Sue Brunning, curator, British Museum
Fifteen years ago I visited the British Museum as an undergraduate. As someone who’d most recently studied the English Civil War, I’d taken a course on Anglo-Saxon England because I was curious to learn what life was like at a time when the date only had three numbers in it. Our professor brought us to Room 41, the gallery of Early Medieval Europe – and there I had a fateful encounter with the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Dating to the early AD 600s, this remarkable Anglo-Saxon grave in Suffolk was arranged inside a 27-metre-long ship and covered with an earth mound, known to posterity as ‘Mound 1’. The burial’s spectacular nature has fuelled speculation that it belonged to a king of East Anglia. Seeing it back then for the first time, I was genuinely inspired. I’ve studied the Anglo-Saxons ever since.
Tomorrow, after four years of very hard teamwork, Room 41 re-opens following a major refurbishment that was generously facilitated by Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock, with additional support from the DCMS /Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund. Sutton Hoo takes pride of place in the centre, acting as a gateway into the rest of the gallery. Visitors entering through Room 40 will be met by the striking face of the helmet, standing sentinel at the head of his ship. My spine still tingles when I gaze into its hollow black eyes, especially out of hours in the quiet, dark gallery space. A haunting sight; but something else chills me when I look at these treasures – the true-life tale of how close we came to losing them forever.
When excavating Mound 1 in 1939, archaeologist Basil Brown found signs of what he described in his diary as a ‘Medieval disturbance’. These comprised a 10-foot-deep pit dug into the top of the mound, containing pottery sherds (more of which were found during further excavations in 1969), animal bone and traces of a fire. Experts identified the pottery as Bellarmine ware, dating to the 1500s or 1600s. Not much to write home about, you’d think; but these seemingly banal traces are, to me, some of the most hair-raising discoveries in Anglo-Saxon archaeology. They show that, at some time in the Tudor period, a group of treasure hunters (if that was their aim) had targeted Mound 1; but after digging vainly for some time, they stopped, built a fire, ate a meal and departed, leaving their waste behind. Archaeological drawings show that they would have had their prize if they had dug just a few feet further west. The sorry results of more fruitful looting expeditions are illustrated by the other burial mounds at Sutton Hoo. Mound 2, another ship burial, was found to contain only the tiniest hints of its former magnificence: a chip of a blue glass vessel; part of a pattern-welded sword; and fragments of gilded silver drinking-horn mounts.
While writing this blog, I visited the Sutton Hoo reserve collection to photograph sherds of the hapless looters’ jug. Handling them was an unnerving experience. Sutton Hoo is so central to our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxons that a world without it is unthinkable. Its alternative fate is too horrifying for me to contemplate: the great gold buckle melted down; the garnets of the shoulder clasps chipped out and recycled; the iron fragments of the helmet ignored and discarded. For an Anglo-Saxonist, the tale of what Charles Philips, another excavator at Sutton Hoo, dubbed ‘the lunch of the disappointed’ is more hair-raising than any vampire or werewolf yarn. It’s incredible to think that we owe the new gallery’s centrepiece to the miscalculations of a few opportunists. That makes me feel even luckier to be the curator of this precious collection.