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Sutton Hoo at 80: Did Basil Brown not get the credit he deserved?

PUBLISHED: 19:45 29 July 2019 | UPDATED: 00:32 01 August 2019

Basil Brown  Picture: ARCHANT ARCHIVE

Basil Brown Picture: ARCHANT ARCHIVE

Self-taught Basil found remains of Anglo-Saxon ship but had to give way to archaeology 'experts'

A photograph of the Sutton Hoo excavations in 1939, showing Basil Brown (at the back,) Charles Phillips (left) and Barbara Wagstaff  Picture: Trustees of the British MuseumA photograph of the Sutton Hoo excavations in 1939, showing Basil Brown (at the back,) Charles Phillips (left) and Barbara Wagstaff Picture: Trustees of the British Museum

When Edith Pretty wanted to probe the mysteries of the 18 or so earth mounds on her land, it took a little while to find the man who would become forever linked with the Sutton Hoo treasures.

The landowner first mentioned her hopes to a local historian at the 1937 Woodbridge Flower Show. He contacted Ipswich Museum curator Guy Maynard, and Mr Maynard it was who recommended self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown.

The farmer and wheelwright's son - born at Bucklesham, near Ipswich, in 1888 - began work at Sutton Hoo in the early summer of 1938. He was released from his work for Ipswich Museum, lodged with Edith's chauffeur, and was paid 30 shillings a week by the landowner.

Basil was helped in the daytime by estate workers Tom Sawyer and Ben Fuller, and during the evening by Leslie Buckle, son of the under-gardener.

READ MORE: When the Suffolk treasure discovery amazed the world

Three mounds were excavated that year. They had been entered in the past and, it seemed, looted of anything deemed valuable. In one, he found Saxon pottery and an iron axe.

A lovely contemporary photograph of Sutton Hoo, showing its beauty and mystery  Picture: ALISON CONNORS/citizenside.comA lovely contemporary photograph of Sutton Hoo, showing its beauty and mystery Picture: ALISON CONNORS/citizenside.com

In another were rivets from a ship and shards of pottery from the Bronze Age. There was also a bead, bits of glass and a shield boss with gold plating.

Basil was back in the spring of 1939, helped by gardener John Jacobs and gamekeeper William Spooner.

The focus was on the largest mound. Within a few weeks they came across ancient iron rivets - bigger this time. Patient work uncovered an impression of an Anglo-Saxon ship, in the acidic soil, that would turn out to be 27 metres long.

And then it got a bit tricky.

READ MORE: How can you spot a rich Anglo-Saxon?

Sidelined

Tranmer House - once the home of Edith Pretty  Picture: Andrew Mutimer/citizenside.comTranmer House - once the home of Edith Pretty Picture: Andrew Mutimer/citizenside.com

Basil Brown kept Ipswich Museum curator Guy Maynard in the loop. Both realised it was a find of, potentially, great significance. Guy Maynard thought the British Museum's Department of British Antiquities ought to be told; Edith Pretty apparently didn't relish the thought of the project being delayed.

Then Charles Phillips, fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge, got wind that something was bubbling. He visited Sutton Hoo early in the June and suggested both the British Museum and the Ancient Monuments Department of the Ministry of Works should be involved.

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A few days later, a big meeting of experts (including the British and Ipswich museums, and Cambridge University) put Charles Phillips in the driving seat. He would take over towards the middle of July, put together his own team, and be employed by the Office of Works.

Before then, Basil uncovered the burial chamber and the stern of the ship, though he wasn't allowed to excavate the chamber. That honour fell largely to archaeologist Peggy Piggott, one of Charles Phillips's crew. She was the first to find gold.

Basil was effectively sidelined. And Guy Maynard and Charles Phillips didn't see eye to eye, either, which found Ipswich Museum on the outside looking in.

With the treasures taken to the capital (locked away initially at Aldwych Underground station) and people's thoughts occupied by the fragile peace that August, Sutton Hoo faded into the background. Basil and an estate labourer carefully covered the ship's resting place with bracken and hessian - well over 1,000 years after it was hauled up the slope from the River Deben.

Another of Alison Connors's photographs taken during a walk at Sutton Hoo  Picture: ALISON CONNORS/citizenside.comAnother of Alison Connors's photographs taken during a walk at Sutton Hoo Picture: ALISON CONNORS/citizenside.com

READ MORE: Will there ever be another Sutton Hoo dig?

No 'amateur'

It's sometimes said that Basil Brown was eased into the background because he wasn't a professional archaeologist. But folk shouldn't leap to conclusions because he was decidedly "rural", rode a bike everywhere and dressed in "country fashion".

Early in the 1900s he went to evening classes to study drawing, and in his late teens took correspondence courses in astronomy (a great passion), geology and geography. He also taught himself Latin.

In the late 1920s he began writing Astronomical Atlases, Maps and Charts: An Historical and General Guide. It was published in 1932 and reprinted towards the end of the 1960s.

Always curious, Basil looked for Roman remains in the Suffolk countryside. He worked out where Roman settlements were, and found medieval buildings.

His interest in Roman potteries led to a Roman kiln at Wattisfield (between Bury St Edmunds and Diss) being excavated and given a new home at Ipswich Museum in the mid-1930s. It's how Basil came to the attention of curator Guy Maynard. He also got to know the secretary of Suffolk Institute of Archaeology.

Basil sought work from them. His first project was a 13-week contract in 1935, at sites close to the Suffolk/Norfolk border. He was paid £2 a week.

At Stanton Chare, north-east of Bury St Edmunds, he found a Roman villa. The excavations that followed stretched into the late 1930s.

Basil got more archaeological work, though it wasn't anywhere nearly as well paid as that initial contract. Other work (being an insurance agent, for instance, and a special constable) contributed to the household income of Basil and his wife.

He did some archaeological work during the war, but much of his time was devoted to civil defence duties.

After the conflict, Basil was again employed by Ipswich Museum. In 1952 he made excavations in his home village of Rickinghall. They uncovered a Norman font at one local church and a chapel at another.

Basil's time with the museum ended in 1961, when he retired, but he wasn't yet done with archaeology. He carried out excavations in the Rickinghall area until the late 1960s.

He died in the village in the spring of 1977, after developing pneumonia. Basil was 89. He might not have received enough credit for the Sutton Hoo discoveries, but a small cul-de-sac in Rickinghall bears his name: Basil Brown Close.

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