The eighth in a series of excerpts from Basil Brown and CW Phillips diaries as told by Mark Mitchells, Cultural Historian and Ship’s Company Volunteer Crew Member.
In his diary entry for Friday 28th July CW Phillips writes: The day was devoted to the complete clearance of the western end of the burial deposit. This means the stern end of the chamber, and many of the items found here were weapons or status symbols. Although it cannot be over-emphasised that there was nobody found in the chamber, this is also the “head end” of the possible grave.
Two other items dominated his attention on this day. The shield comprised thin strips of wood that had clearly been covered with gold leaf, which sadly kept blowing away! In its centre was the shield boss, the place where the warrior’s hand fitted. The other discovery was the iconic helmet. Although we always see it perfectly restored, in fact it was found in hundreds of tiny iron pieces, like a jigsaw – and a real puzzle for the team at the British Museum who would have the task of putting it together! Some historians suggest the helmet is derived from the Roman cavalry helmet, with eye sockets, nose guard and even a metal moustache! The whole thing was richly decorated with bronze images from Anglo-Saxon mythology. One explanation for its being in small pieces is that it survived intact for perhaps a century, but shattered when the roof of the chamber collapsed on to it.
The next day attention moved to the centre of the burial chamber. Here were two silver-mounted drinking horns – surely things we associate with our Anglo-Saxon forbears as they celebrated in the hall. Perhaps surprisingly, there was also evidence of textiles, showing some of the treasures had been wrapped in cloth. And close by was at least one coat of mail. A great warrior had been surrounded by his possessions and plunder.
At the end of the day the three large bronze cauldrons were lifted from the eastern end. This unknown hero of his people had been sent into the afterlife with every sign of his status and lacking for nothing.
After such discoveries, the entry for Sunday 30th July is refreshingly banal: The day was spent quietly about the site, writing letters and making traces of the working plans of the burial area. The site had strong police protection all day and was not disturbed. I think “strong police protection” means two village police constables, famously shown sitting in deck chairs.
On Monday 31st July an important stage of the work was reached – transporting the major items to the British Museum to be examined, conserved and then stored out of the way of possible enemy bombs. However, there was an element of farce too, as the van which carried the treasures to London ran out of fuel within sight of the Museum and had to be pushed to the grand entrance by helpful pedestrians!
At this time the sand on the floor of the chamber was sifted and several items were found and recorded – including another Merovingian gold coin, which had fallen out of the purse. The total of coins now stood at 40.
Until the site was secure Phillips had wanted to keep its existence under wraps. For this reason he had done a deal with The Woodbridge Reporter, whereby the Editor, Mr Fairweather, would hold back the story, but still secure a scoop, until given permission to print. He kept to his arrangement but rivalry between local titles proved too strong. On 26th July the EADT splashed the news which meant the gloves were off: “Anglo-Saxon Ship Burial. Interesting find in Suffolk. 82ft boat in grand trench.”
From this time quite a lot of effort went into putting up rope barriers and trying to control the members of the public who started to appear at Sutton Hoo. Fortunately, the weather was awful so only the most determined were seen on site.
On Tuesday 8th August (the day after Bank Holiday) Cdr Hutchison arrived to begin his detailed survey of vessel. “It appears that the boat had definitely broken just outside each end of the burial chamber. It became apparent also that the boat had been patched and that the strakes were made of more than one plank nailed together at the ends.”
Friday 11th August found Phillips turning his mind to something which could not be delayed or ignored: “Mrs Pretty was present in the afternoon and the final arrangements for the inquest were made in conjunction with the Inspector of Police and PC Ling.” The matter of who owned the treasure was about to be settled.
From now onwards the Diary concerns itself with cleaning up the boat and interpreting the timber impressions which were deduced in the sand. The Inquest, on Monday 14th August deserves to be given its own article – and it will be.
The inquest is to follow…