Snape: The story of the dig before Sutton Hoo

The Aldeburgh Museum located in the Moot Hall, has a display of artefacts from the discovery of the

A replica of the finger ring found at the dig in Snape, the original is held by the British Museum - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

Driving to Aldeburgh Museum in a car with Edith Pretty’s chauffeur, the soon-to-be famous archaeologist Basil Brown is likely to have had one thing on his mind - Snape.  

Mr Brown was heading to the coast to check a find from a dig, almost 70 years before and how it compared to a rivet he had discovered just a few miles away at a site that was about to rock the world of archaeology.  

Whilst it’s Sutton Hoo that has captured public imagination in recent years, thanks to the popularity of films like The Dig, the excavation in the 1930s wasn’t the first to find a ship burial in Suffolk.  

The Aldeburgh Museum located in the Moot Hall, has a display of artefacts from the discovery of the

A map of the cemetery site as it was found at Snape - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

In 1862, a landowner named Septimus Davidson and his friends stood in a field half a mile east of St John the Baptist’s church in Snape.  

Mr Davidson, a city solicitor, was supposedly intrigued as to what lay in the three mounds on his land.  


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He was not the first to have such an interest, but carried out what is the first well documented dig at the site.  

"Londoners” had come up to Snape in around 1827 and had carried out their own dig at the site. 

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It's believed that they took quantities of rings, broaches and chains with them, never to be seen again. 

When Mr Davidson and his amateur party took on the mounds once again, they found rivets, cremation urns, a ring and beaker and eventually the remains of an Anglo-Saxon ship burial. 

Tony Bone with Curator Catherine Howard-Dobson. The Aldeburgh Museum located in the Moot Hall, has a

Tony Bone with curator Catherine Howard-Dobson at Aldeburgh Museum - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

"It was very important," said Tony Bone, chairman at the Aldeburgh Museum Trust. 

"It was the first boat burial to be found. 

"It highlights the big Anglo-Saxon presence there was in this community." 

Anglo Saxon ship burials are not a common occurrence in England; indeed, Snape and Sutton Hoo are the only ones of their kind. 

We don't know very much about those who were buried there; though the ring and beaker's presence showed that the person buried there was of high status.

The Aldeburgh Museum located in the Moot Hall, has a display of artefacts from the discovery of the

Some of the items found at Snape are now kept at Aldeburgh Museum - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

Like some of the mounds at Sutton Hoo, the Snape ship did not contain all the items it would have been buried with.  

"There are not the jewels that were found at Sutton Hoo because they been had been robbed before 1862,” said Mr Bone.  

"We have got a small but nice selection.” 

One gold, Anglo Saxon finger ring was found however and is now looked after by the British Museum. 

For a time the finds at Snape were almost forgotten, overshadowed by the far more extensive discoveries at Sutton Hoo. 

The Aldeburgh Museum located in the Moot Hall, has a display of artefacts from the discovery of the

The remains of a beaker found in the excavation - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

In 1970 an Anglo Saxon urn was found in the area, two years later sewer trenches were excavated along a nearby road, with nine further cremations being found including one in a bronze bowl. 

Buoyed by the recent discoveries, historians returned to Snape in 1985 to carry out a further excavation.  

The work carried out with the support of the Snape Historical Trust clarified further what role the site played. 

It’s now understood that the field contained a large number of graves dating from the 5th to the 7th century. 

No bones were found but archaeologists found a number of other indications that bodies had once been laid to rest there including stains from where the bodies had once been.

There were also a small number of 'grave goods' that the individuals were buried with including bits of pottery. 

It's believed that plough damage and erosion had a significant impact on the site's remains over the years limiting slightly the knowledge that could be gained from it. 

The Aldeburgh Museum located in the Moot Hall, has a display of artefacts from the discovery of the

The ship burial at Snape helped inform the discoveries made at Sutton Hoo - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

Despite this, we know that Mr Brown arriving at Aldeburgh Museum found his visit useful.  

Indeed, comparing his own find with the rivet from Snape, confirmed to him that he had found something quite incredible.  

In 2021, the Snape site is no longer visible and remains within private land. 

However, its historical value lives on at Aldeburgh Museum which features the dig prominently within its collection.  

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