The third 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 Wed 6th June to Wed 14th June.
“I hope, however, the newspapers won’t get hold of anything concerning the find before an announcement is made later on,” Basil wrote on June 6th, and it betrayed his concern that news of the ship’s discovery would be picked up by the newspapers, and inevitably produce sightseers who would get in the way, and perhaps even damage the impression of the ship.
On the 7th June he was particularly excited by the evidence that people from an earlier century had dug down into the mound. “Traces of attempts by treasure seekers were clearly shown by a filled in hole which could be traced downwards to 10 feet from the apex or summit of the barrow.” At the base was what they took to be a burnt-off wooden post, and this was preserved for some time, and appears in many photographs, although it is out of place and somewhat confusing! “The feature was then clearly proved to have been the remains of a hearth evidently that of a fire lighted by treasure seekers…It was nicknamed The Lighthouse.”
Turning to the Woodbridge scholar, VB Redstone FSA, Basil was informed of evidence that might explain the anomaly. “King Henry Vlll dug for treasure in a mound at Sutton Hough but nothing was found, and John Dee, the Court Astrologer, was commissioned to search for treasure along the coast by Queen Elizabeth, and apparently came to Sutton.” It is currently suggested that the only reason the robbers failed to locate and steal the Sutton Hoo treasures was that much earlier a medieval farmer had dug a ditch across the edge of the site, and in doing so he had misled the robbers as to the centre of the mound.
Basil Brown’s pride in his work can be glimpsed when he reports a conversation he had with a Mr Megaw, who had excavated a ship burial on the Isle of Man: “He remarked to Mrs Pretty that he wished theirs had been excavated like this.”
It was only a matter of time before the great and good of British archaeology made an appearance, which they did on Friday 9th June. Very little work was possible that day as a result. Basil accompanied Mr Baillie Reynolds of the Office of Works as he examined the remains of the timber planking, “that exists not as wood proper, but as ash or black dust due to decomposition of the ship timbers throughout the many centuries. Everyone appeared satisfied, and was quite complimentary to me regarding the way this portion of the ship had been cleared.” Significantly, Basil was not included in the discussions which took place in Mrs Pretty’s house.
One outcome of the meeting was a plan to cover excavated sections of the ship outline with Hessian, and hold it down with sand. It was hoped to eventually construct a hut over the whole site, but this proved to be impossible, much to Basil’s relief. On the Saturday he noted that work would have been halted until October by the construction of a shed 80 feet wide and 100 feet in length. For reasons of expense the project was soon forgotten. [And Britain would have been at war for three months!]
Excavation in 1939 was a more casual business than it is today. It is hard to imagine a modern archaeologist including a comment such as this: “Mrs Pretty has asked me if I could reach the burial as her sister was coming next week.” He replied that he would do his best!
“Regarding data I expect the following: A ship about 80 feet in length and a burial amidships. I believe the treasure chamber to be intact in spite of attempts at various times to dig down to it.”
Wednesday 14th June was a very special day for Basil, and his diary conveys the excitement he felt as he worked. He had returned after tea, on his own, to excavate the central area. He found two iron rings which showed the green of bronze, and “what was undoubtedly wood which gave out a hollow sound.” He thought the iron objects might be part of an anchor. Once they had covered the objects with Hessian he went to report to Mrs Pretty. “I saw the footman who took a message to her that I had found the burial…I went to my lodging very tired.” And before he went to sleep he made a drawing of what he had found and wrote up his notes. What a man!
to be continued….