Sutton Hoo © Marc Atkins/marcatkins.com

The photographer Marc Atkins and I are working on a project called Fields of England. We go into fields we have known for a long time, and others we just know about, but have never seen: battlefields, minefields, deserted village fields, fields undersea, gathering places, burial grounds, places of execution, places where treaties have been signed – but this is a list of field-genres. If we have learned one thing, it is the limitation of genre. There are as many genres as there are fields. And almost as many Englands.

The best way to approach Sutton Hoo is from the river. The larger mounds on the ridge above the east bank of the Deben were designed to be seen from ships nosing up the channel after their journey from Sweden. Suffolk and Sweden were the only places in Europe where ship-burial was practised around the year 600 AD. At Sutton Hoo, the ship-biers were dragged from ten feet above sea level to an elevation of one hundred feet in less than half a mile. The gut-wrenching effort is a measure of East Anglian stubbornness at a time when pagan burial customs were being replaced by Christian funerary rites in other parts of the country. Two of the mounds at Sutton Hoo contained ships. The larger of them was more than ninety feet long and contained the richest grave goods ever found in Britain.

The historical records for the period are scant and retrospective, and there is nothing conclusive in what was dug up to identify the occupant of Mound 1 – the body showed up in the dig as a patch of different-coloured earth – though it is reasonable to suppose he was a Wuffing (the name given to all the East Anglian kings). The most popular nominee has always been Rædwald, king from 599 to 625. His name was put forward by Hector Chadwick, who visited the first excavation in 1939, and the idea has stuck, possibly because more is known about Rædwald than the other candidates, and what is known makes a good story.

The historical evidence is incomplete, the art historical evidence allows for an earlier date, the carbon dating allows for both earlier and later, and the most promising dating equipment, a bag of Frankish coins, was assigned initially to c.650; the subsequent back-dating, carried out in 1960, was jiggled, rather remarkably, to 625 precisely. But it does not much matter whether they pushed the boat out – or in – for Rædwald, or for some other Frankish coin collector, since the culture would have been the same.

Bede says that Rædwald converted to Christianity on a visit to Kent, the first of the English kingdoms to import the new faith, but got such a frosty reception on his return home that he built a new temple with altars to both Jesus and the Devil. Whether he was Rædwald or not, there was very little in the occupant of Mound 1’s post-mortem kit to indicate that he had staked much on the chances of a Christian afterlife: only a pair of spoons, inscribed ‘Saulos’ and ‘Paulos’, which may suggest an amiable willingness to do the conversion job properly, if it came to it, rather than a solid conviction that the first attempt had actually worked.

The spoons do not figure much among all the other stuff: the helmet, the bundles of spears and angons, the lyre in its beaver-skin bag, the ceremonial whetstone, the pair of shoes (size 7), and the largest hoard of late Roman silver from the Eastern Mediterranean ever found in Northern Europe. And then the coins, which Philip Grierson thought were to pay the ferryman, or rather a spectral crew to man the ship. The coins were all foreign because they could not have been anything else; there was no mint anywhere in England at the time – the last moment before the country asserted its island identity with its own currency. The man in Mound 1 was no islander; his business interests and family connections were across the North Sea, out in the shipping lanes.

The Visitor Centre allows for this, though its final annexe is devoted to the Kingdom of East Anglia 500-869 AD. This caters to local patriotism, but also to a grander ambition that regards East Anglia as the seed-bed for a national character that gradually encroached on the rest of England. The earliest runic inscription in Old English yet discovered was found at Caistor-by-Norwich. It dates from the fifth century, or even the fourth, raising the possibility of an intriguing overlap with the Roman presence. The evidence is inscribed on a foot-bone from the skeleton of a roe deer, and consists, helpfully enough, of the word for roe deer, raihun, a detail that put a spring in the steps of a pair of Tolkien-enthusiasts ahead of me in the tour of the display cabinets.

But it’s worth remembering that the version of English spoken by Rædwald also evolved into Swedish, not to mention Danish, Norwegian, German and Dutch. There is a case for saying that Sutton Hoo does not mark the beginnings of Englishness, but its end: no money, no Christianity, no island mentality. Whoever was buried in Mound 1 did not die in the ship, but he did live in one, conceptually – his people were joined by the sea, not bounded by it.

Present-day access to the site is by car to the Visitor Centre, then on foot through a small, crooked avenue of thorn trees, onto a tableland where there are acres of polythene-covered crops and a small roped-off area, which is where the mounds are. Only one of them now commands rather than solicits attention. Rebuilt in 1993, steep-sided and picturesque with gorse, it looks down on the others which have all slumped sideways after centuries of ploughing. Anti-glider trenches from the Second World War run across the heritage features. On a stormy spring day, larks swing across the bright windy spaces above, and there is the savour of salt in the air. The cloud anvils are pale to the west, and dark to the east. Not-Rædwald, progenitor of Not-England, no longer even darkens the soil.