Sutton Hoo part 4
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Part 4


Barrow One 

s the months of 1939 past and the nights became progressively longer, the warmth of the summer sun began to assert itself. War had not yet been declared so Basil Brown met with Edith Pretty and discussed the way forward. It was important that any work needed to be completed quickly and that she was prepared to sponsor another dig. They decided to attempt barrow 1. This was the biggest of the mounds. As you recall, Brown preferred to dig seemingly undisturbed mounds. He persuaded Mrs Pretty the previous year that the likelihood of finding anything in mound 1 would be negligible by the post barrow disturbance that seemed evident. The irony was that she wanted to start here the previous year. Little did they know of the consequences of what they were about to uncover. By today's standards of archaeological digging, the way this barrow was excavated would make a present day archaeologist quake in his shoes. However, we have the methodical approach of Basil Brown and his helpers to thank for the way this monumental uncovering progressed. It would be very easy to condemn the technique used as basic to say the least. What we must be grateful for was Brown's knowledge of the area. Without his expertise of the sandy soil of this district, it would have been very easy to damage what would become the premier find of Saxon burial custom this century. What follows is the uncovering of a large Saxon ship and associated burial artefacts.

The Uncovering

asil Brown must have learnt a considerable amount the previous year and decided to attack the problem the same way. Beginning on the west side, and digging east, Brown, along with Jacobs and Spooner, dug a ground level exploratory trench 2 metres wide towards the centre of the barrow. The amount of sandy soil that had to be removed must have been considerable. After a couple of days of digging and clearing away the soil, Basil came across definite signs of soil disturbance. He must have realised that there was a possibility of something unusual hidden below the surface level of this mound. He must also have thought that grave robbers could also have been there before him. Undaunted, the trio continued their work. An iron rivet was discovered which indicated that there may be a Saxon ship buried beneath this mound. Encouraged by this find, he continued towards the centre. After only a couple of hours, Basil Brown made what was to be a significant find. As more soil was carefully removed the shape of a Saxon ship started to form. It was now that Brown's experience saved what could have been misunderstood by those not conversant with the effect of sandy acid soils on biodegradable material such as those encountered at Sutton Hoo. He immediately realised that he was uncovering the bow or stern of a vessel. He had no way of knowing which end at this stage. What he quickly realised was that none of the wood it had been originally constructed of had survived the centuries. What had survived were the rivets that were still in their original positions. Brown formulated a plan to protect what he was about to slowly uncover. The rusting or oxidation of the rivets had leeched into the wood after the burial and this in turn had discoloured the sand. He calculated that if he followed the line of the rivets, he could uncover the full grandeur of the ship. His first problem was how to protect what he was about to expose. He hit upon the idea of covering the rivets with a thin covering of the soil to protect them from the elements whilst he ruffed out the rest of the vessel. His two helpers were now kept away from the fragile impression of the ship and brown worked alone inside the carcass. He instructed Spooner and Jacobs to widen the access trench. Using the discoloration from the rivets as the indicator for the general shape of the ship, he continued carefully towards the centre. The dimensions of the ship must have staggered Brown. He knew of the ship burials as related in the Viking section but this one appeared much larger. Setbacks were a plenty due to land slips. It became necessary to plank up the sides to avoid brown being buried by his own excavation, to which he so nearly succumbed at one stage. The irony would be beyond belief if he had become a casualty in a burial mound.

From May Till September

asil began the excavation in May 1939 and slowly uncovered a Saxon ship of epic proportions. Leaving a covering of sand over the Turin Shroud like image for protection he continued his work. As he approached the middle of the Barrow, he came upon the first sign of later excavation. Fortunately the pit that was sunk down from the top of the mound had not reached the ship. The filled hole was about 3 metres deep as measured from the top of the barrow. Happily, Brown calculated that it had just not reached the ship or its contents.

Who would have done this?

t is interesting to postulate who had tried to rob this barrow. At the bottom of the hole was discoloured sand. This was attributed to a fire that was lit by the robbers. What dated the later excavation was the discovery of a jar that could be accurately dated to the time of Elizabeth I. This in itself was quite interesting as to who may have been responsible for the incursion. It was known that treasure hunts were encouraged during this period to pay for various exploits and it is not unlikely that this pit was dug with the blessing of the state. There is no evidence to prove this fact however.

A Pounding Heart

asil Brown must have been quite excited at the prospect that the attempt to remove the contents of the mound had failed. He realised that finding the undisturbed contents were now a real possibility. The summer months moved on and more of the ship was slowly being uncovered by Brown's meticulous approach. War would soon darken England's shores and it became a race against time.

Ship? What Ship?

t is amazing that little interest seemed to be shown by the academic world when the first part of the ship was uncovered. You would have thought that when this important find saw daylight the whole project would have been put on an official level. Why did it take 4 months before anybody apart from Mrs Pretty and Basil Brown to realise that this was a find of national and even world importance is open to question? Was there some conspiracy of silence to stop the project being taken over? It is easy to understand that when you have worked on something for a long time, it can be very frustrating when your endeavours become those of others. By June of 1939, much of the ship's outline had been excavated. If Basil brown had wanted to keep this to himself, he was soon going to have the project removed from his charge. If you remember - Guy Maynard, the curator of Ipswich museum and who referred Brown to Mrs Pretty in the first place instigated the dig being placed on a more academic level. It was sad for brown, but it had advanced beyond his capabilities. He had uncovered a large percentage of the ship but what was later to be discovered required expertise that he did not possess.

The Professionals

t must have been a sad day for Basil Brown to have the project he had laboured on for all those months taken away from him. Even he must have realised that it was getting beyond him and that to make much further progress would require the assistance of professional archaeologists. Using his contacts, Guy Maynard enlisted the help of Charles Phillips. Phillips, a fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge and involved in the Ordnance Survey who chart and map make the British Isles. He became the recruiter of a powerful team of experts in this area of archaeology. He visited the site and from his observations invited Stuart Piggott, who later became a Professor of Archaeology at Edinburgh University. His spouse Peggy was also involved - although I am not sure what her qualifications were in the subject. W.F grimes, the director of Institute of Archaeology in London and of course - Basil Brown, who was retained. The whole project became state run from what is now known as the Department of the Environment. If it was under government control, it was not being financed by them because Mrs Pretty was still footing the bill.

Thanks Basil - We Will Take Over Now !

asil was instructed to continue the donkey work with another helper named Bert Fuller. Basil's input slowly declined. He was used for the roughing out the remainder of the ship hull but was banned from touching the artefacts that were soon to be uncovered. This was a job for the professionals. By the 19th of July 1939, the Piggott husband and wife team arrived. The weather turned to rain the first few days and the team had to resort to protection the ship with bits of cloth or anything they could lay their hands on. This included newspaper, boxes or anything that could be used to protect the hull from the elements. You cannot imagine this happening today with something of such national and historical importance. The ship fortunately survived the usual vagaries of the English summer.


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