Hoo's got its bling back

IT'S gold, stuffed with precious stones and it's worth millions. Today Sutton Hoo welcomes the return of a unique treasure uncovered by archaeologists back in 1939.

IT'S gold, stuffed with precious stones and it's worth millions. Today Sutton Hoo welcomes the return of a unique treasure uncovered by archaeologists back in 1939. Feature writer JAMES MARSTON find out about an object that changed the way we think about our ancestors.

TO the layman it looks like a tasty bit of bling.

There's gold, sparkling stones, it's old - more than a thousand years old - and its value is said to be “priceless”.

But the royal purse lid which was discovered in mound one at the Sutton Hoo site in 1939 and is being prepared to form the centrepiece of a new exhibition opening on Saturday, is much more than just jewellery.

Missed by graverobbers and undisturbed for over 1,300 years, the magnificent purse lid was discovered following an excavation that unearthed an Anglo Saxon ship and the possessions of a pagan warrior king, thought to be Raedwald.

Sutton Hoo's property manager Kate Sussams said the purse lid is a fine example of the artistic and cultural achievements of the Anglo Saxons: “Sutton Hoo is the Anglo-Saxon burial ground of the East Anglian kings. In the seventh century England was made up of a number of different kingdoms. The ruling class in East Anglia came from a Saxon heritage migrating from places like Denmark, Germany and Sweden.

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“They came here and brought with them a new language, new art, and a new religion. They inter-married with the local population and established the kingdom.”

Kate, an archaeologist by background, said: “Sutton Hoo was the Westminster abbey of its day. East Anglia was a great kingdom and it was a time when the Anglo-Saxons were establishing a new order. Ruled by the Wuffings royal dynasty, the kingdom was particularly important with good links to the continent.”

Following its discovery by archaeologist Basil Brown, the treasure hoard was given to the nation and has since been on display in the British Museum. But today the purse lid returns, loaned to the National Trust by the museum, launching a new season for the site's exhibition centre. The exhibition has cost £20,000 to stage.

Kate added: “It was the Anglo-Saxons that unified England into one kingdom and these people chose Sutton Hoo as their burial ground.

“The discoveries made here turned Anglo-Saxon archaeology on its head. Before Sutton Hoo the Anglo-Saxons were dismissed as scruffy and uncivilised. The treasures found here tell us they were highly sophisticated and cultured. Even today we still do not know how some of the items were made.”

An exquisite piece, the elaborately crafted purse lid is gold, inset with millefiori glass and 1,563 pieces of garnet, featuring intricate designs of men and mythical beasts.

Kate said: “It is like the Aston Martin DB9 of its time. It smacks of elegance, it's not flashy or vulgar but stylish and tasteful. This person not only had money and wealth but he had good taste too.

“We've got it insured for millions, but really it's such a well known piece that it's priceless.”

Almost certainly made in East Anglia in the seventh century, the purse lid was made to cover a leather pouch containing gold coins.

Fastened by a gold buckle, it would have hung by three hinged straps from a waist belt. Similar in design to the shoulder clasps found at the ancient burial site, it was likely to have been made by a single master craftsman, who may well have been asked to make the pieces as a royal commission.

Kate said: “The purse lid represents the apex of craftsmanship of Anglo Saxon goldsmiths and is one of the greatest triumphs of early medieval jewellers' work from anywhere in northern Europe. Nothing like it has been found anywhere else. It is unique.”

In addition to the purse lid, other treasures from hoards around the country will be on display in the treasury room at Sutton Hoo this summer, including brooches, buckles and clasps, highlighting a range of skills employed by the Anglo-Saxons.

One of the largest pieces will be a replica of King Raedwald's shield, based on the original item that was unearthed in the great ship burial.

Coinciding with a number of events the new exhibition will form part of Sutton Hoo's year of craftsmanship, adding to the permanent display in the exhibition hall which tells the story of Anglo Saxon warriors, treasures and kings.

The exhibition will run from March 17 to October 28 2007 and visitors to the opening of the exhibition on March 17 will get the chance to meet King Raedwald, dressed in his Anglo-Saxon regalia.

Sutton Hoo is open to the public from 11am-5pm from Wednesday to Sunday and daily during the school holidays. The attraction welcomes 100,000 visitors a year.

THE Anglo Saxons brought a new language to England.

Known by academics as 'old English,' the language formed the basis of many of the everyday words we use today.

Kate said: “If an Anglo-Saxon was here today and listened carefully to our conversations he would be able to understand about 80 per cent of what we were saying.”

Some Anglo-Saxon words still in use today include 'bread', 'cheese' and sheep'.

ALTHOUGH the various objects including the purse lid were found in positions which suggested they were once worn by a person, it remains a matter of conjecture if a body was ever in 'mound one'.

Neither bones nor teeth were ever found in the mound.

Kate said: “Phosphate testing in the 1960s proved that it was probable there was a body. It had completely decomposed in the sandy acidic soil at Sutton Hoo.”

Almost all other organic material had also decomposed.

In 1938 Sutton Hoo estate owner Edith Pretty asked an archaeologist to examine the mounds close to her home. She had had previously had a vivid dream of treasures and a funeral procession. Thereafter the treasures including an Anglo Saxon burial ship were unearthed.