Above the River Deben, the mounds of Sutton Hoo’s Anglo-Saxon burial ground are a potent reminder of the power and influence of the early medieval elites who controlled this part of East Anglia. These grassy graves have yielded astonishing archaeological finds, illuminating a period of history too often dismissed as the ‘Dark Ages’; the story of how they were discovered, and the 7th-century world that they reflect, unfolds elsewhere on the National Trust site, both within Tranmer House (the former home of landowner Edith Pretty, who sparked the celebrated initial excavations in the 1930s; see CA 374) and within the large, modern Exhibition Hall (CA 355).
What traces, though, have been found of the high-status communities that these people would have known, and the places where they lived? A new exhibition curated by Suffolk County Council’s Archaeological Service and currently running at Sutton Hoo (see ‘Further information’ at the end) tells the story of long-running research at Rendlesham, a royal settlement located just four miles from the site. There, ‘Rendlesham Revealed’, a National Lottery Heritage Fund-supported community archaeology project, has revealed stunning echoes of what was, at its peak, the largest and wealthiest settlement of its time known in England. More than 400 volunteers from the local community contributed to the fieldwork, including from Suffolk Family Carers, Suffolk Mind, and local primary schools, connecting with their local heritage, learning new skills, and improving their wellbeing and metal health. The excavation phase of this initiative is due to conclude this autumn, and many of its finds are included in the displays, some of them on public view for the first time.
The exhibition’s narrative begins in the 5th century, when a scatter of farmsteads formed an initial settlement covering around 18ha. Objects from this period reflect the everyday activities of the living and the presence of the dead – a handmade pot, a brooch, fragments of funerary urns – as well as the interconnectedness of their world at this time. There is a strong link to the world across the North Sea, with artefacts from what are now Germany, the Netherlands, and southern Scandinavia, as well as locally made copies of imported items. A mid- to late 5th-century brooch, depicting a horse and rider and pointing to connections with France or the Netherlands, is a particularly appealing example of this theme – and Continental brooches are also used to ask interesting questions about how they came to Rendlesham. Had they been transported simply as traded/sold goods, or could their female wearers have made the journey as well, perhaps hinting at marriage agreements made across the Channel?
From relatively humble beginnings, Rendlesham’s power dramatically increased from the early 6th century. This aspect of the site’s story is exemplified by the beautifully made metalwork that has been excavated there: buckles and brooches with garnet settings, belt mounts decorated with stylised animals, and gold bracteate pendants. Some of the earliest post-Roman currency in England has been found at Rendlesham, with gold coins beginning to circulate there between c.525 and 575, and elite trade networks seem to have shifted their interests from the North Sea towards more southern lands: Kent, France, and the Mediterranean world.
Even then, the site was not at its zenith. This came c.570-720, when Rendlesham had apparently achieved the status of a regional royal centre within the kingdom of East Anglia. Around 570 an enclosed royal complex, covering around 6ha, was established adjacent to the existing settlement on a promontory overlooking the river Deben. Including the royal compound, the settlement complex now covered an area of around 50ha, and the exhibition explores the role it could have played during this period, placing it in the context of a mobile royal court who could have used it as a location for administering justice, receiving tribute, meeting diplomatic envoys, and throwing feasts for and distributing gifts to followers. Evidence of this latter aspect of the site’s life comes in the form of the plentiful animal bones that have been excavated at Rendlesham: vast quantities of cattle and pig remains, smaller amounts of sheep bone, red and roe deer, and various birds. Horse bones have been found, too – some were probably used for riding, but others show butchery marks suggesting that they had also been on the early medieval menu.
Details like these vividly evoke what life would have been like within this thriving settlement – and the site’s status is emphasised by a photograph from 2022’s excavation, which uncovered the outline of a large, elaborate hall measuring 23m by 10m (CA 393). Displayed nearby are further reminders of Rendlesham’s wealth, which also place the site more firmly in the world of Sutton Hoo: a highly decorative fitting for a horse’s harness that shows striking similarities to one found in the burial ground’s Mound 17, and a gold-and-garnet pyramid mount from a sword scabbard which closely resembles the famous examples from the Mound 1 ship burial. Meanwhile, high-status metal vessels from the eastern Mediterranean region, copper coins from Byzantium, fragments of a bronze Coptic vessel, and jewellery from France and Germany demonstrate the far-reaching trade links that this site still enjoyed, with some of them perhaps also representing diplomatic gifts.
The seasonally occupied royal compound could not, of course, have functioned without the support of a permanent, more ‘everyday’ settlement, and alongside the glittering gold we see objects including an iron knife and tweezers, painting a clear picture of Rendlesham’s ordinary inhabitants. These individuals may have been humbler in status than the site’s royal residents, but some of them were clearly extremely skilled metalworkers – something eloquently expressed by the presence of the moulds and snippets of scrap material that they would have handled every day, as well as discarded unfinished objects and the by-products of their craft.
The good times were not to last, however, and the exhibition concludes with the settlement’s dramatic decline in the second half of the 8th century. As international trade become more concentrated around coastal ports, the growing influence of Christianity changed how royal households expressed their power, and Ipswich rose as a dominating power in the region, Rendlesham’s star was permanently dimmed. In this intriguing exhibition, though – an illuminating complement to Sutton Hoo’s permanent displays, highlighting a vital aspect of the site’s story – its importance to our understanding of the early medieval world is undeniable.
Rendlesham Revealed: the heart of a kingdom AD 400-800 runs at Sutton Hoo until 29 October. For more details, see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/suffolk/sutton-hoo/events.
Although the main financial support for the Rendlesham Revealed project (and the exhibition) is via the National Lottery Heritage Fund, a grant from the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History also specifically contributed towards the exhibition.