This article first appeared in Fortean Times issue FT390, March 2020. For copyright reasons the photos are different to the ones supplied by National Trust in the article in print.
Panorama of the Sutton Hoo estate, in a gale in August!
HIGH ON the slopes of the River Deben, near the Suffolk town of Woodbridge, lies Sutton Hoo, an estate with woods and a house with spectacular estuary views. On this property lies a cluster of mounds, from which one of England’s greatest archaeological discoveries emerged. Here on the eve of World War Two was uncovered the spectacular ship burial of an Anglo-Saxon believed to be King Raedwald of the East Angles, who reigned from 599AD to his death around 624AD.
A recently installed skeleton showing the dimensions of the ship from the Sutton Hoo ship burial
The original Sutton Hoo treasures – including a stunning decorated helmet, as well as gold jewellery inlaid with garnets from India and Sri Lanka – are now on display in the less atmospheric surroundings of Room 41 of the British Museum in London. But you can see replicas at Sutton Hoo and take woodland walks to visit Sutton Hoo’s impressive Royal Burial Mounds and the house once owned by Edith Pretty, who called in the archaeologists back in 1939.
The Sutton Hoo helmet in the British Museum's Room 41 in London. Replicas are on show at Sutton Hoo.
The Sutton Hoo estate, including the Royal Burial Mounds, the exhibition hall and the house (now known as Tranmer House) are today owned by the National Trust, who reopened the estate to the public in 2019 after a £4 million “transformation” – a refitted exhibition space and new footpaths including a River View Walk through the woods retracing the route along which the ship was dragged from the river for burial. By the time you read this, a viewing tower will probably have opened, allowing visitors a bird’s eye view of the Royal Burial Mounds.
Signage for one of the walks to the Royal Burial Mounds, with the viewing tower under construction in October 2019
My visit was in weather reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon epic poetry – during a gale, in August! Sutton Hoo’s Property Operations Manager Alison Girling bade me take a seat in one of Sutton Hoo’s many cafes while she got me a coffee, but it never arrived. After a long wait I caught sight of her through the café window, jogging as she talked urgently into a radio – she was shutting down the site as the gale took hold. It wasn’t safe that day for walkers to go into the woods by the mounds, I was told, branches of the tall pines would likely fall on them.
The story of how the treasures of Sutton Hoo came to be uncovered includes some fortean twists. Numerous slightly different accounts of what inspired Edith Pretty to call in freelance self-taught archaeologist and astronomer Basil Brown feature seances, spectral apparitions of warriors on horseback and a local “metal diviner.” It’s as if the gold and silver treasures lying beneath Sutton Hoo’s mounds were exerting a supernatural influence on their discoverers, as if the treasures were crying out to mortals to find them.
Mound 1 - the mound that contained the Royal ship burial.
But the legitimate excavations in what’s now known as Mound 1, the world’s greatest Anglo-Saxon ship burial, complete with the impression on the sandy soil of the timbers of a buried ship 90 feet (24.7 metres) long, weren’t the first. Tudor grave robbers had looted most of the other mounds long before the official dig, “ill-doers” had dug a “robber’s trench” into Mound 1 that came within inches of discovering the treasures of King Raedwald. Who were these Tudor grave robbers? Tradition has pointed the finger of suspicion at Elizabeth I’s astrologer and legendary occultist Dr John Dee.
At the time of the 1939 excavation, Basil Brown’s team came across Mound 1’s robber’s trench and found Mound 2 extensively looted. Brown’s team believed that this happened in the sixteenth century and there is still a commonly-held belief today that the robber’s trench and looting was the work of a team led by Dr John Dee (1527-1608). The robber’s trench was later firmly dated by the discovery in it of a Bellarmine jar (famous for its use as a “witch bottle”) . A tradition also seems to have taken hold that Dr Dee sought a commission to search for treasure on the East Coast. (Sutton Hoo’s just 12 miles from the sea.)
Portrait of occultist and court astrologer Dr John Dee, from A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed For Many Years Between Dr John Dee... out of copyright
One ability Dee believed he possessed was discovering hidden treasure, he had several misadventures in that field. Dee genuinely had some expertise in geology, surveying and metal assaying. In later life he leased and ran mines of his own in Devonshire, from which he received royalties. Dee’s writings made little distinction between mining for ores and digging for treasure, in a period when archeology was known as “gold mining.”
Dee’s scryer (spirit medium) Edward Kelley conned him with an elaborate hoax involving fake artefacts he claimed to have dug up at Blockley, Gloucestershire in 1583 (or from Glastonbury or from a Welsh bishop’s tomb, in other versions). These were a book allegedly written by St Dunstan, a vial of a red “powder of projection” and a scroll in coded Medieval Latin written by two exiled Danish princes. The latter included a map cryptically describing ten locations of other buried treasure. Dee was convinced this was all for real.
One of the numerous spirits that Kelley persuaded Dee had appeared to him instructed Dee and Kelley to dig up the treasure identified in the scroll. The spirit identified himself as “El”, opening up his chest to reveal his name written on his heart. El allegedly told Dee and Kelley that if they collected soil samples from each location mentioned in Kelley’s scroll, spirits could then recover whatever lay buried there. Dee found the money to send Kelley on a twelve-day voyage around England in 1583 to gather these “earths.”
According to contemporary belief, treasure buried in the earth was in the custody of demons, only discoverable with their help. The 1562 Statute against Sorcery carried the death penalty for persistent discovery of treasure “by the aid of magic.” Dee repudiated magic and believed he was using mathematics and the scientific exercise of supernatural powers to find buried treasure. He therefore sought Royal Letters Patent to protect him against accusations of sorcery in his endeavours.
So, prompted by his desperate finances, Dee wrote in October 1574 to Lord Treasurer William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Pleading for an annual pension of at least £200, Dee proposed a way to source it cost-free, by discovering buried treasure. He saw the appearance of a new star two years previously as foretelling “the finding of some treasure.” Dee’s letter explained how visions, dreams and “strange terrestrial emanations” pointed to hoards beneath the earth.
Dee’s letter requested a licence to seek for treasure on the Queen’s behalf, in return for half the spoils. Cecil Declined. Martin Carver (see bibliography below) suggests that Dee’s proposal to Lord Burghley could have been an attempt at “a portable antiquities scam”, presumably aimed at fleecing investors.
A table in the "Enochian" language said by Dr John Dee to be used by angels to communicate, inspired by the Book of Enoch in the Old Testament. From A True and Faithful Relation... out of copyright
Enthralling as the idea of Dr Dee grave robbing Sutton Hoo is, it’s alas supported by scant evidence. The cryptic “Danish scroll” apparently made no references to locations around Sutton Hoo. Carver describes a “systematic pillaging of mounds in Suffolk” starting from the time of the dissolution of the monasteries (some 20 years before Dee’s letter to Cecil), fuelled by a belief that corrupt monks had buried their ill-gotten gains. Landowners could apply for licences to dig for treasure on their own land – Sutton Hoo’s local landowners in Dee’s time were the Mather family, Sir Michael Stanhope and Sir Henry Wood, so suspicion falls on them rather than Dee.
Mound 2 - the mound looted by Tudor graverobbbers, now reconstructed to something like its original height.
In the lean, famine-afflicted 1570s, many in desperation turned to digging for buried treasure, especially in burial mounds – so much so that “hill-digger” became a term of abuse. So the intriguing idea of Dr Dee as a clandestine Sutton Hoo archaeologist begins to look less likely.
Some 350 years after Dr Dee’s alleged occult diggings in the vicinity, the mix of paranormal phenomena and archaeology returned to Sutton Hoo.
Edith Pretty, who lived at the house at Sutton Hoo, was involved in Spiritualism and donated money to the Spiritualist church in Woodbridge. When her husband Frank was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1934, Edith contacted well-known spiritualist faith healer William Parish, of whom she was reportedly so in awe that she later instructed her gardeners to plant tulip bulbs in the spots where Parish had paused while walking around the estate. Edith had already been England’s first woman magistrate, she’d volunteered as a nurse in France in World War One, travelled to Egypt, Sudan and South America and gone on a tour of Europe by car. With her husband gone, such an adventurous woman needed something to occupy her mind, her thoughts turned to archeology and the spirit world.
There is debate as to whether seances were held at Sutton Hoo. One account by a local source told of seances in a purple draped “telephone room”. It is known that a “tiny room” in the house was used as a private chapel where Edith could “talk to my husband” after his death. Maids described a crucifix and candles there. Archaeologist Charles Phillips in his memoirs records that Edith would go to Spiritualist meetings in Woodbridge every Thursday. She would “commune” with her husband through a medium. Other sources say Edith regularly attended seances in London, or that she was with the Spiritualist church in London Road, Ipswich, which still survives today as the Horley Spiritualist Centre. She also came into contact with medium and spirit healer Albert Charles Toft of Llanelli, who claimed to be directed by a disembodied Indian spirit diagnostician named Ranji.
One story of how Edith was inspired to commission the Sutton Hoo dig was simply that it came to her in a dream. Edith told archaeologist Basil Brown when he was on the 1939 dig to go to spiritualist service in Woodbridge, where medium Florence Thompson was in attendance. According to Brown’s diary, Florence told him, “I see fields…. Now I see lots of sand… all sand… assert yourself… go on digging… and you will find what you’re looking for.”
Another story – recounted by Shiela Norman, daughter of the leader of the Woodbridge Spiritualist congregation – has a séance conducted or at least attended by Pretty, supposedly in London, in which a man on black horse materialised and told Edith to plunge a sword into the mounds.
In yet another version, an unnamed guest at Sutton Hoo saw “warriors atop the mounds” one morning from an upstairs window – another variation of the story had these as spectral “horsemen”. Yet another iteration of the story has a friend staying with Edith reporting a single “ghostly figure on horseback on the mounds” – it’s not clear whether this was the same friend who saw multiple figures – on horseback or otherwise – from the upstairs window.
There was a pair of buzzards flying over the Deben when I went on the guided walk of the Royal Burial Mounds, led by Mark Brewster, my guide from the Sutton Hoo Society. He related what he described as a “ghost story” in which – during a seance in the long “seance room” on the top floor of the Sutton Hoo house – a guest rushed to the window after seeing from the corner of her eye a single figure on horseback holding a sword ride over a mound. Brewster reckons it was probably just a poacher, heading down to the Deben ferry. East Anglia’s sudden thick mists can play tricks with the eyes. A more prosaic explanation for Edith’s motivation to cause a dig to take place on her land is that her father had been an amateur archaeologist.
There was also a tenant living on the Sutton Hoo estate known as “Old Pettit”, who was said to be a metal diviner – he assured Edith that “fabulous treasure” lay under her garden, gold and silver, especially in the larger mound.
If you stand outside Tranmer House today and look up, you can the upstairs windows from which Edith’s guest allegedly saw at least one spectral horseman on the mounds. Now only the ground floor’s open to the public. The top floor bedrooms have become holiday apartments. While the other mounds aren’t visible from the ground floor of Tranmer House, you can see the top of Mound 2 through the ground floor windows. Mound 2 – the one looted by Tudor grave-robbers, possibly something to do with Dr Dee – was built up with earth in the 1980s, party so visitors could see something of the mounds from the house, but also in an attempt to reconstruct how the mounds might have looked before a millennia and a half of ploughing and erosion reduced them.
There was a faint smell of woodsmoke when I visited Tranmer House. One room has become a wood-panelled cinema, with film and radio recordings showing of the 1939 dig. The National Trust have made a good job of evoking 1939 – among the facsimile documents on the desk that visitors can handle is a telegram sent by Brown to archaeologist couple the Piggotts. Peggy Piggott was a much more experienced archaeologist than her husband, but in 1930s Cambridge women couldn't take full degrees, only “diplomas”, so she was the less qualified junior partner of the couple. The telegram tells her husband Stuart they’ve found a “VIKING SHIP” (what they first thought they’d found) and instructed him to “BRING WIFE.”
As the Sutton Hoo dig team were sorting through their finds, a planned open day to showcase some of these was cancelled as World War Two broke out. Work on the dig stopped, the “ship trench” was hastily covered over with bracken. In today’s Tranmer House drawing room you will hear Neville Chamberlain’s tones on the radiogram saying he had “received no such assurances… so I have to tell you that from midnight tonight, we are at war with Germany.”
Edith donated the finds to the British Museum – faith healer William Parish was apparently influential in Edith's decision. Only when her executors were clearing up after Edith’s death did they discover the letter from Winston Churchill offering her a CBE for her generous gesture. Edith declined. The archaeological finds were shipped to the British Museum’s underground safe storage facility in Aldwych Underground station for the duration of the war.
At Sutton Hoo in wartime, the mounds were filled back in, only to be be damaged by armoured vehicles driving over them, destroying much of the impression in earth left by the huge ship in which King Redwald had been interred. The anti-glider trenches dug across the estate (well clear of the mounds) to stop German paratroopers landing are still visible. Edith Pretty died suddenly in 1942, her house became a hostel for Land Army Girls (some carved their names on the fireplace) and smaller buildings on the estate became a refugees’ school.
The archaeologists were back at Sutton Hoo in 1985, in a series of digs that yielded the remains of a noblewoman cremated in two bowls, and also the remains of a dog, horse, goat and sheep.
Unearthed in Mound 17 were the bones of young warrior buried together with his horse in full ornate harness, the horse apparently sacrificed to accompany his master to the afterlife. (You can see them in the exhibition hall, together with a replica Saxon sword that you can try lifting – it’s surprisingly heavy!) These burial practices hinted at a culture in transition from paganism to Christianity – King Raedwald converted to Christianity himself and raised Christian altars, but on the advice of the women of his household kept the altars to the pagan gods in place as well.
Mound 17 - from which the horse burial was excavated
Were the apparitions on horseback seen by Edith’s guests something to do with the warrior horseman buried in Mound 17? England’s man-and-horse burials are almost exclusively from Suffolk – others were discovered at Eye, Mildenhall and Snape. There’s also a legend in the Suffolk village of Blythburgh – 22 miles up the coast – about a ghostly horse that used to burst forth from a mound to canter around the local common. (The mound’s long been lost to erosion and ploughing.) Could Blythburgh's equestrian phantom have been inspired by a long-forgotten Saxon horse burial find?
Other excavations, including the digs in the 1980s and 1990s, unearthed mysterious “sandmen”, blackened stick men with vague features, they melted away to nothing soon after being exhumed.
These, it turns out, were the victims of medieval executions dumped in the earth. Coastal Suffolk’s sandy, acid soil meant the bodies quickly rotted away, the spaces in the sandy earth were then filled with black, sandy silt. These mystery figures, basically made of sand, fell apart on contact with air. Like the impressions of the victims of Pompeii, there’s one black-painted fibreglass cast of a “sandman” on the Sutton Hoo site, Brewster said he thinks the other sandman casts are somewhere in British Museum storage.
Now the archaeology’s happening four miles down the road at Rendlesham (better known as the epicentre of the UK’s best-known UFO incident of Boxing Day 1980) where a team of detectorists with the permission of the landowner are sweeping the fields where the seat of the Kings of East Anglia once lay. Brewster told me he’s heard Sutton Hoo has more – as yet undisturbed – mounds somewhere among the trees near the river.
© Matt Salusbury
A full-size seaworthy reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo ship is currently under construction in The Long Shed Woodbridge (the nearest town to Sutton Hoo) using ancient shipbuliding techniques. It's regularly open to the public, for opening hours see here.
The frontispiece of A True and Faithful Relation, which describes Dr John Dee's alleged communication with spirits.
Edith Pretty: From Socialite to Sutton Hoo, Mary Skelcher and Chris Durrant, Leiston Press 2006
The Dig, John Preston, Penguin, London 2008.( In September 2019, a Netflix crew were spotted in Suffolk filming the forthcoming TV series The Dig, based on this novelisation of the 1939 excavations and starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan.)
“Sutton Hoo - An Archaeography”, Martin Carver, in Great Excavations, Shaping the Archaeological Profession, John Schofield (ed.), Oxbow, Oxford, 2011
A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits
And also the Letters of Sundry Great Men Kept in the library of Sir Tho. Cotton, Preface by Meric. Casaubon D.D, D. Maxwell, London 1659
The Queen’s Conjurer – the science and magic of Dr John Dee, adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, Benjamin Woolley, Henry Holt, New York, 2002
“Edward Kelley’s Danish treasure hoax and Elizabethan antiquarianism”, Francis Young, Intellectual History Review, February 2019
“Dr John Dee”, Three Famous Occultists, G. M. Hort, Rider & Co London 1922
National Trust Sutton Hoo, admission £13.50 adults, for seasonal opening times see here
Nearest train station Melton (trains from Ipswich and Lowestoft) Greater Anglia. Sutton Hoo is a short (uphill) cycle ride from Melton, or by M&R Cars of Woodbridge.
Bus 65 from Ipswich and Woodbridge (not Sundays) has a Sutton Hoo stop, First in Norfolk and Suffolk buses.