Suffolk's heritage unveiled

PUBLISHED: 14:51 20 August 2001 | UPDATED: 10:28 03 March 2010

FOR years, Suffolk has failed to boast the presence of one of England's greatest historical landmarks – and now that oversight looks set to be put right.

FOR years, Suffolk has failed to boast the presence of one of England's greatest historical landmarks – and now that oversight looks set to be put right.

By the early part of 2001, Sutton Hoo will proudly welcome the world to its newly developed tourist attraction after a well deserved multi-million pound cash injection.

Here in a four part series, Debbie Watson looks at the mystery behind this remarkable site.

TUCKED away from public view, a phenomenal landmark celebrates the very beginning of our heritage.

She lies in a secluded stretch of Suffolk landscape, staring out onto the most breathtaking backdrops of the region's countryside – and yet she remains humble in the wake of her mammoth reputation.

This is Sutton Hoo.

This is the site of a breathtaking discovery which has captured the imagination of historians, archaeologists, enthusiasts and researchers, for some 60-plus years.

It is here in 1939 that one of the world's greatest excavations began to piece together the life and times of our Anglo Saxon fore-fathers.

And, as treasure after treasure was plucked from this very site, it is here that the nation began to turn its eyes. It began to understand the sheer dominance that the counties and the people of East Anglia must once have had.

To her honour, Sutton Hoo is credited by some as the 'Westminster Abbey equivalent'; the unique regal centre-piece, the pride of our region - the glimpse of a life we did not know.

In fact, so impressive is the story of this Pagan cemetery, that visitors have long been baffled by our failure to boast her identity further. It is a question that has needed our attention for so long – a question which is now, finally, being set straight in the most inspirational and honorary manner.

Today, as the wind sweeps viciously around her every curve, Sutton Hoo silently appreciates her own history.

She is nothing to look at. She is nothing to admire.

Her presence is formed by the random placement of curvaceous green mounds of differing size, but that, put simply, is all.

There are no treasures, no recreations, no dramatic re-enactments to set visitors into the world of warriors, kings and courtiers. There are no tributes to this remarkable landmark at all.

It is a disappointing reality, but yet, she still maintains this haunting and mysterious quality – you just know she has a story to tell.

That dramatic, and unforseen story begins back in 1937 and it centres on a house visible from the tips of those very mounds.

It was owned by Edith Pretty, the late wife of Colonel Frank Pretty, who had once been a commanding officer in the 4th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment. Edith was herself one of the first women magistrates, and she gave birth to a son, Robert, at the age of 47.

From the bedroom window of her large white Edwardian Mansion Edith had often stared out upon the mysterious mounds resting at intervals in the grounds of her home.

Legend suggests that it was in fact Mrs Pretty's burning curiosity which first sowed the seeds for the momentous Sutton Hoo find.

"The story goes that she was very much into spiritualism," explained regional archaeologist for the National Trust, Angus Wainwright.

"Supposedly a 'medium' friend had seen images of men walking across the land with spears.

"Mrs Pretty was understandably intrigued by this, and she set out to have someone come along to excavate a first mound."

No doubt Mr Wainwright has heard this rather creative story, and versions of it, countless times throughout his involvement with Sutton Hoo.

For years he has been working alongside various professionals to help identify the true story behind the site – and more recently, to try to create some of that story for the people of Suffolk.

"It has always been so easy for visitors to feel a huge sense of disappointment about this burial site – because today there is nothing more than mounds to see," he admitted.

"But the real magic comes from knowing the story about the finds, and from being able to piece together the facts about the lives of Anglo Saxon people who once stood on this very spot."

And, as he points out, it is indeed here on this very spot that Mrs Pretty's theories began to find their foundation.

Spurred into action by the spiritual 'visions', and by her own interest in archaeology, she contacted Ipswich Museum.

The museum promptly recommended the name of self-taught Suffolk archaeologist, Basil Brown.

"Basil came along with what were probably the most basic of tools," explained Mr Wainwright.

"He was just as excited as Mrs Pretty about the prospect of what they might find, and he and some of the land labourers began a rather amateur dig of the large mound which could be seen from the house."

This was the summer of 1938, and even now, as you stand surveying the mounds, you can sense the drama that was about to unfurl here on the Pretty estate.

To the untrained eye, you could be forgiven for rubbishing this historic landmark – and yet just a brief taste of this remarkable story cannot help but pull you deeper into the theatrical saga.

"Basil and his team knew straight away that these were Anglo Saxon mounds, and he knew that their contents could potentially have been of great historical importance," said Mr Wainwright.

"But all along Mrs Pretty was determined that no-one was going to let this get out to the press. She wanted to keep this as her little secret until she was completely ready to reveal it to the rest of the world."

And indeed it was a revelation.

Mound 2 – as it would later be referred to by experts – had quite clearly been the place of a ship burial; something incredibly rare in British history.

It had an obvious shape of a vessel, and tiny remnants of ship rivets were found, together with beautiful pieces of glass, and a gilt bronze disc.

But this first dig also drew somewhat disappointing results for the team. They soon discovered that they were not in fact the first to have clambered across the mound, to have dug their entry, and to have revealed the burial contents.

It transpired that they had been beaten to the site, perhaps twice in the past, by opportune robbers.

"It was quite clear from their dig – and from other ones they attempted on smaller mounds - that someone had been there before them," said Mr Wainwright.

"A robber trench had been created in mound 2, as well as in others.

"It is incredibly difficult to know just exactly what other treasures may have been taken.

"All we can say, is that there was certainly evidence of a ship burial, and that the area had probably been stumbled upon by robbers in the 1600s, and then perhaps again in the 19th Century."

As they called an end to that initial dig, it may not have been the great conclusion that Mrs Pretty, or Basil Brown, had so eagerly hoped for at the earliest moments of their quest.

Looking out upon the reconstructed Mound 2, it is not hard to imagine the dejected tones of conversation which must have reverberated around this silent and secretive site.

It is not hard to understand why this story had already captured the imagination and the hearts of the few Suffolk people it had touched.

That dig may have been over, but there was no way that Edith Pretty was about to terminate her investigation.

She swore there was more to come. She swore there was more to be found – and indeed, as she would later come to discover, there most definitely was.

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