Sutton Village Hall

14th August 1939

There is a poorly lit photograph of the interior of Sutton Village Hall on Monday, 14th August 1939 and it shows the scene as the inquest is about to start. The public takes up nearly all the space (lots of hats!) and squeezed at the far end is a table behind which sits the Coroner. Against the back wall is a bookcase that contains the most important treasure items. Somewhere in the hall is a jury of 14 men (only) who range from Bank Official (Foreman) to grocer.

The Coroner was Mr LH Vulliamy and in his opening remarks to the jury, he told them that while the discoveries at Sutton Hoo were attracting the attention of the nation, they should only concern themselves with the gold and silver objects as nothing else was relevant to Treasure Trove. He informed them that the first act concerning buried treasure goes back to the 13th century, and then he provides them with a definition from 1820:

“Treasure trove is where any gold or silver in coin, plate or bullion is found concealed in a house or in the earth or in a private place, the owner thereof being unknown, in which case the treasure belongs to the king …If it was abandoned and not hidden and concealed, then it belongs to the first finder. It is the hiding and not the abandonment of the object which entitles the king to it.”

He then called Mrs Pretty as his first witness, but alas, the dramatic moment will be lost, because she said nothing: Her solicitor read her statement for her! However, she gave the Inquest her account which included the familiar details of meeting schoolmaster Mr Vincent Redstone at the Woodbridge Flower Show where she asked if he knew how she could set about excavating the mounds on her estate. He put her on to the Ipswich Museum who in turn recruited Basil Brown of Rickinghall. Work began in 1938 and following a successful season, it was decided to excavate the largest mound in 1939.

In her evidence, Mrs Pretty described some of the objects recovered, and also outlined how the British Museum had become involved. “A number of officials of the British Museum and the Office of Works inspected the site and showed very great interest.”

Charles Phillips of Selwyn College, Cambridge was the next witness and he sensibly passed to the Coroner a full list of all the items found. When asked about the 40 gold coins found in the chamber he took issue, saying: “Strictly speaking they are not coins. They are copies of coins in circulation at the time of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, and so long out of use.” As to their purpose he wondered whether the Anglo-Saxons had just wanted some coins to bury!

Charles Phillips was then asked to describe the events he supposed had taken place at the time of the burial. He said that mound burials were common in Britain from 2,000BCE until the arrival of Christianity. The construction of a mound was such a huge task for a community it was impossible for it to remain a secret. There were rituals to be observed and the drawing of the boat from the river to the burial site probably involved many significant ceremonies. Construction of the burial chamber “must have given employment to a number of woodcutters and carpenters….The whole operation must have taken many days, and there can have been no concealment of the fact that many rich and valuable objects were being put in the grave.”

He went on to explain that the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf describes just such a burial ceremony, with its depiction of grief, pride, and loss. The inquest must have appreciated the significance of the final lines he quoted: “They left the Earl’s wealth in the earth’s keeping, the gold in the dirt. It dwells there yet, of no more use to men than in ages before.”

The Coroner asked if it was possible that the boat was not hauled up from the river, but built on site. Phillips replied that it was not unusual for the Anglo-Saxons to move boats overland, using rollers and horses. Anyway, he added: “The ship even had a patch on the hull. The hull had certainly been worn by use before it was brought to the grave.”

The archaeologist Stuart Piggott was the next witness and he described the excavation of the central chamber, which provided evidence of burial. They had identified “the personal trappings and belongings of the individual who had evidently, from the position of the objects, been buried at full length, lying on the bottom of the vessel, the head to the west.” Piggott was asked if a body had once been there and replied he had no doubt that the acid nature of the soil had removed the evidence. He stressed the placing of the objects found which implied a body and added that they were all designed to accompany the dead man into the afterlife. He sensibly declined to name the individual!

And our next witness is Basil Brown – but he must wait until the next edition.

Mark Mitchels

To be continued …..