What do eating a custard cream filling, archaeology and a Saxon warlord have in common? Valerie Hall goes in search of the answer
Sitting on the main burial mound at Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge, Suffolk, overlooking the Deben river estuary eight miles inland from the North Sea, with a salty breeze whipping the long grasses into undulating waves, one cannot imagine a more fitting resting place for a powerful Saxon warlord and his ship.
As the group of Years 2 and 3 pupils from St Pancras Catholic primary school, Ipswich, absorb the atmosphere of this ancient burial ground, learning officer Nancy Waterfall describes how in 1939 the remains of a huge ship were discovered deep within the mound, together with the warrior king's precious weapons and treasures. "Mrs Pretty, the land owner, thought she'd seen ghosts haunting this area of her estate," she says, "and just before the Second World War broke out employed local archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate here."
He discovered rows of rusty rivets and, although long since rotted away in the acidic soil, an impression of the ship's oak planks. "Luckily," she continues, "plundering grave robbers had dug in the wrong place and missed the treasures. There were no bones, but the grave's occupant is thought to have been Raedwald."
The group moves to the only other mound - there are 18 in all - undisturbed by robbers. Here in 1992, the grave of a young warrior, his horse beside him, was discovered. His belongings included spears, a shield, sword, a harness and bridle with gilded attachments carved with writhing animals and even a kit bag containing lamb chops.
Earlier, the group had walked from the education centre to the river valley and up the hill towards the mounds, gaining an understanding of the enormous effort involved in transporting the vessel overland. "There were no wheels," says Nancy, "so how would they have got a heavy 27m long ship up here?" "With ropes?" guess the children. "Yes," she says, "they would have put wood down and many people would have pushed and pulled it metre by metre."
After lunch, the children explore the new exhibition hall. Beautifully designed display panels reveal how Anglo-Saxon nobles lived, went to war and founded the Kingdom of East Anglia. The centrepiece is a full-size reconstruction of the ship's burial chamber containing replica treasures - Mrs Pretty donated the originals to the British Museum - created using the exceptional skills of the Anglo-Saxon craftsmen.
The treasures are similar to those evocatively described in the 7th-century poem, Beowulf's Lay of the Last Survivor, pronounced over a barrow laden with valuables. They include the famous Sutton Hoo helmet crested with a serpent, a winged dragon face mask, a sword with jewelled hilt, an iron axe, a shield, a lyre, drinking vessels, spoons, cauldrons, large gold ornaments inlaid with red garnets, and 37 gold coins from the 7th century.
The treasury houses some of the genuine artefacts loaned by the British Museum, the current exhibition being Celts and Saxons: the mystery of the hanging bowls.
Meanwhile, Nancy is running a sand tray archaeology activity for some Years 3 and 4 pupils from St Edmunds primary school, Bungay. "Archaeologists don't dig," she says, showing them how to mark out their grid squares with a trowel, "they scrape two centimetres at a time, much like eating a custard cream filling."
Their teacher, Kate Mills, says: "This visit supports work they have done.
The exhibition excited them as they knew what to look for and enjoyed finding out where the Anglo-Saxons travelled from. They are putting together their own book for the school resource centre."
Nancy Waterfall, tel: 01394 389727; www.nationaltrust.org.uk