It’s like stepping back in time. The Sutton Hoo Visitors Centre has unearthed a host of new, historically important treasures.

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Amateur photographs of the Sutton Hoo dig taken in the summer of 1939 by two visiting school teachers, Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack.; Copyright The British Museum

Like the original ship burial, this remarkable find has laid unseen and forgotten for a long time. Tucked away in a dusty storeroom were a couple of fairly nondescript cardboard boxes.

Inside these unprepossessing packages were a photographic treasure trove which sheds new light on the discovery and the excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial.

Inside the boxes were more than 400 photographs taken during the summer of 1939 by two visiting school teachers Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack.

It is believed that they had contacts with The British Museum which is why they were given access to the site but very little is known about them.

Amateur photographs of the Sutton Hoo dig taken in the summer of 1939 by two visiting school teachers, Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack.; Copyright: The British Museum

They took more than 400, highly detailed photographs of the dig – far more than the 29 official shots taken by the British Museum photographer.

The pictures have laid forgotten until now; as a selection of them are forming the centrepiece of a new exhibition at Sutton Hoo.

The pictures were unearthed by Sutton Hoo’s learning officer Claire Worland while she was going through some boxes in a store cupboard.

“The whole story surrounding these photographs is something of a mystery. We know very little about the two women themselves – nothing except what we have been able to glean from the notes and captions in the eight photograph albums and we don’t know who donated them to us or exactly when they brought them to the site.

Amateur photographs of the Sutton Hoo ship excavations taken during the summer of 1939 by two school teachers, Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie lack.

Copyright: The British Museum.

“We believe that someone following the publicity surrounding the opening paid us a visit, left the boxes with reception and just disappeared.

“This was before my time and we assume that whoever received the boxes didn’t know what was in them and they were just put away in a store cupboard and forgotten.

“When I came across them, I realised very quickly that here was an invaluable photographic record of Basil Brown’s dig during the summer of 1939 and as far as we are aware, these pictures have not been seen by anyone since they were taken.”

The pictures show the dig in amazing detail and it is clear from the photographs that the two school teachers were given unlimited access and were taking shots from inside the ship itself.

Amateur photographs of the Sutton Hoo dig taken in the summer of 1939 by two visiting school teachers, Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack.; Copyright: The British Museum

But, for Claire, the real joy is the fact that a substantial number of the pictures were taken in colour – an expensive and almost unheard of luxury in the dark days before World War II.

“The colour pictures, in-particular, give us a real sense of a window into the past. For the first time we can see the coloured stains in the sand left by the rust from the rivets, we can see the impressions and the discolourations made in the sand by the wood and just as importantly it offers us a view of the excavation process.

“The clothes Basil Brown, Charles Phillips and the volunteers wore and the tools they were working with.

“We have one shot where you can see them working with a turkey baster and a pair of kitchen bellows. There’s even an old kitchen kettle in one shot. So it’s clear that they raided Mrs Pretty’s house for a lot of the tools they used to uncover this amazing find.”

Amateur photographs of the Sutton Hoo dig taken in the summer of 1939 by two visiting school teachers, Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack.

Copyright: The British Museum

Claire said that they would love for the people who donated the photographs to get in touch, so they could get some more background to the pictures and piece together some of the missing pieces of the jigsaw.

“We would love to know who these two teachers were. How did they gain access? There is a note in their album which suggests that Mercie had visited Lindisfarne in 1936 at the suggestion of Dr Kendrick from The British Museum.

“Was their visit to Sutton Hoo also officially sanctioned? We don’t know. There is also a suggestion that they were just on holiday in the area and just got to hear about the dig from one of the archeologists, we think it might have been Stuart Piggott, and they came along to have a look.

“We would love to know more about the circumstances in which the pictures were taken.”

Amateur photographs of the Sutton Hoo dig taken in the summer of 1939 by two visiting school teachers, Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack.

Copyright: The British Museum

She said that freedom they were given to document the excavation was remarkable. “There must have been a great deal trust given by Charles Phillips who was running the dig by this point. We have pictures of them actually inside the ship.”

Sadly, it would appear that Mercie and Barbara arrived on site shortly after an iconic helmet, exquisite gold jewellery and other treasured possessions had been removed but what they were able to document in exquisite detail is the construction of the ship itself.

Because the photographs have been well looked after and been kept in cool, dry, conditions and are original prints taken directly from the original negatives, the picture quality is excellent.

“They were also using very good quality Leica cameras and German 35mm Agfa colour slide film which was very rare in England at the time.”

Amateur photographs of the Sutton Hoo dig taken in the summer of 1939 by two visiting school teachers, Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack.; Copyright: The British Museum

Claire believes that because Barbara and Mercie were not archeologists their photographs actually have greater value because they cover the social history side of the excavation as well as scientific aspects which are usually the areas which get recorded.

“Relatively few photographs exist that focus in detail on the excavation of the ship. Mercie and Barbara were not archaeological photographers and therefore their photographs are more comprehensive – they include the people involved not just the ship, including archaeologist Basil Brown who made the discovery and visitors to the site such as Princess Marie Louise – to the methods used and the fashions of the time.

“All this gives a more detailed picture of exactly what happened here during that amazing summer.”

Angus Wainwright, the National Trust’s Regional Archaeologist said: “These photographs are important not only for the light they shed on the excavations, but as a historic collection in its own right. “The fact that there were only a few British women photographers around at that time makes the collection even more special.

“It is particularly exciting that these original albums have survived in relatively good condition and the detailed annotations give us a glimpse of what it was like for someone lucky enough to have witnessed this great event.

“We hope that this exhibition will help us unearth more about the ladies behind the camera, as well as trace the individual who kindly donated this amazing collection to Sutton Hoo.”

Claire Worland said that she hoped that the exhibition would open a window onto the past and perhaps encourage people with any information about these amateur photographers Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack to come forward and help them solve an on-going mystery.

‘Captured on Camera: The Summer of 1939’ runs at Sutton Hoo, Woodbridge, Suffolk, from today until Sunday March 20 2011. For opening times and further details visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk or telephone 01394 389700.

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