Press Centre

Secrets From The Sky

  • Episode: 

    5 of 6

  • Title: 

    Sutton Hoo
  • Transmission (TX): 

    Fri 14 Nov 2014
  • TX Confirmed: 

  • Time: 

    8.00pm - 8.30pm
  • Week: 

    Week 46 2014 : Sat 08 Nov - Fri 14 Nov
  • Channel: 

The information contained herein is embargoed from press use, commercial and non-commercial reproduction and sharing into the public domain until Tuesday 4 November.
“Looking down from above gives a completely different perspective on these hauntingly beautiful sites. And it’s these breath-taking pictures which will reveal Britain’s Secrets From the Sky.” Bettany Hughes
Britain’s most historic landmarks and glorious landscapes are explored from a bird’s eye view in Secrets From The Sky. 
Using an octocopter, a remote controlled helicopter carrying a camera, historian Bettany Hughes and aerial archaeologist Ben Robinson look down on sites of great historical interest to gain a fresh perspective and uncover the secrets of our ancestors. 
Britain’s landscape is dotted with historical monuments including Tintagel Castle, Stonehenge, Maiden Castle, Sutton Hoo, The Antonine Wall and Old Sarum.  This series investigates these monuments, showing Britain’s stunning landscapes through fantastic aerial views and revealing a new insight into our nation’s story. By looking down on these sites from above, the clues on the ground can be linked together to uncover the full story locked in the landscape. 
In episode five, we explore Sutton Hoo, the burial ground of several powerful Ango-Saxon kings of East Anglia.
The quiet unassuming field in Suffolk is on headland overlooking the River Deben in East Anglia and it is the home of a spectacular royal cemetery, the significance of which remained undiscovered for over 1300 years. 
The eerie, enigmatic grass-covered mounds on a quiet hilltop are the remains of Britain’s very own Valley of the Kings. It’s a landscape dominated by the last resting places of a dynasty of Anglo-Saxon warriors. 
With the help of the octocopter, Ben is able to see detail and shape in the landscape that aren’t visible from the ground to enable him to look for evidence of why the site lay forgotten for so long. 
Ben says: “There’s a cluster of stone-filled shapes about the size of graves and there’s suspicious long straight lines, cutting through the site, but all around are these mounds, which show up really nicely…These are burial mounds. The idea is that you put a body in the centre in a pit or some sort of vessel and then mound the soil up on top. These are not every day burial monuments, not by any stretch of the imagination. These were reserved for really important people.”
These are Anglo-Saxon burial grounds, but we only know that because of the remarkable vision of one extraordinary woman.
Edith Pretty was a wealthy widow who, in the 1930s, owned the land and her home, Sutton Hoo house, overlooked the grassy mounds. Intrigued by the site, Edith engaged the services of a local archaeologist called Basil Brown, who began excavating some of the mounds.
Bettany says: “What Basil Brown found, right here under this mound was truly bizarre. The remains of a splendid, 1400 year old ship. And the discoveries didn’t stop there. In the middle of the ship there was a collapsed burial chamber of a great, warrior King, surrounded by gold and silver, by exquisite jewellery and fearsome weaponry. Nothing quite like this had ever been discovered before in Britain.”
The wooden structure of the 90 foot-long ship had completely disintegrated, as had the body of the King.  But the iron rivets that held the vessel together survived, leaving a ghostly impression of the boat imprinted in the sand. Incredibly this treasure trove had remained untouched for over 1300 years.
Edith’s curiosity therefore enabled us to discover the last resting place of an Anglo-Saxon king. Furthermore, despite a public hearing in 1939 ruling that the treasure was the property of Edith as the landowner, she graciously decided to give it to the nation. Today, most of the Sutton Hoo treasure is held at the British Museum in London, where its crowning glory is a stunning ceremonial helmet.
Brutish Museum curator Sue Brunning says: “It’s one of only four complete surviving Anglo-Saxon helmets so it’s incredibly rare.”
Bettany and Sue consider who the helmet may have belonged to and examine some of the other incredible objects, including lavish Mediterranean silverware, beautifully carved drinking horns, gold & garnet dress accessories and even the remnants of a stringed musical instrument called a lyre. 
There is another element to the story that Ben is keen to examine. How the 90ft boat got up there, given that the solid oak boat would have weighed at least 10 tonnes? 
Also, the ship was buried in just one of 17 mounds on the hilltop. How did this highly visible royal cemetery keep its secrets hidden for over 1300 years? 
Ben uses the octocopter to reveal some more clues and he discovers evidence that just a few hundred years after it was a revered burial ground, its use crucially changed. 
Astonishingly, Sutton Hoo became a place where common criminals were taken to be executed, by hanging.