally significant” and would have been as big as Ipswich in the 7th Century.

English Heritage has called for tougher action to deal with nighthawks. It says night patrols, thermal imaging, distracters, seismic detectors and image intensifiers have all been employed in attempts to stop the activity, but wants tougher punishments to deter.

A Suffolk police spokeswoman said: “Any site that may be of interest to criminals will be given extra attention by police and additional patrols will be made as appropriate.

“We would also ask that any residents or road users call police using 999 if they notice any suspicious activity. It is important that you call us immediately if you see anything unusual so officers can respond quickly.”

An exhibition of some of the treasures unearthed at Rendlesham will open on Saturday at the National Trust’s visitor centre at Sutton Hoo.

They will include fragments of exquisite gold jewellery, Saxon pennies and weights associated with trade, and metal offcuts from a smith’s workshop.

Martin Payne, the National Trust’s learning and interpretation officer at Sutton Hoo, said: “This exhibition will, for the first time, allow people to rediscover Anglo-Saxon Rendlesham and gain further insight into the Anglo-Saxons who buried their kings at Sutton Hoo.

“It is a unique and exciting opportunity to find out about how those kings and their dependents spent their days and lived their lives.

“It is a relatively small exhibition, with around 70 small objects on show, but the finds are of huge historical and archaeological significance and well worth seeing.

“Looking at these objects up close you really do get a feel for the people who once lived here, more than 1,300 years ago.”

The new discoveries are being temporarily housed at Sutton Hoo before moving to a new, purpose-built permanent exhibition space at Ipswich Museum.

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