Where is England’s ‘valley of the kings’? You’d be forgiven for not knowing. The Anglo-Saxon monarchs buried there are, like much of the rest of that period, little more than a footnote in the crash course in history you get at school.
When the Romans headed home in the fourth century, it’s often thought that not much happened in Britain for a few hundred years. If those who took the road back to Rome were cultured and civilised, the people they left behind were, well, anything but. But a new film by Netflix on the Anglo-Saxon treasure unearthed at Sutton Hoo puts paid to the idea that the Romans’ successors were just a bunch of brutes.
As war broke out across Europe in 1939, archaeologists back home in Britain began to dig. Their quarry was a series of mounds in the Suffolk countryside. These hills had baffled people for centuries: what were these strange tumuli that rose above the flat-as-a-pancake East Anglia countryside? It was clear that the piles of earth were manmade, but while grave robbers during the middle ages had stolen much of the treasure, some of the sites had been left virtually untouched.
It wasn’t long before those digging in Suffolk realised the importance of their find. While mankind was demonstrating its capacity for evil, the Sutton Hoo archaeologists were discovering early evidence of our genius. Those shining their torches into the buried tombs were seeing objects that had been left untouched since the dark ages. The Sutton Hoo helmet, made of crested bronze and iron and thought to belong to Rædwald of East Anglia, was the richest treasure they found.
Dozens of other precious and ancient items were also discovered, not least the outline of a ghost ship, a huge 30-metre boat which, it had been hoped by those who buried it, would carry an Anglo-Saxon king to the underworld.
The Dig, which stars Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes, tells the tale of Edith Pretty, whose fascination with what was underneath the land she owned resulted in the archeological find of the century. But while the film focuses on the fields of Sutton Hoo, this discovery was not a one off. This pocket of Suffolk has been called England’s 'Valley of the Kings'. It isn’t hard to see why. Nearby Rendlesham is believed to have been the seat of an Anglo-Saxon king. Five years ago, archaeologists found the remains of a 23m by 9m structure there that could have once been a royal hall or palace.
In nearby Snape, another ancient ship, similar to the one at Sutton Hoo, was unearthed in the 19th century. Unfortunately, by the time the grave was excavated, robbers had already visited: there was little left aside from a few objects of value which are now in the British Museum. Today at Snape it is hard to tell that this was a place where ancient kings lived and died.
Another inconspicuous area where there is little indication of the wealth and power of those interred there is a plot of land between a pub and an Aldi in Southend, 70 miles away from Sutton Hoo. Back in 2003, workers in Essex building a new road unearthed dozens of ancient treasures dating back to the 6th century. ‘I think it's our equivalent of Tutankhamun's tomb,’ Sophie Jackson, director of research and engagement for the Museum of London Archaeology said. The neat way the burial chamber was laid out suggests that the only human remains found, which consisted of traces of tooth enamel, could well have belonged to an Anglo-Saxon prince living in Britain 500 years or so after the death of Christ. King Saebert's brother Seaxa is thought to be the likely owner.
Back in Suffolk, fifty miles north or so of Sutton Hoo, is Spong Hill, the largest Anglo-Saxon burial site ever discovered. Several thousand people who lived and died in the fifth and sixth centuries were buried there. Many of the graves unearthed 1500 years after they entered the ground contained grave goods and treasures pointing to a level of sophistication for which the Anglo Saxons don’t often get credit. Some of these goods came from far and wide across Britain, suggesting those who were found here were far from parochial cave dwellers.
The Dig may focus on the well-trodden story of Sutton Hoo, but what is clear is that it was no accident these treasures were found in Suffolk. Faye Minter, the expert in charge of the recent dig in Rendlesham, tantalisingly told reporters that the discovery suggested that it was ‘likely’ there are ‘other royal burial sites’ like Sutton Hoo dotted along the River Deben that runs through this part of the county. It seems like a reasonable guess. So the next time you’re driving through what is now a quiet pocket of the English countryside, spare a thought for the unearthed treasures that lie beneath you.
The Dig is available to watch on Netflix from the 29th January