The sixth in a series of excerpts from diaries of the 1939 excavation as told by Mark Mitchells, Cultural Historian and Ship’s Company Volunteer Crew Member.
Friday 21 July to Sunday 23rd July 1939
Almost the whole of the morning was lost through very heavy and continuous rain. Once the mess had been cleared away and the site made safe for further work, the business of excavation could continue.
Friday 21st July produced the first intimations that this was to be a site like no other. Peggy Piggott was working on a mass of wood near the shield remains, and found on them bits of textile. West of this was found a piece of sheet iron, later identified as part of the sword. While this area was being cleaned a piece of jewellery was found consisting of a small pyramid of solid gold …the top of which was flattened, wonderfully decorated with cloisonné work of shaped and inset glass, and possibly lapis lazuli…In the middle of the flat top was a beautiful square inset of blue and white chequered millefiore work. Imagine the excitement at this time as it became clear just how much was waiting to be discovered!
Phillips rather dryly observes that the objects were handed to Mrs. Pretty when she visited the site that evening. One of her reasons for exploring the site was that she had seen ghostly figures passing over it – and now it seemed that they were making contact!
If you are looking for a single day when the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial delivered the goods then it has to be Saturday 22nd July.
The first task was to clear the south side of the burial chamber, although nothing was removed. The weather was much kinder making the task easier. The main discovery during this work was a large bronze bowl with a deep foot and two handles with mouldings. Within it was a bronze hanging bowl, almost the same size, but very badly corroded, and possibly showing signs of a lost lid. The inside of the bowl appeared to be lined with wood showing a vertical grain up the side from bottom to rim. Phillips noted that the outer bowl had three rod-like objects thrust through the handles, although he was unable to say more about them. These were the angons, or throwing spears which attracted later interest as their position must have been deliberate because they could not have fallen through the handle after the burial.
In his autobiography Phillips would say that Mrs Pretty had been reading about the Oseberg ship-burial in Norway and so assumed that not only was her boat a Viking survival, but like that was also the last resting place of a Queen. It was only the discovery of the weapons which caused her to change her mind. And, he adds, Sutton Hoo was 400 years older.
After lunch came the most memorable point in the excavation so far. Almost at once gold objects were revealed to the north of the sword blade….In view of their obvious richness and importance it was plainly unwise to leave the objects in situ so… they were planned and photographed….removed, boxed and labelled. Phillips at this point in the diary contents himself with giving a list:
- Gold strap-end and loop.
- Great gold belt buckle.
- Purse complex:
(b) Eleven cloisonné gold plaques….
(c) Thirty-nine gold coins in mint condition, apparently barbarous copies of Byzantine coinage.
(d) Two small gold ingots.
- Three rectangular cloisonné plaques.
- Gold cloisonné strap-end buckles.
All these objects… were placed in the custody of Mrs Pretty, who we now know placed them in a box under her bed! Thus ended one of the great red-letter days in British archaeology.
Saturday 23rd July produced the first evidence in the chain which eventually allowed the experts to start thinking about the identity of the person for whom such rituals had been performed. North of the iron-bound bucket…was a long square-sectioned stone object, tapering equally to each end, and looking like whetstone, which it probably was. Each end was decorated with four low-relief bearded human heads, one on each face. If as suggested, the four faces represent ancestral portraits of the Wuffing tribe, then the whetstone becomes part of the regalia of a leader – and a very important one at that. Much later the British Museum claimed a small bronze stag, found nearby, may have been part of the “sceptre” and that is how it is depicted today.
Towards the end of the day the burial chamber itself began to appear. It was seen that at least one plank of moderate breadth on each side of the boat was lying at right angles to the keel-line…This may be the remains of the fallen roof of the burial chamber.
Stuart Piggott recounts how when he returned to The Bull Hotel in Woodbridge that evening, as usual he was asked: “Well, old boy, have you found any gold today?” and I replied: “Yes, my pockets are absolutely full! As I spoke I was holding the box containing the great gold buckle in my rather sweaty hand.” Was the buckle with him in the bar, or under Mrs Pretty’s bed? Why spoil a good story?
to be continued….