The second in a series of excerpts from Basil Brown’s diaries as told by Mark Mitchells, Cultural Historian and Ship’s Company Volunteer Crew Member.
From Tuesday 16th May 1939 to Monday 5th June 1939
Basil Brown had been working on the Sutton Hoo site for nine days when on Thursday 16th May his diary notes: “As I continue the ship widens as it goes deeper.” There was a real danger of landslides as the men worked and this greatly held back progress. It is important to remember that Basil did not know what he was digging. To us it is all very obvious, but he was in an unknown world – he still speaks of a “Viking Ship” because that was the most likely explanation for the sheer size of the vessel being revealed. We can sense his excitement as he writes: “The ship begins to look like one.”
At sunset he was particularly excited as the light showed up the rivets which defined the outline of the ship. It is a sign of his dedication that he admits to beginning work at 5am “when soils can best be studied.” Basil’s background was in geology, not archaeology.
There were about to be far-reaching consequences of his work. On Friday 17th May he received a site visit by Mr Guy Maynard of Ipswich Museum who had indirectly got him the job. The ship being excavated, Maynard claimed, was unique in Britain and he made drawings and took photographs. The secrecy of the discovery would not last much longer.
One of the problems Basil faced was that as it became apparent the boat was larger than expected, so the trench had to be increased too, and this meant a lot of soil had to be moved and secured. While his two workers enlarged the mound Basil excavated the line of rivets and tried to understand what it was he was investigating. He visited the Redstones in the Seckford Library in Woodbridge who gave him books which helped him to understand early medieval ships, and which he passed on to Mrs Pretty who was by now as excited as he was.
By this time (Tuesday 23rd May) it was clear the ship was simply enormous and without equal and contained a burial chamber amidships. “It is a big find and as we go on the ship gets wider and we are certain of a length of at least 50 feet…We must now be approaching the cabin amidships.” Basil tells us he narrowly escaped being buried beneath 10 tons of sand on Tuesday 30th May. Mrs Pretty would seem to have spent most of her time buying planks from local builders!
A curious diary entry from this time reports the discovery of signs of medieval disturbance and sherds of a jug. Here is the first intimation that at some time in the past others had dug into the mound, although it is unlikely their motives were as pure as Basil’s!
We can appreciate Mrs Pretty’s impatience when Basil notes: “Mrs Pretty is anxious to get to the burial.” But he will not be rushed, adding: “But I’m afraid everyone will have to wait a few days longer before they know what the ship contains.” He cannot resist a moment of triumph though, saying: “Certainly now we have beaten the record for ships found in burial mounds in the British Isles.”
Basil Brown had excavated the ship in his own way and his decisions have been vindicated by history. But his ability to direct the work was about to conclude, and I suspect he knew that it was coming. On Tuesday 6th June Guy Maynard returned and with him was Mr CW Phillips of Cambridge – one of the great and good of British archaeology. He declared himself “surprised” and ventured the opinion that the ship was likely to extend even further than he saw at present. “It was a find of national importance.” We can almost hear the site pass from Basil’s control to the archaeological establishment! Nevertheless, Philips paid Basil a rare tribute: “He acknowledged my excavation had been perfect and could not have been better done.”
Once the Office of Works took over the site there would be changes made and Basil was realistic enough to know that he would probably be side-lined, if not dismissed.
To be continued…