A major new visitor experience journey to the Scheduled Monument of Sutton Hoo, one of Europe’s most significant archaeological sites, has been completed by Nissen Richards Studio. The five-year project involved working closely with the archaeological and visitor engagement teams from the National Trust. The redesign involved creating a carefully choreographed journey through the landscape; including new thresholds, interpretive moments and major exhibition displays, as well as designing a radical new intervention in the form of a 17 m-high viewing tower, allowing views over the burial site for the very first time.
The Anglo-Saxon royal burial ground at Sutton Hoo site dates from around 590-650 AD and represents a particular moment in English history. The site is comprised of 17 burial mounds and the surrounding landscape, with the principal ‘Great Ship Burial’ mound dating from around 625 AD. Located on a ‘hoo’ (meaning ‘hill’), with a valley to either side, it occupies a heightened spot on the River Deben in Suffolk. As for who was buried there, the National Trust comments, “We will never know for certain who was buried in the Great Ship Burial, but the leading theory is that it was King Rædwald of East Anglia”.
The viewing tower, which could be seen to signify a contemplative end to the experience, consists of a semi-permeable, charred timber clad structure, wrapped around a galvanized steel frame. Gaining planning permission from the local authority and Historic England was seen as something of a triumph. Nissen Richards Studio Director, Jim Richards explains, “Our approach to the tower was shaped by the complexities and opportunities of working in such an historically important environment.
At the heart of our design process was a need to minimise the disturbance to the fragile archaeological layers beneath the surface. This ultimately led to the use of a highly efficient steel structure with a minimal footprint. The charred larch skin is left unsealed to soften over time, merging with the surrounding woodland”.
In contrast to its outer unassuming appearance, internally, folded galvanized steel panels form the perimeter and landing soffits to the tower’s staircase. These are used to encase the steel support framework to match the dyed concrete used elsewhere within the project and create a weathered industrial aesthetic.
“We worked with the steelwork contractor on finishes that could be achieved through the normal galvanizing process. This included experimentation with various levels of acid washing and created the darker tones of the steelwork, which at times resembles concrete,” Richards points out.
The stairs act as a light, porous galvanized structure combining galvanized grating panels that are extended onto the landing areas. Two viewing areas are formed using cantilevered steel sections projecting from the tower to provide visitors room to pause and take in the views.
1 | Internally folded galvanized steel panels form the perimeter and landing soffits to the tower’s staircase.
2| The design of the tower was the result of experimenting with a number of typologies, with the final form a slender galvanized steel structure, clad in charred larch timber.