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Sutton Hoo: The story behind the treasure

PUBLISHED: 10:05 25 May 2009 | UPDATED: 14:46 12 March 2010

THE Sutton Hoo ship burial was uncovered 70 years ago this month. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to National Trust archaeologist Angus Wainwright about the story surrounding one of Britain's greatest historic treasures.

THE Sutton Hoo ship burial was uncovered 70 years ago this month. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to National Trust archaeologist Angus Wainwright about the story surrounding one of Britain's greatest historic treasures.

WAR clouds were gathering over Europe. It was 1939, Neville Chamberlain was scuttling back and forth to Munich and Berlin, declaring there would be peace in our time but in Suffolk, the earth was about to give up one of its age old secrets … an Anglo-Saxon burial ship - complete with all its treasures.

It was a discovery first announced in the EADT on July 29 1939 after months of secrecy. The unearthing of the undisturbed ship burial sent shock waves around the archaeological world. When the scale of the finds became apparent, there were immediate comparisons with the discovery of Tutankhamen.

The impending war added an extra sense of urgency to the excavations. There was also immediate speculation as to who was buried beneath those distinctive mounds overlooking the Deben.

The excavations were initiated by local landowner Mrs Edith Pretty, who lived in Tranmer House, which over-looked the burial site.

Mrs Pretty had spiritualist leanings, and it is said that she became convinced there was treasure in the ancient burial mound because of a vivid dream in which she saw and heard the funeral procession. She also claimed that one evening while looking out of windows she saw the figure of an armed warrior standing on the mound in the twilight.

There is also tales that she employed a dowser who divined gold in the mound. Over a number of years Mrs Pretty became increasingly concerned with the history of her land and what lay beneath it.

On the advice of Guy Maynard, at Ipswich Museum, she took on Basil Brown from Rickinghall - “a local archaeologist of no formal education” - and he began to dig with the help of her gardener, John Jacobs, and gamekeeper, William Spooner.

It was an informal affair which would have outraged the officials from the British Museum had they known about it. Indeed when the find was announced they wasted no time sweeping into Suffolk and taking charge, even though Basil Brown had done a fine job up until that point.

The first tentative explorations were undertaken in 1937, which were followed by a more substantial dig in the summer of 1938, when Basil Brown took charge of the operation. Mrs Pretty suggested that he start digging at Mound One, one of the largest. The mound had obviously been disturbed, and in consultation with Ipswich Museum, Brown decided instead to open three smaller mounds during 1938.

One of these, Mound Two, contained the remains of a ship burial, but grave robbers had destroyed much of the boat in antiquity and looted its contents. The few tantalising fragments that remained suggested it had been a richly furnished male burial from the early seventh century. All the mounds opened in 1938 had been looted.

The complexity of the workmanship on the small ornaments they did recover suggested that these had been the graves of important pagan Anglo-Saxons. The finds proved archaeologically interesting but gave little hint of the riches to come. Mrs Pretty donated

the treasures from the season's dig to Ipswich Museum and with Basil Brown's help proposed a new, much larger, dig for the following year.

In May 1939, Brown began work. Driving a trench from the east end he soon discovered ship-rivets in position, and the colossal size of the find began to dawn on them. After weeks of patiently clearing out earth from within the ship's hull there, laid out before them, was the remains of a 27 metre long ship and the undisturbed remains of a burial chamber of what is now thought to be Raedwald, Anglo-Saxon king of East Anglia. It lay beneath the exact spot where Mrs Pretty had told him to dig a year previously.

Angus Wainwright, archaeologist with the National Trust, said what Basil Brown had uncovered was a perfectly preserved Anglo-Saxon longship - preserved in sand as the wood and metal fittings had long since decayed. Because the ship was undisturbed, they had laid out before them the perfect image of a Saxon longship ­ complete with burial chamber.

“The most amazing thing to realise that for the whole of the first part of the excavation there were just three men working by hand with spades and barrows. Because Basil is the only one who has any experience, he tells the men if they hit any discoloured/rusty sand to stop and he will then excavate down until he hits the remains of the timber.

“Over the weeks they gradually excavate from the bow end into the heart of the ship. He expects the ship to start getting narrower but instead it gets wider and wider and he has to expand the trench to accommodate it. It is at this stage that they start to realise what a major find they have uncovered.”

Realising the importance of the discovery, they contact an expert on the Isle of Man who informs Charles Phillips of Cambridge University, of the find and then arrives on site to take over the excavation. Before long a breathtaking array of treasures was uncovered, the most impressive being the numerous large gold ornaments of the finest workmanship. It was to become one of the richest graves ever excavated in Europe.

For many people much of the attraction of the Sutton Hoo find lies with the funerary treasures recovered from the 1939 dig. Although the wood and the iron had been reduced to discoloured sandy images in the earth, the exquisite objects made from bronze, gold and garnet remain unaffected by the passage of time.

They are testament to the skilled craftsmen who created these timeless treasures - working without the aid of micro-tools or modern magnifying lenses, they created some of the worlds most complex and beautiful pieces of jewellery.

The most famous item recovered, the Sutton Hoo helmet, has become one of the iconic images of British history. Other finds within the ship burial included a spectacular gold and garnet belt, gold buckles, sword handles and ornate golden shield bosses.

The fact that these items now reside in the British Museum is part of a long running feud between the people of Suffolk and the museum authorities - a dispute which dates back to June 1939 when Charles Phillips, an experienced archaeologist and lecturer at Selwyn College, Cambridge, took over the dig from Basil Brown.

Phillips quickly realised both the problems - and the potential - of the task facing the team, and strongly advised them to stop work while the British Museum was consulted. Eventually it was agreed that the dig should be taken over by the academics.

It was at this point that Basil Brown was effectively sidelined on his own dig. He recorded in his diary, with perhaps a hint of resentment, that all the top archaeological talent in the country had been called in to take over the excavation.

Angus says that although he was understandably frustrated at being shut out from his own discovery there may have also experienced a quiet sense of relief that the pressure had been taken off his shoulders.

“It was a huge undertaking. War was definitely looming by this point, the clock was ticking. They thought that German bombers could be flying over head at any time, so they had to get the work finished but at the same time it had to be recorded properly. Although Basil was a fine excavator Charles Phillips noted the good work he had done on the ship, his record keeping was very poor.

“What they did was set Basil Brown to work excavating the remainder of the vessel while the academic team turned their attention to the burial chamber and the recovery of the treasure - making sure everything was properly documented and recorded.”

Ipswich Museum was so angry at the way the “locals” had been treated that it leaked the story to the EADT, in defiance of the British Museum which had wanted the story kept secret.

With such riches at stake, there were obvious security worries, and the authorities had to act fast. On August 14, 1939, with war literally days away, a Treasure Trove inquest was held at Sutton Village Hall. This concluded that, since the objects which made up the priceless Sutton Hoo treasure had not been hidden with a view to later reclamation, they were not Treasure Trove.

As she was the landowner and finder - for she had instigated the dig and authorised it, even when it was taken out of her direct control - the goods were declared the property of Mrs Pretty.

The treasures were priceless, their market value impossible to assess, but if she had wanted to, the Suffolk landowner could have made a fortune. But she realised that their true value lay in their archaeological significance. On August 23 it was announced that she had given the whole of the Sutton Hoo treasure to the nation, deeming that the British Museum was the right and only suitable place for it to be housed.

There are 17 barrows, or burial mounds, at Sutton Hoo, and they have all now been subject to a systematic series of excavations over the past 70 years.

Although World War II anti-glider traps destroyed some of the valuable site, enough remained for a huge excavation to be carried out from 1965 to 1970, followed by a mammoth exploration of the whole site from 1983 to 1992. These further digs uncovered a Saxon warrior buried with his horse which included a golden bridle.

The 1980s dig also uncovered that other unique Suffolk find - Sand Men - the remains of Saxon execution victims preserved in the acidic soil. Other Sand Men were later uncovered at Snape at the site of another Saxon burial ground. These are the only Sand Men remains to be found in Britain.

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