Shedding new light on Sutton Hoo

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A replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet. Credit: National Trust Images

The discovery of an Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo in 1939 not only stunned the archaeology world but set the scene for further exploration.

Later archaeological digs solved further mysteries and now, with the help of Time Team, new archaeology investigations will use the latest advancements in technology.

Seven years after the last episode of Channel 4’s Time Team aired, the archaeological series is set to return with new archaeology investigations that will be streamed online via YouTube, after interest soared during lockdown and with ongoing support on Patreon.

Aerial view of the Royal Burial Grounds at Sutton Hoo. Photo credit: National Trust Images / James Dobson

Working alongside National Trust archaeologists, a series of investigations have been planned to build up a more complete picture of the historic site. Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) has been used on the Royal Burial Ground, including some areas for the first time. Magnetometry surveys have also taken place on a scale that’s not been possible before, with high resolution, in an area adjacent to the High Hall exhibition. It was during construction of this exhibition building in the early 2000s that an Anglo-Saxon folk cemetery was discovered.

Photogrammetry, which is the science of extracting 3D information from photographs, is another process that Time Team will be using, supported by Aerial Cam, to help bring the landscape to life in the form of an interactive and immersive 3D digital model.

Laura Howarth, Archaeology and Engagement Manager at Sutton Hoo, said:

“The Sutton Hoo landscape is layered with people’s stories stretching back over the centuries and whilst we know some of these stories, there is still so much more we could learn. These non-invasive techniques paint a subsurface picture of what lies beneath our feet, allowing us to hopefully discover more about how different people have used this landscape whilst causing the least amount of damage.” 

Since the now famous 1939 dig took place, new technology has been introduced, which has also seen advancements in recent years. 

Ground-penetrating radar is a method that uses radar pulses to image the subsurface, helping to identify features and changes such as voids and ditches. Magnetometry relies on the ability to measure very small magnetic fields and has become one of the most important archaeological methods for the detection and mapping of buried remains.

Laura went onto say:

“The excavations that took place here in the 1930s were amongst the beginning thrilling chapters of archaeological investigation, but we are really excited to be working with Time Team on these latest instalments to the Sutton Hoo story. Using the latest in cutting edge technology, the survey techniques being used here have the potential to detect archaeological features such as field boundaries, building foundations and ploughed-out burial mounds, but we shall just have to wait and see what is actually discovered. We hope to be able to share this latest research in the coming months.” 

It is the first time that a field known as Garden Field, lying next to the High Hall exhibition, has been surveyed using GPR and the first time that the whole of this field has been surveyed using magnetometry. This field which lies close to another Anglo-Saxon cemetery, has revealed such finds as a 6th century Byzantine bucket and a gold Roman coin pendant, both on display in the High Hall exhibition and on long term loan from the Annie Tranmer Charitable Trust. 

Tim Taylor, Creator and Series Producer of Time Team, said:

“Sutton Hoo has always held a special place in our heart. We are delighted to play a role in shedding new light on such an iconic site. Combining state-of-the-art technology, working with colleagues at SUMO Geophysics, Aerial Cam and Guideline Geo | MALÅ and using Time Team’s global reach, we look forward to making some wonderful discoveries and sharing them with audiences around the world.”

Tim added:

“The Dig was about one man and one woman’s desire to find out more about our past. I think Basil Brown and Mrs Edith Pretty would be delighted and intrigued about the new technology. Complementing our work with the National Trust, Time Team will also be working with Professor Martin Carver and the Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company to film an exclusive documentary about the reconstruction of the amazing Sutton Hoo ship. It’s safe to say we’re looking forward to being immersed in the Sutton Hoo story!”

Historic England has supported and enabled this exciting new research project and welcomes the use of non-invasive methods to learn more of Sutton Hoo’s significant history. 

Will Fletcher, East of England Development Advice Team Leader for Historic England said:

“I’m delighted to see this new non-invasive research take place at Sutton Hoo. While celebrated excavations have revealed legendary stories from this remarkable site, there is always something new to discover about such an important archaeological place. This new information will help to inform the care and future enjoyment of Sutton Hoo.”

The results of the latest investigations will be shared by Time Team and the National Trust in the spring.

Sutton Hoo has seen an increase in visitors this year, since the airing of the Netflix film The Dig, which has sparked a renewed interest in both the site and archaeology.

The High Hall exhibition, Tranmer House, Shop, Café and Bookshop are now open at weekends, with the estate walks and viewing tower open daily. Click here for more details: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo

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