Last year, I got to fulfil one of my longest-held, quite esoteric, dreams.
I got to visit Sutton Hoo.
I have been fascinated by this place for longer than I can remember. It’s the site of a ship burial and other grave mounds from the Anglo-Saxon period, and the origin of some of the most beautiful archaeological pieces dug up in England. Every time I’ve been to England I’ve wanted to visit, and it’s just never worked out. But this time – this time I made it work.
Making it work wasn’t easy. We had to catch two trains – one from Cambridge to Ipswich, and then another to Melton, the closest station. Except on the day we were travelling, our train to Ipswich was cancelled, so we caught a train to Ely in order to get a different train going to Ipswich. Ely is in the completely opposite direction from Melton. All of this took a bit over 2 hours.
Notice I said “we”. For reasons that are still beyond my ken, my friend living in Cambridge decided to accompany me, as did her somewhat-bemused husband whom I had known for exactly seven minutes at this point.
From the Melton station it’s about a half-hour walk to Sutton Hoo. Through a village, and then along a main road with dubious pedestrian access. But then… oh, then.
You see this, a replica of the ship that was buried. And you see the visitor’s centre with its replicas of the great treasures – all of which are now in the British Museum, because the original owner of the property made them a gift; which means I’ve seen the helmet and the shield and every else a number of times. But now I was actually there, where they were found. It’s fair to say my friends thought I was a bit off my nut.
Usually, I understand, visitors get to go up an observation tower, to see the grave mounds from on high. But this was unavailable on the day we visited. Instead, we got to walk amongst the grave mounds themselves – something that is usually not allowed, and won’t be allowed again. So that was remarkable. The whole setting is remarkable, and glorious. And I finally got there.
All of this came back to mind when I watched The Dig on Netflix. I was astonished, to be honest, that the story of an archaeological dig got made into a film with relatively big names – Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan – and has had a fair bit of press. Maybe here in Australia I don’t appreciate that the British public actually does know about the finds there? I also didn’t know there was a novel about it, which is the source material for the film. They couldn’t film at Sutton Hoo – it’s open all year – but it certainly felt to me that they recreated the area well. And I know that aspects are dramatised; much of the personal friction is narrative rather than history. But the fact that they showed archaeologists being meticulous – no Indys here – and the excitement about tiny pieces of iron or gold was just wonderful. The entire film, in fact, is beautifully made. And the story, too – a meditation on death and the place of humans in history and the cosmos (the Fiennes character, Basil Brown, is also an amateur astronomer… well, “amateur”; he wrote about astronomical maps and atlases). The events are very consciously placed in the eve of WW2 – there’s constant reference to war coming, men being called up, and so on – which adds that extra layer of immediacy, needing to get on with things, and also of extraordinary events occurring: the find, and the war. Plus the illness of Edith Pretty, instigator of the whole dig.
Highly, highly recommended as a film. And if you are in, or can get to, England – go visit Sutton Hoo.