Sutton Hoo part 3
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Part 3


The Excavation Begins

t is noteworthy that these low burial mounds would possibly still remain largely undisturbed today if it were not for the enthusiasm of the landowner. In 1938 - a Mrs Edith Pretty, inspired by an earlier archaeological trip to Egypt returned with a curiosity about the barrows that were on her land. She realised that there was a possibility that they held something that may be historically interesting. Little did she know that it would eventually turn out to be one of the most important archaeological finds made in England of early Saxon treasure and relics.

Who Can Help Me?

n the first half of 1938, Edith Pretty must have asked the above question to herself a number of times. She eventually contacted the curator of the Ipswich museum. Guy Maynard, the curator listened to Mrs Pretty and decided to refer her to an individual called Basil Brown. Basil Brown was an archaeologist and familiar with the area. Due to the particularly sandy soil at the site, it was important that any archaeological dig carried out was with care and caution - which was sensible - as it turned out later to be. Basil brown met with Mrs Pretty and discussed the task and the complications of removing tons of sandy soil. Obviously not a one-man operation. Mrs Pretty volunteered her gardener named - John Jacobs and gamekeeper - William Spooner.

Sutton Hoo Site

Sutton Hoo interpretation. Barrow one is in the foreground and the natural grassy terrain has been removed to give a better impression of their form.


Where Shall We Start?

ny archaeologist likes to start on an undisturbed site. Mrs Pretty on the other hand wanted Basil Brown to begin his excavations on the largest mound. Basil was not too keen on this idea because it had shown signs of disturbance. He eventually persuaded Mrs Pretty, who must have bowed to his experience, that barrow 3 would be the best place. The dig commenced on the 20th June 1938.

Barrow Three

ue to the lack of disturbance and the fact that grave robbing was not the sole preserve to the pyramids of Egypt, the signs of post construction tampering were absent. The task confronting Basil brown and his two recruited helpers was enormous. Mound or barrow 3 was 25 metres wide and about 1.5 metres high. Basil decided to start on the west side and cut an exploratory trench in an easterly direction. His trench was about a metre and a half wide and he slowly progressed towards the centre of the mound. Almost at the centre, he noticed a that there were signs of excavation that were not similar to the soil he had removed. His pulse must have raced at this discovery. His first priority was to estimate the scale of his find. He decided to excavate a 3 metre square in the centre. Once the trench over-spill had been removed - Brown began to dig below ground level. Within 2 metres, he came across what looked like an oak plank or platter almost 2 metres long by about half a metre wide. This decayed plank contained the remains of a human being and a horse. Both cremated bodies were together on the platter. This man's horse would have been sacrificed after his death. Other Bone shards were also found which were possibly from the decoration of the man's possessions. Also buried with him was a jug and throwing axe called a fransisca. Throwing axes were short handled and heavily weighted at the blade end. Basil brown must have become inspired by his discovery because he moved directly on to barrow two.

Sutton Hoo Site

Another interpretation showing the full fifteen mounds to approximate scale. This is possibly how the Sutton Hoo site would of looked around the time of their construction. Erosion and other soil movements over the centuries have now made them flatter than they were originally. Barrow 1 is in the foreground.


Barrow Two

his excavation which was sponsored by Mrs Edith Pretty makes it all the more surprising that he decided to attempt mound 3 instead of mound 1 that Mrs Pretty originally indicated her preference for. However the conversation went between the two, he must have persuaded her that mound 2 was more likely to uncover objects of interest than the obviously disturbed mound 1. What was more surprising was that this barrow appeared more disturbed than mound 1. Basil Browns reasons for choosing this mound are not clear but the excavation began. With the same helpers, he began on the east side this time and dug his trench towards the west. It is interesting to speculate why Basil Brown dug in this direction. Was it to do with the light and the sun position or did he perceive the idea that there could possibly be something buried that warranted digging in this direction? This time his trench was slightly wider than in mound 3, but his technique was the same. This mound was slightly wider and higher than mound 2 and measured 28 metres wide by approximately 2.5 metres high. After removing 6 metres of soil, he came across his first sign of interest. A patch of discoloured soil that could possibly have been caused by fire. This may have been from the original constructors of the barrow. Moving further towards the centre, he made his first real discovery. Two iron nails or rivet like pins were recovered. It probably didn't take Basil Brown long to realise what these rivets could possibly mean. Continuing on, Brown found more rivets in the exploratory trench. He also realised that to find these rivets where they were indicated that considerable tampering had taken place at a later date. He continued towards the centre. Basil Brown became disappointed when he found its contents ransacked. He recovered bits and pieces of what would have been vital evidence for our understanding of these people if only they had been left undisturbed. What was found was of interest nonetheless. The Saxon grave was devoid of its contents. Most of the fragments that remained indicated that the grave robbing operation was very badly implemented from the onset and without due care and attention or respect for the incumbent who was now missing. The most important finds in mound 2 were small shield adornments made of gilt and silver gilt remains that were used to decorate the drinking horns used at the time. A blue glass jar and a couple of blades made of iron and other small items that would have been used to decorate other biodegradable material that had since rotted to nothing.

Barrow Four

asil brown must have been getting exhausted by his labours at this point. Undaunted, he set to work on mound 4. this was the smallest mound excavated so far and measured 20 metres wide by about 1 metre or so high. It was getting late in the year to consider the prospect of barrow 1 He decided to conclude with this mound. Heavily pock-marked with rabbit burrows, he used the same technique as the other two. This was the most disappointing of the three he had excavated. Again, he found cremated bone and some material of superior quality that indicated that the incumbent may have been of high standing. Other fragments found were of bronze. Further studies of the bones show that they were of a young adult and those of a horse. When a high ranking Saxon dies, it appears that so does everything else he owns.

No more - after four

o more excavations were carried out that year. The clouds of war were inextricably heading England's way. The largest mound was yet to be attempted. Barrow 1 would have to wait. 

I wonder when one - if ever

asil Browns work that year was important for our understanding of the burial culture of high status Saxons. He must have been mortified by the ransacking of all three mounds. It would have been easy to understand his interest waning after the work he had put in to see the vandalism inflicted on these graves' hundreds of years ago. Even though many of the contents were missing, the fragments that remained helped us understand those times a little better. The impending war clouds, soon to descend in 1939, left doubts as to when barrow 1 would be attempted.


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copyright Glen Ray Crack - Battle - East Sussex - United Kingdom
Submitted 10th January 1998
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