We are building a full size version of the ship dug up by Basil Brown, Mrs Edith Pretty and Charles Phillips during the excavation celebrated in John Preston’s book and now in the Netflix film THE DIG.
THE DIG took place just across the river Deben from where our ship is taking shape. From our long shed we can see the ridge that carries the Sutton Hoo mounds and the house where Mrs Pretty lived and kept an eye on the dig through her bow window. It is a beautiful piece of Suffolk landscape now owned by the National Trust and of course visitable by the public – Covid permitting. The mounds can still be seen nestling behind Top Hat Wood with its pine trees, where the 1939 team parked its Hillman and its shepherd’s hut on wheels that acted as their HQ. Here the great line of the ship lay open to the sky – 27m long and picked out by a pattern of iron rivets that had held its planks together. Here Mrs Pretty and her visitors sat in wicker chairs observing the dig through opera glasses. Here the team brewed their tea on an open fire of pine cones. And in the shadow of those trees the finds were laid out on planks and in wooden boxes among the pine needles, the precious gold objects of the buried king packed in woodland moss in tobacco tins. The work went on all through the hot summer of 1939, when an invasion was expected from the north west European continent, the same place that had launched the Anglo-Saxons in their timber ships towards Suffolk, 15 centuries before.
These ships were pointed at both ends, with a flat keel and curving planks of oak. Our ship is authentic, based on the one found and recorded by Basil Brown, Stuart Piggot, and Commander Hutchinson. The pattern of rivets in the sand gave the basic shape of the hull as found, albeit squashed under thousands of tons of sandy mound. The rivets were the first clue that a ship lay hidden under the mound and Basil, recognising what they were, went carefully from rusty mark to rusty mark with his pastry brush revealing the lines. The planks were mostly gone leaving a thin carpet of black dust, but in the centre was a mass of woody remains – the burial chamber where the king’s coffin lay with treasure stacked around him.
Our ship is based on those records, measurements and plans and photographs and a bit of film made at the time, together with the results of another 80 years of archaeological research, on the site, in the British Museum and in the laboratories. The ship was the greatest artefact produced by the dig, and the greatest vehicle of its time – it’s an iconic vessel we want to know more about. There is still much experimental work to do before the ship can be recreated as it once was; the right oak, correctly split into planks, the right keel straight and true, the correct rivets – our aim is to do what the English shipwrights did a thousand years ago: walk the woods looking for suitable trees, craft the timber into a hull, test its seaworthiness and eventually – yes – row and sail it down the river and out to sea.
In 2019 a new team came to Sutton Hoo – not a digging crew or a ship’s crew but a film crew, with Suffolk born Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan in the lead.
Their re-enactment of the 1939 dig will speak for itself and make many new friends for the great discovery that changed the story of England. But it will speak for all of us long-term researchers too. We are delighted that Ralph Fiennes is supporting our project; he said
” Working on the film The Dig has given me a compelling insight into the history of Sutton Hoo. I am very excited that a team of volunteers at The Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company are actually recreating King Raedwald’s famous vessel. I believe it will prove a remarkable aide in bringing this part of our history to life. I know a huge amount of diligence and expertise is being devoted to the project. I can’t wait to see it when it is finished. I wish everyone involved all success in this great project.”
One day our ship will be the star. Come and see us or lend a hand as soon as you can —- it is your interest and support that will push the ship ever nearer the slipway.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org