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In 1938, archaeologist Basil Brown was asked to investigate eighteen low grassy mounds by a local land owner, Mrs Edith Pretty. He began by opening Mound 3, quickly followed by Mounds 2 and 4. All had been robbed in antiquity, although the few scraps of once fine possessions hinted at high status Anglo-Saxon burials.
In the spring and summer of 1939 Brown excavated the largest mound (Mound 1) and uncovered an undisturbed burial, the extraordinarily rich grave of an important early seventh-century East Anglian. Deeply buried beneath the large mound lay the ghost of a 27-metre-long oak ship. At its centre was a ruined burial chamber with a pitched roof. In this small room, once hung with textiles, the dead man lay surrounded by his possessions.
Since 1939 the cemetery has been excavated twice: first between 1965 and 1971 by the British Museum, and second between 1983 and 1992 by the British Museum and the Society of Antiquaries of London. The 1965/1971 excavations were designed to answer questions about Basil Brown's excavations, particularly concerning the structure of the mound, the relationship of the ship to its burial trench and the structure of the ship itself. Samples were taken throughout the ship and burial chamber to see if chemical traces of a body remained. A plaster cast of the ship’s remains were made (now held in storage at the British Museum). The cemetery was also surveyed for the first time, revealing the underlying prehistoric landscape.
The 1983/1993 excavations explored the relationship of the cemetery to the surrounding landscape, established its extent and status and examined several mounds and the flat land between. The site was found to have been used for a short period in the early AD 600s as a burial ground for those of the highest standing. The mounds had all been robbed except Mound 17, which contained a young man and horse, with magnificent harness-fittings. A number of simpler burials were from the later Anglo-Saxon period, and in the ninth century a gallows for executions was located on the site.
In 2000 archaeologists returned to Sutton Hoo, this time excavating in the area of the National Trust Visitor Centre and Tranmer House. Led by Suffolk County Council, this work uncovered an Anglo-Saxon cemetery of 31 burials including both cremations and inhumations. The graves were earlier and of more ‘ordinary’ status than those on the burial mound site 500m away. Post-excavation work has been funded by the Sutton Hoo Society and National Trust, who donated the finds to the British Museum. Here conservation and analyses have been taking place. Full details and interpretation of the cemetery will be provided in a forthcoming publication.
The treasure from Sutton Hoo is on display in Room 41. We also encourage people to visit the National Trust Visitor Centre at Sutton Hoo, which is open all year round. It is home to an award-winning exhibition hall that includes a full-size reconstruction of the burial chamber and superb replicas of the Mound 1 treasures. Original finds from Mound 17, such as a fine sword and glittering harness-fittings, are also on display. Outside, visitors can wander around the ancient burial mounds and see where the Sutton Hoo ship burial took place around 1400 years ago.