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Heart attacks at Sutton Hoo

On a moist and breezy morning in 2012, Rachel and I rattled along the motorway in her Toyota. We were leaving the Cambridge fens for the river heathlands of East Anglia and Sutton Hoo. The 625 CE ship burial was excavated in 1939, its chamber packed with treasures: Byzantine silverware, gold jewelry, a feasting set, and an ornate iron helmet. The helmet was highly corroded and broken into hundreds of tiny fragments. A replica of the helmet was fashioned in the 1970s by England’s Royal Armouries and is now housed in the British Museum. My favorite detail of the helmet is that the eyebrows are lined with garnets.

Reading about the ancient Norse burial site Sutton Hoo had first caught my attention in high school. The oldness of it. The death of a foreign king of it. The odd, wonderful name. The haunting and glorious iron helmet found there.

The site was modest, very natural looking, with sweeping grasslands and gentle, rolling mounds. The acidic soils are sandy, and the actual buried ship’s oak beams had been eaten away. Archaeologists say the boat had likely caught rainwater and formed a big acidic bath. Soil samples from the area where the body would have lain were tested and found to contain chemicals that probably came from a dissolved body. The pit where the ship and its 623 artifacts had lain for 1,300 years was photographed, studied and then finally covered over again.

The Exhibition Center was modern and chic.  We ordered our tea and raisin scones at the counter and sat in plastic chairs in the cheery sitting area. Hanging our coats and mufflers on our chairs, we recounted our visit with the dead king.

Inside the recreated burial chamber of King Raedwald was a mannikin laid out in robes on blankets. I held my breath. Rachel told me she’d been terrified. This didn’t look like a mannikin. Maybe it was the incense or the candles, maybe it was the haunting music playing softly from somewhere, but it looked like a real person lying there. A real person who was about to rise up and speak. And wasn’t it a perfect prank situation? Some local actors from Ipswich spooking foolhardy tourists who were being so reverent and agog.  Rachel and I would both have had heart attacks if the thing had hoisted himself on an elbow and spoken. And, we both admitted, we were perfectly sure it was going to do just that. We stood all alone in the chamber, back in time with the king.

He never did rise up. But I will never forget those moments, walking up to the king’s corpse, thinking my heart was going to explode. The only item missing in the tableau was a fainting couch. For Rachel of course.

The Sutton Hoo excavation story is described in The Dig, a 2016 novel by John Preston and a 2021 movie with Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty and Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown.

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