Project to digitise 4,000 unseen photos of 1939 Sutton Hoo dig completed

Mercie Lack showing members of the excavation team a selection of contact prints, with the excavation in the background

Mercie Lack showing members of the excavation team a selection of contact prints, with the excavation in the background - Credit: Barbara Wagstaff/ Trustees of British Museum/ National Trust

A collection of photos taken of the Sutton Hoo ship excavation have been digitised and put online for the first time.  

The pictures were taken by school mistresses and friends Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff in 1939. 

The pair were amateur photographers with an interest in archaeology. In the summer of 1939, they visited the historic landmark and went on to create an extraordinary photographic record of the event. 

They were not featured in the recent Netflix film, The Dig, which charted the story of the excavation instead the movie featured a fictional male character, Rory Lomax as the site's photographer instead.

A group of naval cadets visit the site and view the excavation

A group of naval cadets visit the site and view the excavation - Credit: Barbara Wagstaff/ Trustees of the British Museum/ National Trust

A total of 11 albums containing black and white images as well as one colour album were gifted to the National Trust by Miss Lack’s great-nephew, Andrew Lack.  

Also included were loose black and white prints and contact prints taken by Miss Wagstaff of the excavation.  


You may also want to watch:


Anita Bools, senior national conservator, paper and photography for the National Trust, said it was appropriate and "rather moving" the  photographs were conserved on side in the same location where Miss Wagstaff and Miss Lack made their meticulous recordings.

It has taken the last three years for the images to be catalogued with work continuing during lockdown. 

Most Read

As part of the conservation process, each page of the albums, individual prints and annotations was photographed, resulting in more than 4,000 images capturing every detail. 

Barbara Wagstaff (right) and Mercie Lack (left) either side of the ship

Barbara Wagstaff (right) and Mercie Lack (left) either side of the ship - Credit: Trustees of the British Museum

The senior conservator said: “Staff and volunteers from Sutton Hoo, photographic materials conservators and professional digitisation specialists collaborated to help conserve and digitise the collection.

"It was very appropriate – and rather moving – this took place entirely on site, in the same location where Lack and Wagstaff took the photographs, meticulously recording the excavation of the Anglo-Saxon ship burial.

“The conservation and digitisation of the photographs – particularly Mercie Lack’s albums – had to be undertaken with great care. Although her annotations appear fresh and the images are unfaded, the paper pages are very thin and could easily be torn.  

“It is perhaps an indication of how important the photographs were to her: they were clearly looked after and handled carefully.

"I feel that these two brilliant women would be pleased to know that through this conservation and digitisation project, people today can explore scenes recorded over 80 years ago, and sense something of the thrill Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff experienced as the ship burial was revealed.” 

A visit from Princess Marie Louise on 22 August 1939

A visit from Princess Marie Louise on 22 August 1939. Left to right: Charles Phillips, unknown, unknown, Edith Pretty, Princess Marie Louise and Lieutenant Commander Hutchison. - Credit: Mercie Keer Lack/ Trustees of the British Museum/ National Trust

The new digital albums are on display in Tranmer House, Woodbridge, alongside rotating projections of photographs taken by Basil Brown and others during the time the treasures were being unearthed. 

Laura Howarth, archaeology and engagement manager at Sutton Hoo, said: “The official photographs were given to the British Museum, but our collection seems to be the personal set which these two photographers kept as their individual mementoes.  

“Mercie Lack’s photographic albums are meticulously annotated with not only who and what we are looking at in the photographs, but often the technical details of how the photographs were taken, such as the type of film and aperture. A real labour of love, this information provides an invaluable additional layer of detail to each photograph. 

Digitising a page from one of Mercie Lack’s photograph albums

Digitising a page from one of Mercie Lack’s photograph albums - Credit: National Trust/Josh Ward

“Amongst the collection gifted to the National Trust were drafts of the beginnings of an unpublished book that Mercie Lack was writing on her Sutton Hoo experience. With her photographs and writing, we are able to see through her eyes and hear in her own words the events of this thrilling summer of discovery.” 

The original photographs are in a fragile condition and need to be kept in a closely controlled environment to prevent deterioration.

An annotated page from Mercie Lack’s colour album

An annotated page from Mercie Lack’s colour album showing a photograph of Basil Brown (top left), Lieutenant Commander Hutchison (bottom left) and Barbara Wagstaff (bottom right) at work - Credit: Mercie Keer Lack/ Trustrees of the British Museum/ National Trust

Charles Phillips starting to uncover the scarf bolts at the stern of the ship

Charles Phillips starting to uncover the scarf bolts at the stern of the ship between frames 21 and 22 on 22 August 1939 - Credit: Mercie Keer Lack/ Trustees of the British Museum/ National Trust

By digitising the collection, the images have been preserved and can be easily accessed and enjoyed by many more people without fear of damaging the originals. 

Andrew Lack said: “I am delighted to be able to share my great-aunt’s collection, she would have been thrilled. Sutton Hoo remained one of her great passions.” 

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter