How Basil Brown helped discover important Anglo-Saxon settlement

Self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown did various digs at West Stow, but it was in 1947 that he realised there must have...

Self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown did various digs at West Stow, but it was in 1947 that he realised there must have once been an Anglo-Saxon village there. Here is he pictured at West Stow - Credit: Suffolk County Council

Basil Brown’s significant connection with Sutton Hoo is now well-known thanks to Netflix's film The Dig

But the self-taught archaeologist also had connections in the west of the county, including West Stow – an important Anglo-Saxon village site. 

Some eight years after the 1939 Sutton Hoo excavation, Mr Brown unearthed Roman pottery kilns at West Stow and it was during this dig that it became clear there must have once been an Anglo-Saxon settlement there. 

Another image of Basil Brown at West Stow. In 1947, he was joined for the dig by Dr Stanley West

Another image of Basil Brown at West Stow. In 1947, he was joined for the dig by Dr Stanley West - Credit: Suffolk County Council

He was joined on this 1947 excavation by Dr Stanley West, whose interest in Anglo-Saxon England was inspired by Mr Brown. 

The pair met while working at Ipswich Museum where Dr West was in the role as an assistant.  


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Dr West, now in his 80s, went on to lead excavations at West Stow between 1965 and 1972, uncovering one of the most important early Anglo-Saxon settlements sites in England. 

eadt news - Dr Stanley WestDr Stanley West at the West Stow Country Park and the Anglo Saxon Vil

Dr Stanley West at the Anglo-Saxon Village in West Stow in 2004. Dr West excavated the village between 1965 and 1972 - Credit: Archant

His experimental work reconstructing Anglo-Saxon buildings ultimately gave birth to the attraction that is there today, featuring a recreated Anglo-Saxon village as well as a museum and visitor centre. 

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Heritage consultant Alan Baxter, who ran West Stow for the district council for many years, said not too many people knew about Mr Brown’s link with West Stow. 

Picture is Alan Baxter at West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Alan Baxter ran West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village and Moyse's Hall Museum for many years. Here he is pictured at West Stow in 2018 as part of the Ring Quest event - Credit: Archant

He said: “In Suffolk West Stow has always been about the people and Sutton Hoo has always been about the kings. 

“It [the link] is very relevant because Basil Brown did various digs at West Stow. But the most important thing to say is the chap who actually excavated West Stow [Anglo-Saxon village] is Dr Stanley West.”  

Mr Baxter said while Mr Brown and Dr West were digging in 1947 there were lots of Anglo-Saxon clues in the topsoil and, paraphrasing, Mr Brown said to Dr West: “I know what, I reckon this is where that Anglo-Saxon village was.”  

40 year anniversary since the work of the Environmental Archaeology Group at West Stow Anglo-Saxon V

The recreated Anglo-Saxon Village normally hosts re-enactments. There is also a museum and visitor centre there - Credit: Archant

In 1849 an Anglo-Saxon cemetery was discovered at West Stow, but it was not known where the people lived who were buried there. 

Dr West wrote in A Life in Archaeology: "It was in the course of this work [in 1947] that it became evident that there was a spread of Early Anglo-Saxon potsherds in the rabbit-scrapes over the whole of the knoll and that sections of 'huts' could be seen in the small sand-pit in the north-east corner of the site."

eadt news - Dr Stanley WestDr Stanley West speaking at the West Stow Country Park and the Anglo

Dr Stanley West was inspired by Basil Brown's enthusiasm when he met him at Ipswich Museum in the 1940s. This picture was taken in 2004 - Credit: Archant

According to West Suffolk Council, which manages West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village, it was while Mr Brown was excavating Roman pottery kilns in 1941 that he also uncovered the pit of an Anglo-Saxon Sunken Feature Building (SFB). 

A plan of this was drawn in his notebook, the original of which is on display at West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village. 

A section drawing from one of Basil Brown's notebooks, understood to be showing an Anglo-Saxon building. The original of...

A section drawing from one of Basil Brown's notebooks, understood to be showing an Anglo-Saxon building. The original of this notebook is currently on display at West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village - Credit: Suffolk County Council

The spokesman for West Suffolk Council said Mr Brown was the first person to record an Anglo-Saxon building at the site. 

Mr Brown also has connections with Culford School, where he worked as a live-in stoker, cycling home to Rickinghall, near Diss, every two weeks. 

Culford School Head of History, Marcus Rackowe

Culford School Head of History, Marcus Rackowe - Credit: Culford School

It is understood Mr Brown, who married to Dorothy, known as May, finished up as caretaker of the school, where he encouraged pupils to take an interest in archaeology. 

An extract from Fred Watson’s book Culford School The First Hundred Years reads: ‘There are old boys today who retain a lifelong interest in archaeology largely due to cycle trips with Mr Brown to West Stow Heath and other places, where he helped them to excavate ancient kilns and to discover pottery.’ 

Today, Culford School’s History Society is one of the only school-based medieval re-enactment groups in the country.   

Today, Culford School’s History Society is one of the only school-based medieval re-enactment groups in the country. - Credit: Culford School

Culford School Head of History, Marcus Rackowe, said “The discovery of the fantastic ship burial at Sutton Hoo is one of the most significant archaeological finds in the history of our country and to have it found by a former associate teacher at Culford is great.  

“Having that connection inspires our pupils to see the environment around them as full of rich history and it really helps to bring the subject alive. This is something that we are passionate about at Culford as shown by our own historical re-enactment society.” 

THE DIG (L-R): CAREY MULLIGAN as EDITH PRETTY, RALPH FIENNES as BASIL BROWN. Cr. LARRY HORRICKS/NETF

Ralph Fiennes played Basil Brown in Netflix's film The Dig. Carey Mulligan played Edith Pretty - Credit: Larry Horricks/Netflix

The story of the Sutton Hoo excavation is now well-known, and Mr Brown’s own story has been uncovered thanks to the film The Dig and new interest in his life. 

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