Active Learning on

What did they find at Sutton Hoo?

The aims of this activity are to explore one of the most exciting of all archaeological discoveries – the Sutton Hoo burial ship - and to introduce or consolidate the process of historical enquiry.

The activity takes place is in 3 stages:

1. Digging up the mystery

2. The core enquiry on the Sutton Hoo excavations

3. Debriefing understanding the process of enquiry

What follows is a suggestion for how you undertake this enquiry. However no activity works in the same way for every class and Sutton Hoo will be studied by children of different ages in different schools. Therefore it’s vital that you assess and adapt this activity and its resources to the needs of each of your classes.

For basic information on Sutton Hoo see [ here ] and a further teaching activity see [ here ]


A formatted version of this enquiry should print from your browser (omitting this support section) or you can download this the activity description [ here ]

Download the activity resources:

• Clue Cards A-H – showing the site, finds and other information[ here ]

• PowerPoint – the clues on the Clue Cards. Note that the information from some Clue cards is shown on more than one slide) [ here ]

• Word Cards – vocabulary possibilities and Certainty/Uncertainty cards [ here ]

• Question Dice [ here ]

Download the debriefing PowerPoint 'Do you remember when we did an enquiry?' [ here ]

Where does this activity fit in?

This should not be seen as a one-off activity but embedded in a broader exploration of Anglo-Saxon England. It would work well as the first activity on the Anglo-Saxons even though it does not come at the beginning of the period. Used as an introduction it enables you to ask children ‘What have you learned about the Anglo-Saxons from the Sutton Hoo excavation?’ and then your pupils’ answers and questions can become the basis for further investigation of the period – in effect their answers become a hypothesis about the whole Anglo-Saxon period.

This diagram shows how this enquiry into the Sutton Hoo site can be used as the introduction to a series of increasingly larger-scale enquiries – like Russian dolls.

Setting Up Before You Begin

Make sure there is space at the front to organize some students along a Certainty-Uncertainty continuum or ‘washing line’. Put a big notice saying CERTAINTY at one side of the room and another saying UNCERTAINTY at the other.

Stage 1 - you need the first three PowerPoint screens, each of which reveals more of the excavation at Sutton Hoo. Have these pictures ready to be revealed but hidden for the moment.

Stage 2 - you need Clue Cards A-H. Note that the clues are not revealed in one go but in groups as explained below. The clues are also on the PowerPoint for use if wished. 

Stage 3 (Debriefing about the historical process) - you need tabards labelled:

• First evidence

• Ask questions

• First hypothesis

• More evidence

• Revised hypothesis

Stage 1 – Digging up the mystery

Your first task is to conjure up the scene of the discovery, drawing your students in so they think they are there! It only takes a minute or two but it’s great for creating that ‘Wow’ factor – and for helping students forget the strains and excitements of the previous lesson, break or lunchtime. You will be referring to trowels and brushes – but you don’t need real ones as they’re all in the imagination! Do NOT have the first PowerPoint picture visible.

First get at least some of your students to come out to the front and kneel on the floor [if you’ve got space, get everyone doing it]. Next, everyone, not just those kneeling, must close their eyes.

Now create the scene using a script something like this - but again adapt, improve, make more exciting! Your task is to make them believe this is really happening!

“You’re taking part in an archaeological dig, looking for evidence buried long ago. It’s early morning. The sun is starting to warm your back but it rained yesterday. You can probably feel the ground damp under your knees. It’s time to start work.

Pick up the trowel by your right knee. Start to scrape away the soil where you were digging yesterday. Careful! Just scrape gently. That’s right, scrape carefully – Oh! What’s that?[sound tremulous and excited!]  There’s an odd shape – maybe a line - in the soil – and that looks like a piece of metal. What can it be?

Put your trowel down. You don’t want the sharp edge to damage what’s there. Pick up your brush and very gently brush the soil away, that’s it, very gently. It’s becoming clearer. Wow! There’s more lines in the soil – and more pieces of iron – or is it some other kind of metal? It’s looking really interesting …. incredible – this is quite a find!

Now when I count to 3, open your eyes and look up and see what you’ve discovered ..”

And that’s when you reveal the first picture on your screen – it’s a close-up of part of the ship in the soil.

[Screens 2 and 3 provide more extensive views of the excavation – 2 shows a cross-section of the ship and 3 shows the whole length of the ship – so introduce them at intervals rather than all at once, using them to re-stimulate questions and ideas if the class begins to struggle. When exactly you reveal each picture will clearly vary from class to class.]

While they’re still looking at the first picture ask – ‘what questions do you want to ask about what you’ve found?’ [feed in screens 2 and 3 as discussion develops]
This is an important task because asking questions is a much under-estimated historical skill. Depending on your class you might

  • build up a list of questions from class suggestions
  • prompt students by providing a list of interrogative words – ‘Who?’ ‘Why?’ ‘How?’ etc for them to use in questions
  • use the ‘question dice’ to prompt questions, asking students to come up with a question or questions using the word that turns up when the die is rolled.

After looking at these 3 pictures of the excavation you will probably have a list of questions such as:

  • What is it? Is it a ship?
  • When was it buried?
  • Who buried it?
  • What did they find in it?
  • Was anyone buried in it?
  • What are the iron things?
  • Did they find treasure?

And lots more impossible to predict!

Stage 2 – The Core Enquiry

Now you have a list of questions you can explore the answers with Clues A-H. The focus of the questions will change as you move through the clues, from ‘What did they find?’ to ‘Who was buried here?’ when you get to clues G and H.

The following steps take you through the enquiry as you feed in the sources in manageable groups.

1. Hand out Clue Cards A, B and C to each group. Give students a few minutes to examine and discuss these clues and decide whether they can now suggest any answers to their questions. With some classes you may wish to give a clear time-limit and count it down to inject a sense of purpose and urgency.

Then ask two groups at least if they can answer the questions ‘What was buried at Sutton Hoo?’ and ‘Was a person buried there?’ Stress to students that you’re not looking for certainty but for ideas. As students provide answers focus on their use of language – pick out and praise use of hypothetical language – ‘possibly’, ‘might be’ etc.

2. After a couple of replies from groups, start to use the ‘Certainty-Uncertainty’ washing-line (also known as a continuum line) – an invisible line on the floor across your room. Firstly get one pupil from each group to stand on the washing line for the first question ‘what was buried at Sutton Hoo?’, - their positions on the line show whether their group is completely certain about the answer, completely uncertain or somewhere in the middle. If you wish you can ask a couple more groups at this stage to explain why they’re standing at that particular point. Also introduce the word ‘hypothesis’ and explain what it means – each group should have a hypothesis, however uncertain, after looking at Clues A-C.

Repeat this process for the second question ‘Was anyone buried there? – it’s probable that children will be less certain about this answer.

Why use the washing line? Its purpose is to show that uncertainty is OK in History, that uncertainty is an inevitable stage in any new piece of work or enquiry and that, especially early on, it’s OK to be near or at the uncertainty end. ‘It’s OK to be uncertain’ may well be a quite different message from students’ expectations of what happens in History and from what’s expected in other subjects so it’s critical to make this explicit. You can also scatter word cards [‘may be’ ‘probably’ ‘opinion’ etc] along the washing line or pin them to the wall to reinforce the kind of language students should be using.

3. Now hand out Clue Cards D and E and ask the pupils to reassess their initial ideas about our two core questions. You may wish to read the cards aloud – another chance to get across the drama of this investigation as well as enabling everyone to take in the details. [This text is quite detailed – but reading it aloud will make it more accessible, a better alternative to simplifying it?]

Now explore whether the evidence in D and E supports their initial answers or do they need to revise those answers?

Again give the groups time to look carefully at the clues, making sure they’re aware of how much time they have. Then ask one or two groups about their revised hypothesis and whether their level of certainty has changed, asking one person from each group again to take up their group’s position on the washing-line for each question in turn. Discuss their ideas, focus again on vocabulary and which clues have led them to shift their positions (Pupils will probably be more certain - though not completely so - and they can see this by their movement along the washing line).

4. Finally hand out clues F, G and H on the screen which help to date the burial and identify the most likely king buried there – Raedwald.

Repeat the process from stage 3, focussing this time on ‘was anyone buried there?’ because the other question will have been answered. Explore who children think was buried there - are they all now standing at the Certainty end of the line or do some still have doubts about who exactly it was?

Extending the activity

The clue cards provided here do not include all the finds from Sutton Hoo by any means. You may wish to add other clues such as the silver bowls on which there are crosses which may be Christian symbols. For further details see the British Museum and Sutton Hoo websites.


Stage 3: Debriefing – Understanding the Enquiry Process

The natural follow-up is to explore what children have learned from the Sutton Hoo excavations about the Anglo-Saxons – their craftsmanship and artistry, their interest in war, the design of their ships etc. All this is vital so that the Sutton Hoo activity is not left isolated from its historical context. However, before leaping on further into the excitements of the Anglo-Saxon period, you can use this activity to consolidate children’s understanding of the Enquiry process so they can use it again with increasing independence later in their History courses. Take time to identify the stages of the enquiry process and relate them back to the activity they’ve just completed.

1. Stand 5 pupils in a cluster at the front of the class, each wearing a tabard labelled with one stage of the Enquiry process – make sure they’re in a random arrangement, not the correct sequence! The 5 labels are shown below in (3).

2. Now ask the class to say which of the tabards describes the first task in their enquiry (it was ‘first evidence’). Get this pupil to stand at the start of the Process-Line. Consolidate this by referring back to the Sutton Hoo activity – what did we do at the very beginning?

3. Then get the class to identify the next part of the process and then the next, till all 5 pupils are standing in the correct order on the Process Line as follows:

  • First evidence
  • Ask questions
  • First hypothesis
  • More evidence
  • Revised hypothesis

Further Points

Two other points that are worth making in the debriefing:

a) It’s OK to be uncertain in History! Students often expect everything in History to be certain but this activity has demonstrated that uncertainty is normal, part of the process of investigating a new topic. It also helps to have the vocabulary to explain the extent of your certainty/uncertainty.

b) History is repetitive! This enquiry is a process you’ll use again – a lot! Emphasise that History isn’t just a lot of different things but a lot of enquiries – and knowing how to tackle an enquiry will give students more confidence and help them learn more easily and effectively (and so it helps if they re-use the enquiry process fairly soon!)

You could also use the associated PowerPoint ‘Do you remember when … we did an Enquiry?’ [ here ]  as part of the Debriefing but it would work much better if you create your own version showing your students undertaking the activity. This PowerPoint will be most useful when you next carry out an enquiry to remind students quickly of the process.


Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

This Page



Where does this fit?

Stage 1

Stage 2

Stage 3