The fifth 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.
Tuesday 11th July to 20th July 1939
[Basil Brown’s diary for the work he carried out at Sutton Hoo concluded on Monday 10th July 1939. 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. CW Phillips begins his diary on the same day.]
Brown and Spooner (Gamekeeper to Mrs Pretty) began the opening of the west end of the boat. Nothing of any note appeared and they kept well away from the presumed position of the bottom and sides. From the very first sentence he writes it is clear that Phillips was happy for Basil Brown to be outside the area of interest. A new regime was in place.
On Wed. 12th July the site was visited by Lt. Cdr Hutchison, from the Science Museum, who would prepare a detailed study of the boat. It is not without significance that following his arrival he went with Phillips to Mrs Pretty’s house where they had lunch – not an invitation Basil Brown ever mentions!
By Thursday 13th July Phillips was able to state: it became quite clear that there had probably been a wooden burial chamber which had collapsed…..a faint trace of vertical wood, probably some sort of boarding, coming up from the bottom and crossing the whole ship at right angles. He went on to suggest that the roof may have been layers of turf, which had subsequently fallen in, creating a distinctive soil infill within the boat. He also reluctantly accepted that on the evidence it would be unlikely that any wood had survived.
Next day he had to slightly revise his opinion as they had found a piece of carbonised wood: The wood appeared to be a small piece of oak board which had been included in the turves which are presumed to have covered the roof of the burial chamber.
Phillips was anxious to enlarge the trench and Mrs Pretty allowed him to recruit John Jacobs, her gardener. The sheer size of the trench prevented any chance of protecting it from the weather. On Monday 17th July Phillips tells us: Shortly after 8am there was a very heavy rainstorm amounting almost to a cloudburst, but no damage was done to the site….The whole day was thundery with occasional heavy storms of rain. We tend to assume the dig took place beneath blue sky so it is good to know the site was able to defend itself against a Suffolk summer.
By now bits of iron and bronze were being identified, in addition to the plentiful bolts. The narrowness and shallowness of the boat struck Phillips at this time and he came to the conclusion that lacking a heavy timber above the keel, it was probable the boat never had a mast or anything required for sailing. These may have been removed before burial, but the narrowness of the beam and the absence of any sign of these parts suggest that the boat may have been a rowing boat altogether. It should be noted that this view is not widely held today.
In the mid 19th century an Anglo-Saxon boat had been discovered at Snape. The nails which survived were displayed in Aldeburgh’s Moot Hall, and on Tuesday 18th July Phillips and Basil (yes!) went over to look at them. It was an important moment as although the remains were in a bad condition, Phillips was able to conclude: I was impressed by the possibility that the boat in the barrow was Anglo-Saxon of the Nydam type rather than a typical Viking sailing ship. Of course, shifting from Viking to Anglo-Saxon boat was a massive decision as it made the boat several centuries older at least. And the Anglo-Saxons have not left us so many vessels as their successors.
By now the boat had been cleared sufficiently to make work in it safe, and at last Phillips was able to write that the maximum beam was 16 feet. A band of dark sand, about two inches thick, was thought to indicate one side of the collapsed roof. If this is so it would suggest that the chamber was built of slabs of wood laid on gable ends in the same line with the ridge pole.
Phillips had contacted friends and colleagues he believed could assist him in the excavation and on Thursday 20th July Stuart and Peggy Piggott joined his team, and were put to work cleaning the burial chamber. A large, apparently amorphous mass of decayed wood was revealed…and it was obvious that this covered some other things, possibly with some space underneath, as when sounded gently it gave a hollow response. How exciting is that!
Although the rest of the day was adversely affected by more rain, the wooden mass was shown to be a large round shield… the edges bound with a very much decayed silver band. As the day’s work closed, Phillips admitted the weather had been awful, but was grateful no damage had occurred. The next few days would produce one of the greatest moments in British archaeology.
to be continued….