The Dig and the Story of the Sutton Hoo Excavation

You may well be aware that Netflix has recently released The Dig, a drama directed by Simon Stone, based on the 2007 novel of the same name by John Preston, which reimagines the events of the 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo. In this bonus post we have let Emily free to write about the real people involved and the excavations of the Saxon boat burial found at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk.

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The first place to start is with Mrs Edith Pretty herself. After all, without her there may have never been a dig on the site!

Edith May Dempster was born on August 1st, 1883.  Edith’s grandfather had lifted himself out of poverty to become a factory owner and as a result, her father Robert Dempster, was an affluent industrialist in the north of England. 

Edith was fortunate enough to be educated at Roedean, a private boarding school found on the outskirts of Brighton, and throughout her youth she travelled the globe visiting sites at Pompeii, the Egyptian pyramids, tombs and monuments at Luxor as well as other significant archaeological sites. Furthermore, her father had excavated Cistercian Abbey which adjoined their home at Vale Royal so by the time she had moved to Suffolk in 1926 she had some experience in the world of archaeology.

During the First World War Edith at the age of 31 became quartermaster of the Red Cross military hospital at Winsford, Cheshire before she moving to a Red Cross hospital in France, and while she had no formal medical training she embraced the work, helping to care for the casualties of the Western Front where she would witness the carnage the war had wrought. Throughout the war Edith kept in contact with Frank Pretty, her fiancé, eventually marrying him in 1926 aged 42.

In 1925, Edith’s father passed away, leaving an estate which was worth more than £500,000 (upwards of £30 million by today’s standards) which left Edith and her sister Elizabeth very well off. With this money Edith purchased Sutton Hoo House (today known as Tranmer House) and the surrounding 526 acre estate for a sum of £15,250, and this would be the Pretty’s home. Four years later, aged 47 she gave birth to a son, Robert in 1930.

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Tranmer House- Image from Wiki Commons

But tragedy was to follow, on Frank’s 56th birthday in 1934 he sadly passed away. In the summer of 1934 doctors had diagnosed him with stomach cancer but had asked Edith not to tell him as they had believed it was best that he didn’t know. Following the death of her husband Edith withdrew from her social life and she spent more time on her estate where she began to focus on a group of low earth mounds laying just 500 yards from her home.

While she had withdrawn from her social life, Edith had also become a keen spiritualist and she believed that the dead and the living could communicate with one another, a popular belief at the time and still to this day. In fact she made regular trips to London to see a medium. And it has been said that ghostly images were seen standing on the mounds by her home and this had caused the interest in them. However, from her experiences as a child she would have known that a professional excavation of these mounds would have been needed to discover what lay beneath and so she consulted the curator of the Ipswich Corporation Museum, Guy Maynard, and local “amateur” archaeologist Basil Brown was recommended to begin the work.

Edith oversaw the excavations herself for 2 years and when the largest mound unearthed the ghostly remains of a huge boat burial she knew that the find would be of enormous historic significance. She was declared the owner of the finds but in 1938 she gifted all of the treasure to the nation and she remains The British Museum’s most generous benefactor. In a now uncovered letter from Winston Churchill she was found to have been offered a CBE to recognise her gift to the nation but Edith refused and her sister was found to call her a goose for not accepting. Edith died suddenly of a blood clot to the brain a week or so before Christmas in 1942. The Sutton Hoo estate was worth almost £400,000 and it passed in trust to her son Robert who following his education at Eton went into farming.

Next let’s look at archaeologist Basil Brown

Basil John Wait Brown was born in January 1888, in Bucklesham, near Ipswich and was the only child of a Suffolk Farmer. As a child Basil attended his local village school and as in all rural schools at the time, teachers taught large classes of mixed ability and age and later in life he admitted that he disliked history at school, not least because he wanted to prove his teacher wrong whenever he could. He was however lucky that his school lessons were supplemented by a private tutor who nurtured his inquisitive mind and in his late teens he took a correspondence course in astronomy, geology and geography while he also taught himself Latin.

At the age of 12 Basil left school and joined his father on the farm, keeping the tenancy after his father’s death. But he wasn’t a natural farmer and he wasn’t able to make an living in this way and he and his wife May, moved briefly to the nearby schoolhouse and it was here where he completed his Astronomical Atlases, Maps and Charts: An Historical and General Guide which was published in 1932, reprinted in the 1960s and brought him recognition in astronomical circles.

Astronomy wasn’t his only interest. It was his interest in Roman pottery that led him to a Roman kiln at Wattisfield, Suffolk which was excavated and given a new home at Ipswich Museum in the mid 1930s and this is how Basil came to the attention of Guy Maynard. It was here that he also got to know the Secretary of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology. He sought work from the two men and his first project was a 13-week contract in 1935 at sites on the Norfolk/ Suffolk border where he was paid £2 a week.

Following the Second World War, Basil was once again employed by Ipswich Museum and in 1952 he was involved with excavations in his home village of Rickinghall where they uncovered a Normal front at one local church and a chapel at another. In 1961 Basil and Ipswich Museum parted ways when he retired but he was far from done with archaeology and he carried out more excavations in Rickinghall until the late 1960s. He passed away in 1977 after developing pneumonia, he was 89.

The Excavation

Basil started work at Sutton Hoo in June 1938 and he was assisted by Sutton Hoo estate labourers, Ben Fuller and Tom Sawyer during the day and the under-gardener’s son, Leslie Buckle in the evening. Together they excavated three of the mounds (which Basil had called tumuli A, D and E) and in one of these mounds they unearthed the remains of a ship burial but all three of the mounds had otherwise been completely robbed of everything else. Today we know this ship burial as Mound Two and it would later be re-examined in the 1980s.

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Sutton Hoo Burial Mounds – image from Wiki Commons

The following spring, Basil returned, this time assisted by William Spooner the gamekeeper and gardener John Jacobs. This time they began to work on the biggest mound in the field (now known as Mound One). It was only a few weeks into the work that they found iron rivets from the hull of a 27-metre long Anglo-Saxon ship, becoming the second of only three known Anglo-Saxon ship burials in England, with the third located just down the road at Snape. While first thought to be a Viking ship burial, the find would go on to radically alter, and deepen, the understanding we had of the early Anglo-Saxon period in England following the collapse of Roman rule.

It was at this stage that expert Charles Phillips from Selwyn College at Cambridge University took over, and archaeologist Peggy Piggott (later known as Peggy Guido) was called back from her holiday along with her husband Stuart to excavate the burial chamber. Peggy would be the first to find gold at the site and shortly after the burial chamber of the boat had been excavated Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff arrived and the two carefully documented the impression of the ship left behind in the acid soil. The images captured by the pair make up the majority of the photographic collection of the excavation, truly capturing a remarkable moment in time.

This site in Suffolk had revealed the largest Anglo-Saxon ship burial ever discovered and contained artefacts of a quality and quantity never seen before. Furthermore, the new evidence of England’s early warrior society became charged with symbolism when Britain declared war on Nazi Germany later that same year. In order to keep the finds safe during the war, they were stored underground in the tunnels of London’s underground. They survived the Blitz, but the plans of the ship had not been stored underground, and unfortunately went up in flames. This loss led archaeologists to return to the burial site decades later to find answers to a few burning questions.

Peggy Piggott

Margaret Guido, was known during her earlier life as Peggy Piggott. She was a pioneer and exemplary archaeologist, excavating a large number of sites and publishing her finds promptly. She was interested in history from childhood and pursued this love as a student of Tessa and Mortimer Wheeler’s Roman excavations at Verulamium in the 1930s, when she also studied at the Institute of Archaeology, London.

She met and married fellow student, Stuart Piggott, who she went on to collaborate with, but she also undertook a huge amount of independent fieldwork and research, starting out with the Early Iron Age. Margaret’s archaeological contribution extended over many decades, including digging a total of 6 hillforts, excavating for the Ministry of Works during the Second World War, establishing a new chronology of prehistoric settlement and was elected a Fellow of Society of Antiquaries of London. In the 1980s she became curator in the 1980s at Devizes Museum, and during this time resumed her fieldwork focus including collaborating with Isobel Smith (best known for her work at Avebury) and Eve Machin.

Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff

Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff were both keen amateur photographers and found themselves on the site of this monumental discovery shortly after a helmet, gold jewellery and other treasured possessions had been removed, asking if Brown had any objections to them photographing the team at work. They may have been tipped off by one of the team working on the site while they were in the area on holiday but the images that these women took are a unique record of the archaeological team at work. Many of the original prints are held at the British Museum, where the Sutton Hoo treasure is also displayed. Many, however, are kept at Sutton Hoo in the care of the National Trust. Furthermore, they are believed to be the first colour photos of an archaeological dig and they show a dig in progress. Mercie used her photographs of the excavation to become an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society. But in both the 2007 novel and the film, the photographer working on the site is not these two women but a fictional character- Rory Lomax, a cousin of Edith.

Thus it is hoped, that, by means of the photographic records taken on the site at the time, some idea of the process of uncovering the boat may be conveyed to later generations who cannot have the chance of seeing it emerge from its sandy grave. – Mercie Lack

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Still from a film made by H. J. Phillips, brother of Charles Phillips- image from wiki commons

Later Excavation

The collection of 263 objects, which included weapons, silver cutlery, gold buckles, coins, and the now distinctive full-face helmet, a kind never before recovered in Britain provided evidence that the burial was not Viking, as first assumed, but Anglo-Saxon. But with the loss of the plans during the Second World War, Rupert Bruce-Mitford and Paul Ashbee along with a team of archaeologists returned to the site 20 years later.

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The Sutton Hoo Helmet – image from Wiki Commons

Their most pressing question was why no human remains had been found in the burial, after all the grave goods had been placed around the shape of a body. The mystery was solved when chemical analysis of the sand below the burial chamber showed high phosphate levels which established that a body had decomposed there and the acidic soil of the region would also explain why the timbers of the boat as well as the remains themselves had dissolved.

In 1983, archaeologist Martin Carver was keen to explore some of the other mounds within the Royal Burial Ground and the areas in between as previous digs had focussed on the great ship burial. Over the next 10 years he discovered a second ship  burial, the resting place of a warrior and the gruesome ‘sand bodies’. The second ship burial was found through Basil Brown’s initial finds in Mound 2. Martin’s team deduced that it was likely to have contained a very rich ship burial of a person of comparable status to the large ship burial on the site. While the grave had been robbed, and subsequently excavated by Basil, some fine objects had either been left behind or missed, including: two decorated gilt-bronze discs, a bronze brooch and a silver buckle. The tip of a sword blade showing elaborate pattern welding bore a resemblance to that found in the ship burial in Mound 1, and silver gilt drinking horn mounts were discovered in both mounds and found to have been struck from the same dies. Although the rituals were not identical, comparisons of the content of the burials suggests a similar date and status.

Mound 14 was found to have been the only discernible high-status burial of a woman so far discovered in the area now designated as the Royal Burial Ground, leading some to conclude that this was the resting place of a queen, and perhaps the widow of Mound 1. Regardless, its treasures, which include objects from the Byzantine Empire and the Mideast, have deepened researchers’ understanding of the trade networks between the Anglo-Saxons and the European mainland.

So who did this great burial belong to? One popular theory is that the burial belonged to Rædwald, King of East Anglia, who died in 624 CE, and whose reign coincides with the dates of the Sutton Hoo treasure. Rædwald was one of the first Angle kings to convert to Christianity, and although this ship burial contains pagan elements, academics do not see this as a reason to rule him out. He lived at a time in which ancient customs coexisted with new religious ideas. Other information which supported the idea of a kingly burial includes-

  • The size of the ship. It was built of overlapping planks fixed to a series of curving cross-beams, it had been 27m long and 4m across.
  • Its position at the top of a 30m bluff showed that it had been dragged by a large workforce, indicating the status of the deceased.
  • The grave goods also spoke of the status of the grave’s occupant.

Furthermore, Mound 1 had been constructed in the early 7th century CE and from the writings of Bede, (writing about a hundred years later), we know that one Raedwald, lord of the Wuffings, ruled as King of East Anglia at this time, and he claimed authority over all the English as bretwalda (over-king). The Wuffings were probably the descendants of invaders from Sweden who had arrived in East Anglia around 500 CE. A man called Wehha was said to be the first to rule over the East Angles in Britain, probably around 550 CE. He was followed by his son, Wuffa, then by his grandson, Tyttla, and finally, in 599 CE, by his great-grandson, Raedwald. 

Viking Boat Burials

Now we know that the boat found at Sutton Hoo was first believed to be Viking and why was this?

The Swedish, like the Norwegians favoured burial in the ground but they would also build elaborate chambers in which the deceased were placed. The Danish Vikings however favoured cremation rather than inhumation; the cremated remains would be encircled by stones which formed the shape of a boat. And if we believe that the Anglo-Saxon kings were descended from Vikings from Sweden then we can assume they would have brought some of their traditions with them, or perhaps even vice versa.

Furthermore archaeologists believed that the grave chamber parallels those of ships of Oseberg and Gokstad found in Norway.

The Oseberg Ship

In 1904 a remarkable archaeological site was uncovered at Oseberg, Norway. It consisted of an astonishingly well-preserved Viking ship that contained not the remains of a man but the remains of two women along with a wide array of accompanying grave goods. This ship burial has been widely celebrated as one of the finest finds of the Viking Age and has been dated to 834 CE.

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The Oseberg ship on display at the Viking ship museum, Oslo. – image from wiki commons

The burial mound measured approximately 40m long by 6.5m high and it, like the Sutton Hoo ship, completely covered the boat. The conditions within the mound were particularly damp meaning that the ship and its contents survived nearly intact. The boat was constructed primarily out of oak planks, the vessel measured 21.40m long by 5.10m wide.

The skeletons of the two women had been placed centrally within a specially built wooden tent which was found at the stern of the ship. One of the women was in her eighties. The second woman was younger and had died in her early fifties. One popular theory as to who the occupants of the Oseberg Ship were is that they may have been a royal mother and daughter who had died at or around the same time.

Interestingly, the boat itself may have been an item of antiquity before it was used for the burial. The reason for this belief is due to the decoration on both the prow and stern which was an old design to use before the ship was used for the funeral. Similarly it was discovered that the boat at Sutton Hoo was an old design even when it was buried and showed signs that it too had been repaired.

The Gokstad Ship

In autumn 1879 the two teenage sons on the farm were bored and started to dig into the mound to see if they could find anything exciting. The large burial mound called ‘the king’s mound’ was situated at the farm of Gokstad in Sandefjord municipality. The burial mound around the ship had been built up of clay and peat. It was approximately five metres high and had a diameter of almost 45 metres. The two upper strakes and both bow and stern posts protruded from the clay and had therefore been completely destroyed, but otherwise the ship was exceptionally well preserved.

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The archaeological excavations of the Gokstad ship – image from wiki commons

The ship was dated to around 890 CE, and it was the final resting place for a rich and powerful man, in his mid 40s, who died a violent death which it was speculated was probably in battle. Among his grave goods were 12 horses, 8 dogs, 2 goshawks, and 2 peacocks. Also found within the burial ship were three small boats. The middle sized example of these boats, known as a Faering, referring to its nature as an open clinker built boat, pointed at both ends, and propelled by two pairs of oars, is a design that has survived into modern times, with traditional boats used in the twentieth century in the Shetlands and Norway sharing may similar features.

It is important to mention here that ship burial wasn’t the normal thing. Ships were far too useful and too precious to be used in burials, other than for the richest and highest status members of society; and the less important were sometimes buried within a ship shape marked out by standing stones. Boats were important to sea faring people like the Vikings and the proximity of the Sutton Hoo site to the River Deben may have been similarly important to its local people.

Whether you enjoyed learning about this amazing discovery through the eyes of archaeologists or through the novel which reimagined the discovery, or if you are only now learning of it through thanks to Netflix, what is certain is that it was an amazing discovery and one which changed our understanding of the ancient world.

Author- Emily Casson


Sutton Hoo (1948) by T C Lenthbridge in Archaeology (Volume 1 Number 1 pp 8-12)

Dying and the dead: Viking age mortuary behaviour. In: N. Price’s The Viking Ship""” target=”_blank” rel=”noreferrer noopener”>The Viking Ship by Gareth Williams (2014)

Valhalla, in search of the Viking dead staff training handbook. York: Jorvik Viking centre. (2012)

British Museum Podcast #3 Sutton Hoo

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