'My friendship with Sutton Hoo's Basil Brown'

Basil Brown in his home village of Rickinghall, close to the Suffolk/Norfolk border

Basil Brown in his home village of Rickinghall, close to the Suffolk/Norfolk border - Credit: Don Black

True love did, in fact, lead to one of the greatest rewards on (sandy) earth.


Frank Pretty proposed to Edith Dempster in 1901, but her dad, a wealthy engineer, thought that Frank, who made corsets at Ipswich and Stowmarket, was socially beneath his daughter. It wasn’t until 1926, after her father’s death that Edith and Frank could marry. She inherited a fortune that enabled them to buy the Sutton Hoo estate. Frank died in 1934.

An inquest on the treasure in autumn 1939 decided that the treasure was buried with no intention to recover it and therefore belonged to Edith. She generously gave it to the nation. After her death in 1942, the estate was sold to the Tranmer farming family, who in 1998 donated it to the National Trust.

On a sunny day last summer I walked through Sutton Hoo with Clifford Smith, first chief executive of a united Suffolk since the Anglo-Saxon age.

Clifford and June Smith with  the full-size steel representation of the treasure ship at Sutton Hoo

Clifford and June Smith with the full-size steel representation of the treasure ship at Sutton Hoo - Credit: Don Black

The National Trust complex is virtually a memorial to Raedwald, King of East Anglia. Happily, its beautiful estate with car park continues to be open to walkers who keep to current rules. Just over 80 years ago Basil Brown of Rickinghall, on the Suffolk/Norfolk border, reached British archaeology’s most valuable find, gold and other treasure in the Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo.

He had been a tenant farmer, so knew his soils and always dug carefully into them. “A good spade and patience worked wonders,” he once told me. Basil, as everyone knew him, was content for Britain’s top men in the field to look down on him professionally and socially, as well as physically from atop the mound. The archaeological establishment described him as being "rather smelly". But it wasn't the odour of sanctity that wafted around saintly hermits who never washed. His came from good honest sweat.

Mrs Edith Pretty, the owner of Sutton Hoo estate, standing on the veranda of Tranmer House. Picture:

Edith Pretty, the owner of Sutton Hoo estate, standing on the veranda of Tranmer House - Credit: National Trust/Archant Archives


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He had, moreover, earned the respect of Sutton Hoo landowner Mrs Edith Pretty. Purely as a freelance and with no regular income, he had carried out surveys and test digs for Ipswich Museum. Mrs Pretty paid him 30 shillings (£1.50) a week to excavate mounds she could see from her bedroom window and where, she imagined, ghostly warriors appeared at night.

She lent him a room in her chauffeur's cottage for those crucial pre-war summers of 1938 and 1939. Basil worked all the daylight hours. Every week he cycled 35 miles each way between Sutton Hoo and Rickinghall, where he had given up trying to make a meagre living as a tenant farmer. In 1964, to mark the 25th anniversary of his discovery, I suggested that we re-create that journey on bikes.

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We still had energy but not the time to do so. Instead, I took him to Sutton Hoo by car. Although it was a warm day, Basil wore his jacket, tie, waistcoat and cap as usual. Not smelly at all. He remembered that in the first season, the summer of 1938, he explored three quite small mounds, finding that all had been robbed. He found little other than pottery, minor forerunners of what he brought to light in 1939.

In the main mound it became clear to him that the grave had been undisturbed (if only by a few inches) and that he was tackling almost single-handedly a find of national even international importance.

The Dig reimagines the events of the 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph

The Dig reimagines the events of the 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo, and stars Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes - Credit: Larry Horricks/Netflix

While Ipswich Museum was not formally involved at that stage, curator Guy Maynard regularly visited Sutton Hoo. Seeing the ship emerging from the sandy soil he called in Charles Phillips from Cambridge, later archaeologist to the Ordnance Survey.

“Basil was to take something of a back seat during later stages of the excavation,” is how Angela Care Evans of the British Museum puts it.Mark Mitchels, who taught at Woodbridge School on the opposite bank of the Deben estuary, describes academic attitudes that surfaced on realising what Basil had achieved.

"He was constantly aware of attempts to limit his authority and cast doubts on his conclusions," Mark says. "On one occasion he knew a power battle was going on about his future, but it took place across the fine dining table in Mrs Pretty's Sutton Hoo mansion while he was sweating in the ship trench."Basil was the amateur, getting grubby while his ‘betters’, socially and academically, looked down on him literally from the trench sides."

Professor Martin Carver told me: "Virtually everything he did has been vindicated. He started with his trowel in the right places, following the right lines. He was first and last a craftsman and he made it his business to know the nature of soils.

“Dimensions he recorded have been found to be absolutely accurate. We can do more than he did only because of the scientific knowledge at our disposal.

"I would not adopt his strategy of cutting down through a mound, which could be dangerous for the diggers and cause details to be missed. The modern preference would be to slice the mound layer by layer. Basil Brown, though, had flair and he was the pioneer here."

Valerie Fenwick, a British Museum specialist, explained: "When Basil Brown found a clench nail he dug carefully around it. He gradually widened his trench and picked up the main lines of the ship without damaging them."

Charles Green wrote one of the early books on Sutton Hoo. A second edition was revised by his daughter Barbara, who adds: "Basil's ways were not the ways of later archaeologists, but neither were theirs when compared with what is done in the 21st century,"Ipswich Museum no longer has a keeper of archaeology. Dr Tom Plunkett redesigned a Saxon gallery when holder of hat office.

“Basil had the wit and skill to follow the ship’s huge shape, which he did magnificently," Tom said. "His sensitivity to the challenge was remarkable. Sidelined by the arrival of leading people in the field, he kept clear of arguments among them. He just got on with the job."

Basil held no grudges about the views of professional archaeologists who descended on the site from Ipswich, Cambridge and London. "We respected each other's knowledge and abilities," he told me.

His diary entry for July 8 1939, hints at anger by Charles Phillips who had expected to be a guest at Sutton Hoo. "He is not staying at the mansion but at a hotel in Woodbridge", Basil wrote. "He had not been told about this by Ipswich Museum and was a bit bellicose."

An inquest jury declared the gold and silver objects not to be treasure trove (hidden with the intention of reclaiming them later), in which case they would have gone direct to the State. They therefore became the property of the landowner, Mrs Pretty; she generously gave them to the British Museum a few days before war broke out. Basil regretted that the treasure could not stay in Suffolk, although significant items now return to be displayed temporarily in the National Trust visitors’ centre at Sutton Hoo. He was also sad that the trench was not roofed over before army tanks rumbled through on battle practice.

Born at Bucklesham, he was there for only a few months before the family moved to Rickinghall, where he left the village school at the age of 12 in 1900. Two retired clergyman gave him extra tuition.

Otherwise, he went straight into farming with his father at Church Farm. They were hard times in agriculture and both father and son took on part-time jobs as well.

Basil was a humble yet quietly sensible man who loved to delve deeply into the ground for evidence of human activity. I first met him in 1947 at Calke wood, when I was in my mid-teens, on the Rickinghall boundary with Wattisfield and almost within sight of the Henry Watson pottery. .

Sponsored by the pottery, Basil was excavating prehistoric hearths and Romano-British kilns in and around the wood. Potters had been using the local clay for two millennia before the Romans got there.

The new viewing tower under construction near the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo

The new viewing tower under construction near the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo - Credit: Heather Harden

I knew Stanley Mole when he was a nonagenarian living in a bungalow in the wood and who remembered Basil when they were both young men. “He seemed to be after rabbits when I first saw him,” said Stanley. “Only later did I learn that was looking for flint tools and fragments of pottery. We became friends and stayed friends while I kept to my woodcraft trade – making hurdles and gates and battens for tiling and thatching.”

Basil’s diaries were rescued from his garden shed and are now kept by Suffolk Record Office at Ipswich.

He quoted a tradition that the River Waveney was navigable for ships to Diss and beyond and recorded that copper and timber remnants of a boat were dug out of a Roydon gravel quarry. Unfortunately, the copper had been sold and the timber destroyed.

We now know that the ship he found at Sutton Hoo was already a veteran when it was turned into the final royal barge and resting place for Raedwald, king of East Anglia. His people had done the equivalent of burying the royal yacht Britannia with all the crown jewels on board.

Raedwald reigned from 599 until 625 and, after the death of Aethelbert of Kent in 616, was senior monarch for English kingdoms south of the Humber. Only much later did East Anglia become subservient to the Midlands kingdom of Mercia.

Basil Brown was also a keen amateur astronomer and won recognition at national level, though he was never able to establish a link between that hobby and his archaeological finds in East Anglia.

Dr Rupert Bruce-Mitford, of the British Museum, put in a word for him and Basil received a modest Civil List pension until his death, aged 89, in 1977. Unlike Raedwald, whose body disappeared in acidic soil, he was cremated.

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