The first in a series of excerpts from Basil Brown’s diaries as told by Mark Mitchells, Cultural Historian and Ship’s Company Volunteer Crew Member.

The name of Basil Brown will forever be associated with the story of the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial as discovered in 1939. Quite rightly he is celebrated as the genius who excavated the ship even though the timbers had long ago rotted into the sand, and it was not even apparent, at first, what type of ship it was. There were no text books to consult but he carried out an excavation which Prof. Charles Phillips of Cambridge University would later praise: “my excavation had been perfect, and could not have been better done.”

It should not come as a surprise to realise that Basil Brown was meticulous in everything he put his hand to, so in addition to his wonderful excavation we also have his diaries and the diagrams he created while at work. From these daily entries (until 10th July 1939) he conveys the excitement and uncertainty of what he was doing.

He was employed by Mrs Edith Pretty, the owner of the estate, at a wage of £1.50 per week, and given a gardener and gamekeeper as his assistants.  He had worked on the site a year earlier, and made important discoveries, but on Monday May 8th 1939 he walked over the site with Mrs Pretty, hoping to receive instructions for that season’s work.

“I asked which one she would like opened and she pointed to Mound 1, the largest barrow of the group, and said: What about this? And I replied it would be quite alright for me.” 

Basil gave clear instructions to his helpers, and they began digging a trench into the mound. Three days later he reports the first find: “About mid-day Jacobs (the gardener), who by the way had never seen a ship rivet before and being for the first time engaged in excavation work, called out he had found a bit of iron, afterwards found to be a loose one at the end of a ship. I immediately stopped the work and carefully explored the area with a small trowel and uncovered five rivets in position on what turned out to be the stem of a ship.”

The next day more rivets appeared, at a spacing of about 5 inches, and Basil notes that this is similar to those found at a ship excavated at Snape in 1870.  He later met with the Redstone’s in Woodbridge at the town library and it is worth noting that from them he borrowed books about Viking ships as that seemed the most likely discovery.

By Monday 15th he had determined that the ship was in a slanting position which would bring it to within 20 feet below the summit of the barrow. Clearly the scale of the excavation was impressive. He adds: “Whether the ship contains much or not the ship itself is of great interest as ship burials in this country are rare.”

Later in the week he writes: “Work continues and the ship begins to look like one. The rivets show up extremely well towards sunset.” Unsurprisingly, Basil observes: “Mrs Pretty appears to be greatly interested.”

To be continued…