The fourth in a series of excerpts from Basil Brown’s diaries as told by Mark Mitchells, Cultural Historian and Ship’s Company Volunteer Crew Member.
Thurs 15 June to Mon 10 July
On Thursday 15th June 1939 Basil was working with his assistants Fuller and Jacobs. They were clearing the sand off the central chamber and were excited at the prospect of what they might find. Then somewhat frustratingly, Mr Maynard of Ipswich Museum turned up and asked them to slow down, and Mrs Pretty added that her sister was not expected to visit either! Maynard warned them that visitors were expected from Scandinavia, a clear indication that the excavation’s status was rising in importance. “If I can get this ship cleared satisfactorily I quite expect we shall have all the chief archaeologists in the British Isles to see it.”
The news on Monday 19th June was even more gloomy: work would be suspended until the giant shed had been built to cover the ship outline. Mr CW Phillips, (who was already ear-marked to take over the excavation) had gone to Denmark to study techniques of medieval ship preservation. Significantly, Basil comments: “The British Museum are arranging this instead of Ipswich Museum.” We can almost hear the excavation moving out of his control, but he defiantly says he will keep going until the shed arrives.
A week later Mrs Pretty arrived on site with Mr Fairweather, the editor of the Woodbridge Reporter. This was a real scoop for the local newspaper, which had agreed to keep quiet about the discovery until given permission to announce it to the world. “Mrs Pretty has promised him the first story when the Press can be allowed to know. He is certainly a reliable man and will certainly keep his word.”[Alas, rivalry between publications meant it was not quite as gentlemanly as they hoped, and the Reporter was pipped for the story.]
By Thursday 29th June Basil was confident that he had reached the west end of the ship. The rivets gave him a clear indication that this part had been cut off at a time when the field was ploughed – which was up to 1882. At last he was able to write: “The ship measurements are roughly it is 82 feet long with a 15 feet beam.” How wonderful for this self-trained Suffolk man to be able to add: “A ship this size must have been that of a king or a person of very great importance and it is the find of a lifetime.”
While archaeologists and museum curators travelled Europe, or attended meetings, to decide the fate of the Sutton Hoo ship, Basil continued to work, accompanied only by Fuller now. “Work continued and cleared the clay deposit amidships exactly above the place where I expect the chief lies.”
On Thursday 6th June Basil tells us that Mr Maynard of Ipswich Museum had sent him excavation reports from Scandinavian discoveries. These ships had obviously been looted and so their treasures had been taken. “I don’t think grave robbers have ever got down to the burial in the Sutton Hoo ship, but we must await the time when the burial will be cleared.”
“I hear Mr Phillips is coming tomorrow, so Mrs Pretty has now definitely moved things so it won’t be very long.” Imagine the emotions he experienced as he saw the greatest discovery of his career about to be taken from him. A delay occurred when he heard Phillips had suffered a badly cut thumb and would be delayed!
But it was a brief respite, as Phillips arrived on Saturday 9th July and took up residence at The Bull Hotel which would soon become the HQ for the events which followed. He was not at all happy that Ipswich Museum had booked him there. “His attitude was a bit bellicose.”
Monday 10th July is an important date in the Sutton Hoo story. It marks the end of Basil Brown’s control of the excavation and the hand-over to the archaeologists assembled by CW Phillips. Making the best of his disappointment Basil observes: “Anyway, I shall not have so much bother and responsibility now in case anything went wrong. I think we shall be able to co-operate all right, at least I hope so.”
Basil’s final entry sums up the situation he faced: “After consultation with the Office of Works and Mrs Pretty it was decided to place the supervision of the excavation under Mr CW Phillips and I am to be his assistant, but still in the employ of Mrs. Pretty.”
From now on, the diary of CW Phillips takes over the story.
to be continued….