Here’s an interview I did with BBC Radio Suffolk about Basil Brown’s excavation notebooks for their ‘What’s in the Box?’ series. Basil Brown was a Suffolk archaeologist who worked for Ipswich Museum and was responsible for the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial. If you want to find out more you can also check out my blog post about Sutton Hoo here
Most of Europe was busy preparing itself for war in 1939, building weapons, training soldiers, while some desperately brokered for peace. Edith Pretty meanwhile, decided this would be a good time to dig up her back garden. Pretty had become interested in spiritualism since the recent death of her husband and many of her spiritualist friends began to speak of shadowy figures walking around the mounds in the grounds of her estate. Naturally, this piqued Pretty’s interest and soon she had convinced the Ipswich Museum amateur archaeologist Basil Brown to start work on the site.
‘Excuse me’ I said, winding down the window of my ever trustworthy Ford KA.
‘Is it okay if I park anywhere around here?’ The farmer looked at me nonplussed in silence for a couple of seconds.
‘You know, to get out and look around’ I added. I was on my way to Sutton Hoo, but appeared to have ended up in a cabbage farm.
‘You carn’t stop around ‘ere’ said the farmer indefatigably, shooting me a look that seemed to say ‘No, this is a forecourt with dangerous threshing machinery and oversized tractors moving huge payloads of cabbages, you stupid townie, you’re in the way’.
‘Oh’ I said ‘Do you happen to know…’
‘If you want Sutton Hoo you need to git down that path along that way and go back ‘bout quarter mile, then take a left’ Said the farmer cutting in and beginning to look irritated. ‘This is a workin’ farm, you can’t stop ‘ere’.
‘Thank you very much’ I said, ‘I’ll get out of your way then’ The farmer said nothing, but continued to stare at me.
‘Okay, thanks again’ I said with a nervous smile. I turned the car around, narrowly avoiding a cabbage, and followed the track back the way I had come, safe in the knowledge that my famous sense of direction was as intact as ever.
I paid my admission (£7.15) and received my national trust sticker. As I was just about to leave the admissions office the lady who served me called out.
‘Most people start with the visitors centre, it’s just across the way. That will explain things a bit better for you before you head on over to the mounds’.
Carole obviously wasn’t an ipswichhistory blog subscriber; I knew what I was doing. I set off for the mounds straight away.
In the spring and summer of 1939 Basil Brown had begun work on site at Mound 1, with the help of Pretty’s gardener. He was soon followed by a more professional team of archaeologists including Charles Phillips, who took over and extended the excavations, which included the unearthing of the remains of a 90 foot ship burial. The team continued to work until World War Two got into full swing, where upon, the valuable findings from the burial site were put into secure storage in the London Underground. The archaeologists departed also, probably in search of somewhere a little less vulnerable to Nazi bombing, to write up their findings to be published in 1940.
What had been found was staggering to the archaeologists, it completely changed perceptions of what ‘Dark Age’ Britons were capable of creating. As life began to return to normal in post-war Europe, historians returned to Sutton Hoo, first in 1965 and then repeatedly from the 1980s to the present day, uncovering more burial sites (including 17 confirmed mounds) and piecing together a better picture of what was going on in this confusing mass of mounds.
Many of the finds at Sutton Hoo show just how interconnected Europe was during the time of early Angles. Mound 1, for example, held weaponry artefacts with strong stylistic links to Viking Scandinavia, but also included coins minted in France and two silver spoons, that were Christian in origin, likely from as far away as Byzantium (modern day Istanbul). One of the things you come away from Sutton Hoo with is a sense that 7th century Angles were far more connected with parts of costal Europe than they were with the landlocked parts of their own island.
The mounds were a good five minute walk from reception and when I arrived I found myself completely alone. There was no real wow moment to speak of, just a lot of large mounds of earth with clumps of gorse cover and a nearby pig farm that leaked faint piggish smells over the burial grounds. After this initial sense of disappointment however, the place began to grow on me. It felt quite isolated bearing in mind it was a place surrounded by farms and Pretty’s heritage site of a home. I began to think about just what was found under this place I was walking over, and after a while, I did begin to feel like I was somewhere quite special.
I made my way around the site and eventually stopped at the viewing platform. After another five minutes of staring at mounds of soil, my interest had peaked and I realised that this place really was unique, as there was nowhere else I could think of that would charge £7.15 to look at mini soil hills. And so, I decided to go in search of greater value from my admission fee and take a walk along a different footpath back to the visitors centre.
20 minutes down the track and I was lost. It slowly dawned on me that I must have absentmindedly missed a right turning somewhere along the way. I pressed on for a while hoping that another path would emerge sooner or later, but later came and went and still there was nothing but closely set trees to my right hand side. I closed my visitors map and began to squeeze my way through the trees and bracken. Somehow 5 minutes later I re-emerged on the other side of the trees exactly where I wanted to be, by the visitors centre.
I walked forward towards the door and noticed a lady checking people’s national trust stickers on the way in. I looked down to find that mine had vanished, probably torn off by a branch a few minutes previously.
Carole from reception had been right – you should always start with the visitors centre when you visit Sutton Hoo. Unless, of course, you feel competent enough to look after a sticker for an hour or so.
We don’t know for sure who the incredible treasures in mound 1 belonged to, but the evidence available does seem to point to Raedwald the 7th century king of East Anglia. First, the age of the coins found within his burial appear to fit the correct time. Secondly, the Venerable Bede’s writing in the 8th century describes Raedwald as a king that converted to Christianity, but retained his heathen beliefs, which is echoed in the findings of both Viking ritual and Silver baptismal spoons in the ship burial chamber. If it wasn’t Raedwald, it was certainly someone with his level of incredible wealth and respect.
Luckily, I found another National Trust sticker lying by a nearby hedge, quickly picked it up and held it to my coat while no one was looking. Then, sticker in place, I walked into the visitors centre like 007 sneaking past the inept guards at a villain’s lair.
Actually, the people at the visitors centre were really nice, and began talking interestingly to me about Sutton Hoo. There was an introductory short film about the people that lived in the area around the 7th Century and interesting exhibits and displays of replica finds (the originals were donated to the British Museum by Edith Pretty). I rounded things off by walking into the newly installed reconstruction of Raedwald’s burial chamber complete with reconstructions of the artefacts found within.
Walking out of the visitors centre and back to the KA, I began thinking it was a shame that the original relics weren’t on display here instead of in London, then maybe more people would want to visit such an interesting place. These things are all relative though I suppose. I expect the 7th century Angles who spent huge energies dragging a longboat over a mile from the river Deben to the burial site, and presumably even longer burying it under a mound of earth, would be a little more put out that the treasures weren’t where they left them.