Hidden Histories

Burrow Hill, Butley

Burrow Hill overlooks the mouth of the Butley River and was formally an island site, cut off from dry land by a stretch of tidal mudflats due to the marsh here sitting lower than the sea level [1]. This steep sloping hill was once connected to the mainland by a 450 metre long causeway known as the Thrift [2].

Burrow Hill was occupied during the Iron Age and Roman times, long before the Augustinian priory was founded on the hilltop in the late 12th Century [3]. It is likely to be one of seven early medieval minsters within King Aelfwald’s kingdom, described in a letter from him to Boniface 742-749 A.D.

The Thrift, an ancient causeway across marshland to Burrow Hill.

Its topography no doubt influenced these early Christian settlers with the ‘genius loci’, the spirit of place, referring to the idea that the landscape has distinctive characteristics that are “experiential, rather than quantifiable.” [4] Elements such as elevation above a river, discreteness of setting, the act of ascension needed to gain access to the site, and visibility of the sky all exemplified and contributed to the spiritual ambience of Burrow Hill.

Atop Burrow Hill.

The site has yielded many runic coins bearing King Beonna’s name who potentially reigned from 749-760 A.D. These were found within an extensive inhumation cemetery of over 200 burials dating from 780 A.D. What makes this cemetery at Burrow Hill special, over and above many other cemeteries from the same period, are the rare remains of ‘pseudo-boat burials’ [5]. This type of log boat in the form of a ‘coffin boat’ surrounding the deceased includes placing clinker boat timbers, or substitute planks of boats to either line the grave or symbolically laid on top of the deceased [6]. This practice mirrors the East Anglian boat-burial tradition found at Snape and Sutton Hoo that was part of a much wider pan-Germanic concept [7]. Boat inhumations were a theatrical performance, enshrining both heroic and mythological components through ritual practice by becoming an important canvas to explore ‘the power of place’, with the power of the funeral creating identities in relation to perceived history and cosmology [8]. The landscape not only provided a backdrop, but was ‘an integral component’ to the mortuary performance [9].

Burrow Hill, looking inland.
The Thrift, towards Burrow Hill.

The boat shaped coffins at Burrow Hill were U-shaped and curved along their longitudinal axis. There is evidence that some also had lids, as occasional iron hinges were found in situ. In Scandinavia and Denmark these were seen as ships of renewal, with the boat serving as a both a cradle and a coffin in the soul’s transition [10]. They were at the apex of a mortuary rite associated with transition, built around a belief in the liminality of death [11]. The notion of a ship as a method for crossing the boundary between worlds occurs often in funerary rites, with the boat or ship symbolising a vessel, associated with birth, death and renewal crossing into the otherworld [12] sailing the celestial river, or path of souls, the milky way [13].

When excavated in 1978-81 archaeologists cut through an Iron Age enclosure discovered in ditch C with the entrance found facing towards the South-East. The orientation of entrances towards the East and South-East in Late Iron Age shrines favoured this direction, pointing towards the equinoctial and midwinter sunrises [14].

Burrow Hill, overlooking Butley River towards Hollesley Bay.


1. Hegart, C., Newsome, S. (2005) The Archaeology of the Suffolk Coast and Inter-tidal Zone. A report for the National Mapping Programme. English Heritage & Suffolk County Council.

2. Fenwick, V. (1984) Insula de Burgh: Excavations at Burrow Hill, Butley, Suffolk, 1978-81. Anglo-Saxon studies in Archaeology and History 3.

3. Hoggett, R. (2007) Changing Beliefs the Archaeology of the East Anglian Conversion. PhD Thesis, School of History, University of East Anglia.

4. Prendergast, F. (2015) An Architectural Perspective on Structured Sacred Space-Recent Evidence from Iron Age Ireland. In Skyscapes in Archaeology: The Role and Importance of the Sky, edited by Silva, F & Campion. Oxbow Books. Oxford & Philadelphia.

5. Fenwick, V. Ibid.

6. Fenwick, V. Ibid.

7. Brookes, S. (2007) Boat-Rivets in Graves in Pre-Viking Kent: Reassessing Anglo-Saxon Boat-burial Traditions. Medieval Archaeology, 51.

8. Härke, H. (2001) ‘Cemeteries as places of power’ in Topographies of Power in the Early Middle Ages. de Jong, M and Heuws, F (eds.). Brill, Leiden.

9. Williams, H. Rundkvist, M. & Danielsson, A. (2010) The landscape of a Swedish boat-grave cemetery, Landscapes 11.

10. Medvedev-Mead, I. (2005) Soul Boats. The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal.

11. Williams, H. (2006) Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

12. Newton, S. (1993) The Origins of Beowulf and the pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia. Brewer. Cambridge.

13. Collins, A. (2006) The Cygnus Mystery. Watkins Publishing, London.

14. Hutton, R. (2013) Pagan Britain. Yale University Press.