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10 August 2019: Sutton Hoo and LavenhamA round red shield with gold decorations

Today my wife and I went on a coach trip organised by our local National Trust Supporter Group.

Our first stop was at Sutton Hoo. It was a good day to visit because the new exhibition hall was opened only a few days earlier. This proved to be well worth a visit. We suspect that it was a good day for another (and somewhat selfish) reason; the high winds may have kept some potential visitors away, so it wasn’t too crowded even though it was a Saturday during the summer holidays. The high winds did mean that all the walks were closed, though.

We all started by going to Tranmer House as we were told it was likely to be closed first. This was the house owned by Edith Pretty, on whose land the Sutton Hoo burials were found. The ground floor houses an exhibition about the excavations. (The upper floor is closed to visitors but we could see the impressive staircase leading up to it.)

The first excavations were carried out in 1938 by a local self-taught archaeologist at Edith Pretty’s invitation. The first areas he excavated proved to have been dug up previously by grave robbers but were interesting nevertheless.

When he excavated the main burial mound he found the remains of a rivet, which alerted him to the fact that this mound could be particularly interesting. It was realised to be a ship burial and quite quickly a professional archaeologist based at Cambridge University was put in charge. Fortunately, although grave robbers had dug down into the mound in Tudor times they had not dug as far as the burial.

A photographic record was kept of the excavation. Some of the photographs are on exhibition in Tranmer House. These include some fascinating shots of the area where the ship was. All the wooden parts had disintegrated over the centuries but the impression they had made in the soil could be clearly seen. The archaeologists knew that this impression would be destroyed by the excavation process so the photographs are now the only remaining evidence of it.

At the outbreak of the Second World War the items already removed, which were held by the British Museum, were placed in an underground chamber at Aldwych Underground Station in London for safety and the burial site protected as much as possible by having bracken spread over it. In fact no damage was done to the site during the war.

The excavations were resumed when hostilities ceased. It was eventually concluded that the burial was that of King Raedwald of East Anglia, who died in the seventh century.

I guess most of us are familiar with pictures of the famous Anglo-Saxon helmet found in the burial chamber. Tranmer House holds a photograph of some of the numerous broken fragments that were found, making one realise just what a difficult job it must have been working out how they all fitted together.

After going over Tranmer House we walked back to the exhibition hall. The exhibition hall has a video and audio presentation about King Raedwald’s burial. The video is to the left of the entrance and depicts a conversation between an old woman and younger woman as they polish some of the grave goods. The audio presentation unfolds as you proceed clockwise around the hall and is a series of imaginary conversations between the Anglo-Saxon court poet and a Flemish trader. Both presentations mention the fact that King Raedwald received a pagan burial but Christianity was already coming in from the continent.

Around the exhibiton hall are pictures illustrating some of the sort of people who might have been involved in the preparations for King Raedwald’s funeral and the places they occupied in Anglo-Saxon society. It seems Anglo-Saxon women had a degree of freedom and authority that was not enjoyed by their English successors until the last century.

The exhibition hall also houses replicas of some of the grave goods as they would have originally looked, including the famous helmet. I was struck, though, by the size of the shield (see the picture above), which looks much too large to be effectively wielded in combat; it may have been intended for ceremonial use only. The beauty of the brooches and clasps that were found is amazing.

There are explanations of how some of the artefacts were made, showing stages in the processes. I did not know sword making was so complicated! You also gain an admiration for the craftspeople who made the jewellery without the benefit of modern lamps and magnifying glasses.

The coach then took us all to Lavenham, where the National Trust looks after the Lavenham Guildhall. This is a bit of a misnomer as only part of the current building was ever a guildhall. It was not built for a merchants’ guild but for a guild of very wealthy local men who organised it to ensure prayers were said for their souls (and that they would have a very nice and exclusive meeting place).

Over the centuries the building has been used for a variety of purposes, including tenements, shops, workhouses and a prison. These are all illustrated in the different rooms.

After visiting the Guildhall my wife and I made our way through the town up to the church where, purely coincidentally, there was an exhibition by the local amateur arts society. From there it was a short walk across the road back to the coach and our journey home.