The 1930s Sutton Hoo excavations were bookended by tragedy. While the curtain call was a catastrophe on an international scale, with archaeologists battling to complete their excavations as war swept across Europe, the opening one was of a very personal nature. In 1934 Mrs Edith Pretty suddenly found herself a widower, with a young child and the 400 acre Sutton Hoo estate to tend. This unexpected bereavement led to an interest in spiritualism and, eventually, the low, grassy mounds nestling in the heath to the south of Sutton Hoo House. Mrs Pretty resolved to have them excavated, and employed local man and self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown to undertake the task.
At Mrs Pretty’s insistence the first target was also the largest: the substantial earthwork now called Mound 1. But Brown had reservations, and when initial probing proved inconclusive, he persuaded his employer to let him get his eye in on one of the smaller features. What followed was something of a debacle, with the contents of the mound variously identified as a ‘casket’, a ‘boat’ and a ‘dew pond’. Whatever the truth, the burial chamber had clearly been heavily robbed. More digging produced more robbed burials, but Mound 2 also contained tantalising traces of a boat burial. A handful of rivets were still in place, while a sliver of glass and fragment of a sword blade hinted at the riches that had rewarded the raiders. By the close of the first season the results were promising, but far from sensational.
The second season opened on the 8th May 1939, with Mrs Pretty sending Brown back to Mound 1 to try again. Within 3 days the first boat rivet was discovered, and poking around in the vicinity quickly revealed several more. Realising that the rivets were still in place, tracing the ghostly outline of a long vanished ship’s prow, Brown concentrated on exposing the hull of what quickly proved to be an enormous vessel. At 27m long, it was the largest pre-Viking period boat ever found in Europe. As rumours of a Suffolk ship burial leaked out, the academic world began to take a keen interest in the affairs of Mrs Pretty’s back garden. It was agreed that a professional team should be assembled, but with the British Museum and the London ministries preparing for war, the timing could hardly have been worse. Eventually, with a shoestring budget and a team awaiting call up, Charles Phillips took over.
The precautions paid off, and on the 21st July the first of a flood of riches was unearthed: a small but astonishingly intricate gold and garnet scabbard stud. What followed was to rewrite Anglo Saxon archaeology, and remains the stuff of legend. More gold, cauldrons, drinking horns, shoulder clasps, a sword, buckle, sceptre, chainmail and, of course, the iconic helmet were prised from amidships of the great vessel. As work progressed these finds were kept hush hush, and a famous anecdote records the ribbing the excavators faced at a local bar.
“Found much gold today?” the locals joked.
“Yes, my pockets are full of the stuff” replied one of the team without missing a beat, while the great gold buckle weighed heavily on his jacket.
The secrecy paid off and the excavations were successfully concluded on the 30th July. After an inquest Mrs Pretty donated the contents of the burial chamber to the British Museum. The finds were despatched to London, just in time to be rushed back underground, where they sat out the Second World War in a disused tube station.