Studying Anglo-Saxon at a London university, it often feels like there’s more than just a thousand-odd years separating us from the works of prose, riddles, and poetry in that strange yet familiar language. Buildings of steel, concrete and glass, are not necessarily conducive to thinking imaginatively about the lives of Anglo Saxon Kings, lording it over retainers from their halls, peasants working the surrounding fields, or brave warriors on long journeys over land and sea.
Often us city dwellers might only come into contact with remnants of the past by peering into the glass tombs cabinets of the British Museum. But the most famous of Old English verse – The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Ruin, and yes, Beowulf – make so much of their landscapes, it made sense to us intrepid Medieval Studies/English MA students to actually seek some of that scenery out.
So, that’s exactly what we did. Back in November, following a day’s journey on foot, tube, bus, train and taxi (okay, not a day’s journey, but it felt like a quest), we arrived at Sutton Hoo. ‘Burial place of Anglo-Saxon warrior lords’, according to the shiny sign at the visitor centre entrance.
The museum at Sutton Hoo is full of interesting objects (many of which you can actually see at the British Museum) and quaint sketches of what life around the area might have been like for Anglo Saxons. Volunteers dressed in medieval garb wander the site, but sadly the ‘object handling’ session was not as exciting as we’d hoped – the chain mail top available to try on only fits tiny people. So really, the most impressive part of the whole site (apart from the hot chocolate/ cake offer), is of course the burial mounds themselves.
Walking around and around the suitably windswept site, we thought about how the space has changed over time: would it have been a place of celebration, with authority and history being built into the landscape, or was it somewhere associated with solemn sadness? And how did these mounds change into a subversive place even from the Anglo Saxon period to the later Middle Ages? What does it mean that a site used to bury an apparently wealthy and powerful King in the seventh century, can be used as an execution ground for society’s outcasts by the ninth century?
We discussed how it might be interesting to look at texts which talk about burial grounds, and how Anglo Saxon poetry deals with death, compared to later medieval writing. Circling the site, and looking from the burial mounds to the estuary below, we were encouraged to think about what changing landscapes meant in Anglo Saxon times. What sort of society would create and use such a landscape? What sort of cultural products would be produced in one? But we certainly felt a certain impossibility of knowing: the landscape which we look at now surely inspires different reactions in us – surely – to what an Anglo Saxon might have felt.
We also considered the legends connected to Sutton Hoo. The visitor centre is happy to propagate that the buried man was Rædwald, King of the East Angles. But the site is also popularly imagined as being akin to, or actually being, Beowulf’s final resting place (the Sutton Hoo society zine from 1994 includes one such essay which explores this). Sutton Hoo reminds us that the medieval is constantly reappropriated and reimagined, it’s an example of how history and myth can come to merge in the imagination, showing how the passing of time can have a remarkable effects on landscapes, and our relationship with them.
But whether or not one of the mounds once covered Beowulf’s body, we explored how the poem might still help us think about the site. Just like Beowulf the poem, the burial mounds can be seen as a piece of art, or a result of an individual’s or a community’s expression of their culture and values, and how they understood the relationship between humans and the world around us. As we try and understand the barrows, just as we try and read or translate Old English poetry, we take small steps to understanding how the culture of the early medieval period worked.