The Sutton Hoo Collection at the British Museum

How these Suffolk treasures and my museum company taught me how to appreciate the history of human civilisation, and museums in general.

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I am rubbish at museums.

I don’t know why I always end up going to them. During my first month or so in London, I even had a museum-and-cake buddy – we made a pact to visit a new museum every weekend and have a cake afterwards. I secretly only looked forward to the cake, but I didn’t know my friend too well back then to admit that most museums bored me to no end.

(I suspected he realised that pretty soon, and our museum-and-cake meetups transformed into anything-but-museum meetups after a few weeks. Which suited me very well and we became much better friends after that.)

I think it boils down to the fact that I don’t understand much of art and history. Later on, I realised that having the right company – one who appreciated the artefacts way more than I did and were willing to explain the history patiently to me, would make all the difference to these museum visits.

I have been to the British Museum several times, but I remember enjoying my last visit the most. During the first few visits, I mostly just admired the structure of the building and the immensity of the place.

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If you look really closely, you can see the cakes at the bottom right hand corner.

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For my latest visit, I had a special visitor from Norfolk who had always wanted to see the Sutton Hoo collection at the museum. If you have never heard of the Sutton Hoo before, neither had I, until my friend talked about it excitedly whenever he talked about visiting London.

For those of you not in the know, Sutton Hoo is the site of two 6th and early 7th-century cemeteries near Suffolk, a place very close to where my friend is from. One of which contained a ship burial with a lot of significant historical artefacts that made archaeologists squeal with delight the way I do when someone bring me to eat cakes.

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I’ve never seen such pure happiness at the sight of extremely old jewelleries.
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I only reserve such looks for cakes.

But jokes aside, the collection was fascinating once I understood the importance of the artefacts. They were basically hailed by some as “the most significant archaeological site ever discovered in the country”. Most of the treasures were made of gold with such extraordinary craftsmanship that would leave even non-artistically inclined people like me in awe.

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Just look at the many golden serpents weaving through this belt buckle.
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The famous shoulder clasps. At this point, he started calling me a stalker for having the tendency of taking pictures of him taking pictures.

There is something about seeing my company so excited about Sutton Hoo that piqued my interest in the objects themselves. And it was refreshing to be able to admit that you had no clue about what you were looking at and having your museum companion willingly explain why the sights in front of you were incredible. I remember him zooming in to the picture that he took of the shoulder clasps and pointing out to me how the intricate details of the glass are hard to replicate even at this age. I would not even have noticed this had he not known my ignorance and instead of judging me for it, decided to share his fascination for the treasures.

Looking through my pictures, I felt like kicking myself for not snapping more photos of the artefacts. I even missed out on one of the most important elements in the exhibition – the Sutton Hoo helmet. Now that I have moved out of London, I can no longer just pop by the British Museum (for free!) to visit the place and marvel at the collection with my renewed understanding of the history of Anglo Saxon civilisation.

So to make up for my mistake, I decided to do a bit more research and list down some of the fascinating facts from this collection. After all, with millions of other things on display at the Museum (such as the scary mummies), sometimes it can get a little daunting to decide where to venture and spend your time.

  1. The treasure would never have ended up at the British Museum had it not been for the generosity of Edith Pretty, the woman who owned the land on which the treasures were found.
  2. She decided to donate the whole lot of gold and treasures to the British Museum. Mrs Pretty became the largest donor in the history of the museum.
  3. Until the Sutton Hoo ship was found, the largest buried ship found was 70 feet long and found in Norway.
  4. Before the discovery of Sutton Hoo, mankind was thought to have slipped back into the state of “hopeless primitivism” during the Dark Ages. So these treasures, it seems to me, symbolised the hopes that we humans are capable to keep advancing, contrary to the thinking that some people have shown in recent years.
  5. Basil Brown, the local archaeologist who first helped to dig the mound where the treasures were buried, did not get to open the treasure chamber itself. He was sadly replaced by a bunch of snobbish-sounding university-educated archaeologists while Brown himself was relegated to carrying away earth in a wheelbarrow. He did not get to set foot on the ship ever again.

The Sutton Hoo collection can be found at Room 41 at the British Museum.

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