The ‘Real’ Dig – reading materials, real story, snippets provided by Joe Startin, Ship’s Company Director

  1. I am not aware of a dedicated ‘real account’.
  2. Every tour guide at the National Trust, Sutton Hoo has their own version. They have put it together for themselves, after training from the Sutton Hoo Society
  3. The best book extract I am aware of is from Martin Carver. The Sutton Hoo Story – Encounters with Early England, Boydell Press, 2017. In print. See chapter 1, ‘Mrs Pretty digs up a ship’. Some great photos.
  4. This is an update of an earlier book, Sutton Hoo, Burial Ground of Kings?, British Museum Press, 1998. Chapter 1 is exactly the same.
  5. The other standard text the NT used to sell is Angela Care Evans, The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, The British Museum Press, revised edition 1994. Now unfortunately out of print. Not so much about the story of the dig, but more good photos. Excellent on the treasures now in the BM.
  6. Details of the sequence of events from Charles Phillips’ point of view can be found in “Volume I”, aka The Big Black Book. (Formally, BRUCE-MITFORD, R., 1975. The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, Volume I. British Museum.) These are extracts from Phillips’ diaries. See Chapter 12, pp 732-747.
  7. Here is some background and a sequence of events extracted from my own notes for a Sutton Hoo tour:

“…. Over there you can see Tranmer House, formerly Sutton Hoo House. It was built in 1910, and in 1926 it was bought by Colonel Frank Pretty. He lived there as a country gentlemen with his wife, Edith, and plenty of staff.

Edith’s father was very rich. She was educated at Roedean, with Frank Pretty’s sisters, and she had had a very privileged upbringing. She had travelled all over the world [visiting, for example, all the important archaeological sites in Egypt, and the Taj Mahal (with her father, she climbed one of the four towers at the corners). She had been all over Europe, had done one round-the world trip, and many other trips, including South Africa and South America.] She was into good works, and served with the Red Cross during the First World War, both in England and in France. She became a prominent figure locally, and was a magistrate.

A son, Robert, was born in 1930 – when Edith was 47 years old! Her husband Frank died four years later in 1934. Edith’s health was not good – she had had typhoid when she was pregnant – so things had become difficult for her. She turned to Spiritualism, which was quite popular in the 1930s.

The story goes that she or one of her visitors was looking out of the window towards the mounds one misty night and claimed to see – well, there are all sorts of tales, from ‘chieftain’ to ‘ghostly riders’. Anyway, in 1937 Edith decided to excavate. She knew the mounds were burial places, and after all, they did belong to her. Eventually she sought the advice of the head of Ipswich Museum, Guy Maynard, and he recommended a free-lance archaeologist, Basil Brown. Basil was from a humble farming background, and self-taught, but had lots of practical experience, in particular with the local soils. He cycled over from his home, [26 miles away, at Rickinghall] near [Diss and] the Norfolk border, for an interview. He was taken on for the following summer by Edith at 30 shillings a week, and allowed the use of two of Edith’s men for the digging.

Come the summer of 1938, Edith was very keen to tackle what we now call Mound 1, but Basil poked around a bit and persuaded her to look at three other mounds instead. It turned out that all these mounds had been robbed long ago, but what they found was of enough archaeological significance to offer some encouragement. In 1939, Mrs Pretty insisted on excavating Mound 1, but – time to move on….


In the summer of 1938, Basil Brown first dug into what we now call Mound 3, which I’ll show you later, over there  He found some cremated remains on a wooden tray, and a few bits and pieces, including the bronze lid of an ewer of Mediterranean origin, which looked early mediaeval. And it was evident that someone had dug there before. Then he went for this one, Mound 2.

Basil knew of a newspaper report of a dig into this particular mound in 1860. The diggers had come away with some bucketfuls of ‘iron screw-bolts’, which they offered to the local blacksmith to be made into horseshoes. Basil also knew of an excavation two years later, in 1862, near Snape, about ten miles NE of here. This was an Anglo-Saxon ship burial, leaving rows of iron rivets in their original positions. So he was hoping to find evidence of the same here.

Basil then dug into Mound 4. It had some cremated remains inside a bronze container, but that mound too had been robbed. But at the end of 1938 there was enough evidence to relate the mounds to high-status Anglo-Saxons, before Basil moved to Mound 1 in 1939.


So, on 8th May 1939, at Mrs Pretty’s behest, Basil Brown started on Mound 1. He’d looked at Mound 3 and Mound 4 [pointing] the previous summer. They had been robbed, and were a bit disappointing, but now he started again with two new helpers, John Jacobs, one of the gardeners, and William Spooner, the gamekeeper.

Basil used a technique which was common in those days, and which was to dig a trench into the side of the mound, staying at ground level. In these parts the subsoil is a different colour from the surface soil, so they would be on the watch for a change of colour. This could indicate subsoil which had been used by the burial workers when backfilling a hole, so you should slow down a bit. After a couple of days, Jacobs discovered a bit of iron. Basil immediately recognised it was a ship’s rivet, and went much more carefully. He soon found more rivets, which showed themselves up by an orange discoloration of the soil before he actually reached them. They indicated the bow of a ship, and suggested the lines of planking. That stick represents where the bow was. Basil worked inwards very carefully, digging slightly downwards, clearing the soil out of the ship, tracking the lines of rivets and leaving a protective layer of soil in place.

The effect of the acid sand on organic material, like the ship’s wood, is interesting. The sand attacks the organic material, and can move in and replace it. But a delicate crust can form where the surface of the original material had been. As Basil carefully brushed away the loose sand on top, the ribs and planks became very obvious, as you can see from the photos in the Exhibition Hall. If you gave it a poke with a finger, you’d go through the crust and find a sandy interior, rather like a meringue.

Guy Maynard, of Ipswich Museum, had also been active. He had been given some misleading information about an item from Mound 3. We now think it’s a 6th century Frankish throwing axe, but he’d been told that although they didn’t really know it might have been Viking. Anyway, he had already made discreet contact with the museum on the Isle of Man, where they had had experience of excavating Viking ship burials. But he had set the grapevine working. The national centre of archaeological gossip at that time was the coffee room of the Department of Archaeology at Cambridge University. The eminent archaeologist Charles Phillips soon picked up the news. He found an excuse to pay Maynard a visit, and they looked at the site in early June, with Mrs Pretty. Phillips decided two new parties needed to get involved – the British Museum, for obvious reasons, and the government, through the Ministry of Works, which these days would be part of the Department of the Environment. Their representatives duly visited the site a few days later. Basil Brown was told to stop excavating; he didn’t take a great deal of notice, and carried on clearing out the ship up to where it seemed the burial chamber might start and perhaps he ought to stop. Then he found the other end of the ship, and started excavating that. Phillips was asked to take responsibility on behalf of the Ministry of Works. He went ahead and quickly recruited a team. Two months after work had first started, Philips came here to take control. He made it very clear that Ipswich Museum was out of the picture; he and Guy Maynard had a blazing row here at the site. Phillips’s team started work on the burial chamber a couple of days later. Basil was still around, probably because Edith Pretty stuck up for him, but in the background. The project was poorly-financed and not well-equipped, but it had some good people and made rapid progress.

Now, consider that this was the summer of 1939. Plenty of other things were on the government’s mind. The British Museum was much more concerned about how to handle its existing treasures, and was making plans to store them in the London Underground in the event of war. This was really a rescue-mission.


[Mound 1] You’ll notice something odd about the back end of the mound [pointing]. We seem to have lost it. In his diary for 1938 Basil Brown mentions that the mound “shows signs of disturbance at the western end”, and this was one of the reasons he put off digging Mound 1.The disturbance happened when a boundary bank was built in the Middle Ages – you can see it along there – using earth from the mound. This alteration is important because it gives a misleading idea of where the middle of the original mound is. As he approached the burial chamber, [moving to the spot] Basil came across the remains of a fire, and bits of a broken Bellarmine jar, probably from late Elizabethan times. These were quite deep down, about here, almost to the bottom of the ship. A serious attempt had been made to rob the mound in the usual way, digging downwards at its apparent middle point, but the robbers had given up. One can imagine they were utterly demoralised, probably cold and wet, and so they lit a fire and opened up some gin.

Phillips’s team dug out the burial chamber, and everyone was amazed. It was a sensation in the papers, “The Million Pound Grave”, and in August a treasure trove inquest was convened at the church hall in Sutton, about a mile over there [pointing]. ‘Treasure trove’ is about deciding if the treasure belongs to the Crown.  If it is believed that whoever buried it did so on the sly, intending to come back later to dig it up again when it suited them, then this would be interpreted as an early form of tax evasion, and the treasure would be forfeit. At Sutton, expert after expert testified before the coroner that the treasure had been buried openly, in front of everyone, with the intention that it should be left there for all time. The jury duly decided it was not treasure trove. Consequently it did not belong to the Crown. It belonged to the land-owner, who was, of course, Mrs Pretty. The Crown might have appealed, but within a week Mrs Pretty announced she was donating the treasure to the nation, and the whole question became academic. Edith was offered a CBE in the Honours List, but she declined it. She was not a well woman and she died in 1942, when Robert was 12. He went to live with his aunt and her family. The estate here passed out of the family. [The family did retain some excavation rights. In fact Robert Pretty wrote a letter to the Society of Antiquities in 1978 trying to encourage a major archaeological project on the site. Robert died in 1989, see Saxon #9; he and his son David passed the reserved rights for excavation to the Sutton Hoo Research Trust in 1989. Also, it’s something of an aside, but on St Valentine’s Day 1982, Mound 11 [pointing] – over there – was found to have a hole dug in the middle of it, apparently by treasure seekers. This event concentrated minds considerably, as we shall see later.]

When the treasure had been removed, the ship was surveyed and photographed. It was covered in bracken, and simply left. The war started soon afterwards, and the treasure was stored in the London Underground.

During the war this site was used by the Army for training. Now you can imagine, given your first chance to drive a military vehicle, how attractive these mounds must have appeared. Fortunately one of the officers was Ted Wright, who, with his brother, had discovered the Bronze Age boat at North Ferriby, by the Humber. He appealed up the line of command and gained some protection before there was too much damage.

The war finished, and in 1945 the British Museum recovered the treasures from the Underground for restoration, evaluation and display. Any organic matter there had been in the burial chamber, like wood, a body, or textiles, would have been attacked, because it had lain in what was effectively an acid bath from water that dripped in through the roof.  After a few decades the roof of the burial chamber would have given way, and the top of the mound collapsed downwards. At any rate, that’s the simplest explanation for the damage done to some of the contents.

The British Museum didn’t revisit the site until 1965. The ship was in a pretty bad way. A bren-gun carrier had been driven over the rear end, and a slit trench obliterated where the steering arrangement would have been.”


  1. Here is a telescoped history I did, taken from a 15 minute talk on the ship, on behalf of the NT:

“At the behest of the landowner, Mrs Edith Pretty, Basil Brown and two others started the digging on 8th May, 1939. The bow of the ship was discovered a few days after. A month later, the British Museum was encouraging the Office of Works to step in, putting Charles Phillips into the frame as someone who might take charge. A month on, early in July, Phillips had organised a project team and taken over on site. One of his early visitors was Commander Hutchison of the Science Museum, who in due course would survey the remains of the ship. The first spectacular artefact, a gold cloisonné pyramid, was found on the 21st July. By the end of July all the treasure was on its way to London. On the 8th August Commander Hutchison and the two other surveyors started to take measurements. The treasure trove inquest was held locally on the 14th. By the end of the 25th August it was all over – the ship was filled with bracken, and everyone had left the site. World War Two started a week later.

So it was all amazingly quick. More time was spent on the ship survey than on the excavation and raising of the treasure. Phillips himself was very interested in ships, and he investigated key parts with Hutchison, taking sections to try and determine the shape of the keel, and so forth. It looks as if he took the opportunity to relax a bit after all the excitement of the treasure.”

  1. I did an article for Saxon, the bulletin of the Sutton Hoo Society, on the survey of the ship. It is in number 66, July 2018.

“In August 1939, after the treasure had been lifted from the burial chamber, a team arrived to survey the ship. This was led by Lieutenant-Commander John Kenneth Douglas Hutchison, R.N. (retired). He was from the Science Museum, where he was the Keeper of the Department of Ship Models, and he had two assistants, A S Crosley and F Gilman. War was declared soon afterwards, and Hutchison went off to serve. The notes and papers belonging to the Science Museum were eventually destroyed in a bombing raid. The only surviving information is at Ipswich Museum. It is a tracing of sheet 2 of 2 of a provisional drawing made originally in September 1939 by ‘ASC’, who must be Crosley. The legend also shows that the drawing was not checked, that the tracing was done in November, and that Hutchison signed his approval on 30/11/39. He died during the war, and his records were destroyed by his widow.

In 1939, Charles Phillips had been chosen to take charge of the excavation. An eminent archaeologist, he was also just the man to put together a high-powered team in short order.  Volume I reproduces Charles Phillips’ diary of the excavation, with footnotes by Bruce-Mitford. One of the notes hints that the selection of the Science Museum to do the survey had raised the hackles of the National Maritime Museum. This may suggest that Commander Hutchison and his team had a good reputation and were worth sticking out for. Hutchison himself made a couple of brief visits for reconnaissance, and the diary says that on the afternoon of Tuesday 8th August the team of three arrived and ‘…orders were given in Woodbridge for the construction of the necessary wooden apparatus for the survey’. On Monday 21st August ‘The survey of the after end of the boat was continued and by the end of the day it had been nearly finished’. The team spent at least eleven working days there. Phillips entrusted Hutchison with cutting several archaeological sections to try and find out more about the stem, the keel and the stern. Another footnote in Volume 1 says that at this phase of project Hutchison took charge of most of the work at the site, while Phillips ‘was able to consider the problems of the ship at leisure and discuss them with Commander Hutchison.’ All in all, this suggests that Hutchison discharged the survey in a confident and capable manner.”

  1. Some quick observations on the film:

‘Rory Lomax’ is entirely fictional. But from Wikipedia for ‘Tranmer House’  – “Tranmer House, then called Sutton Hoo House, was designed in 1910 by John Shewell Corder, an architect based in Ipswich, for a Suffolk artist, John Chadwick Lomax.”

The Peggy Piggott portrayal is unjust. She was 28 years old in 1939, and already had a good archaeological background with plenty of field experience. Stuart Piggott has a Wikipedia entry – for Peggy, see the Wikipedia entry about Margaret Guido.

Things happened quickly, but not at the breakneck speed implied in the film, with folk making dramatic unexpected appearances.

Charles Phillips was an apparently a rather abrasive, domineering character, but no fool. Has a Wikipedia entry. Energetic, with wide contacts, he was a good man to put a team together quickly. I doubt he was liable to occasional buffoonery, as in the film.  He published My life in Archaeology in 1987.


Some notable absences:

Commander Hutchison, who led the survey, and his team. After the excitement of the treasure, Hutchison was often effectively in charge.

Mercie Lack (who has a Wikipedia entry) and Barbara Wagstaff. They turned up after the treasure was lifted. Schoolmistresses and excellent amateur photographers, they made an invaluable record during the survey. Maiden ladies and companions, one imagines with some independent means. Such couples were quite common in the aftermath of World War 1.