12 July 2023
Gold, iron, brass and glass – “gold, isern, bræs and glæs”*
Packing Ipswich Museum’s Anglo-Saxon objects from Sutton Hoo.
By Tim Rousham.
Not counting a year at Colchester Castle as part of the Museum Traineeship program, I have worked for the museum service for six years, all of those as a member of the Visitor Services Team in Ipswich. When offered the chance to be part of the team decanting the Museum, I knew that although I would miss working with the public, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. Sure enough, I miss the visitor interaction, but I get to be closer to the collections than I ever thought possible as we carefully remove, conserve, pack and relocate the entirety of the museum displays.
Due to my personal interest in the period, my favourite items to pack have so far been the Anglo-Saxon objects. I was especially happy when I had the opportunity to pack the 1938 finds that Basil Brown discovered at Sutton Hoo. This was a year prior to the excavation of the famous ship burial in Mound 1 and, at the time of acquisition, no one could have guessed at the enormous national significance of the site that would be revealed with the 1939 discoveries.
Although nowhere near as impressive as the treasure found in Mound 1 – or, indeed, some items in our own collection such as the Boss Hall Brooch – the items are beautiful in their own, more modest way. However, their main allure perhaps lies more in a cerebral consideration of their history, both during their functional lifetime and as part of the excavations at Sutton Hoo.
The Mound 1 ship often overshadows the fact that Mound 2 also contained a ship (one of only a handful of confirmed ship burials in England, the others – interestingly – were also located in Suffolk near the village of Snape). The 1938 excavations uncovered rivets from the “other ship”, which are also in our collection along with the small finds such as a beautiful gold disc brooch, gold fragments from a drinking horn and rare fragments of glass, that I was lucky enough to be trusted with packing. Sadly, all the mounds excavated in 1938 had previously been looted by robbers, leaving little evidence to shape our understanding of who these people may have been and leaving us to forever wonder what else they may have chosen to take with them to the afterlife, particularly the denizen of the Mound 2 ship burial.
It is a sad fact that our knowledge of these burials will forever remain incomplete (though further discoveries were made when Sutton Hoo was re-excavated in the 1980s) and our collection reveals only a fraction of what they likely contained. However, when discovered by Brown in 1938 these objects were enough to justify more excavating the following year, which – given what that yielded – makes these objects phenomenally important to the history of archaeology in this country and it is a privilege to care for them.
*Old English as spoken by the Anglo-Saxons.