Basil Brown and Edith Pretty have revealed Europe’s richest grave to transform archaeologists’ understanding of Anglo-Saxon history, reports Andrew Southam
About 83 years ago, self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown uncovered the greatest Anglo-Saxon discovery ever made. Wealthy widower Edith Pretty hired him in 1938 to dig low grass mounds on his estate at Sutton Hoo, now Tranmer House, near Woodbridge in Suffolk.
Months before the darkness of World War II, Basil unearthed an iron ship’s rivet from the largest mound, then another and another, slowly revealing the structure of a 27-meter-deep Anglo-Saxon ship. long.
Before him and his two helpers (the estate gardener and the gamekeeper) in June 1939 was an intact 7th-century burial chamber.
Professional archaeologists alongside the Ipswich Museum, the British Museum, the Science Museum, the University of Cambridge and the government quickly settled.
Two policemen had to guard the site.
Not only did Basil and Edith find the richest tomb in Europe, but their excavations transformed archaeologists’ understanding of the Anglo-Saxons.
The story of the discovery and relationship between Edith and Basil is told in John Preston’s 2007 book The Dig, made into a blockbuster movie released last year starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan.
Channel 4’s popular Time Team now plans to unlock new Sutton Hoo secrets.
Increased public interest in the story prompted them to restart their programs, which last aired in 2014, through their official YouTube channel.
Alongside archaeologists from the National Trust and Historic England, the Time Team will use the latest scientific techniques without disturbing the ground in Sutton Hoo Cemetery.
Radar images capture changes in the landscape before a magnetometer looks through the ground to find objects while 3D photographs recreate realistic images of any finds.
In August 1939, an inquest attributed all the finds to Edith, who gave them to the nation as part of the greatest gift the British Museum had ever received.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill nominated her for a CBE, which she declined.
War broke out a few months later and the finds were stored underground in the disused Aldwych tube station in London.
Edith died in 1942 and the National Trust took over the site in 1998.
Basil continued his archaeological digs in Suffolk after the war before dying in 1977 aged 89.
An annual memorial lecture is given for this farmer’s son who learned Latin and French and earned degrees through evening classes in geology, astronomy and geography.
The mystery remains over who was buried in the ship as the acidic soil completely decomposed their bodies.
Many experts choose King Raedwald, a powerful ruler from 599 to 624 AD in East Anglia, now Suffolk and Norfolk.
Raedwald fits the bill as someone worthy of such a burial, coming from the right place at the right time, with artifacts linked to a Royal East Anglian dynasty.
Other possibilities include one of his sons, a king from a neighboring East Saxon kingdom, or even a high-ranking visitor.
A strong clue points to Raedwald.
Britain in the 7th century was converting to Christianity and Raedwald was the first Christian king of the Angles.
But he was reluctant to follow either Christian or pagan custom and so built a temple to both.
The Sutton Hoo burial chamber contains Christian and pagan artifacts, alluding to Raedwald.
Whatever the answer, the discovery revolutionized knowledge about the Anglo-Saxon period.
The 263 recovered artifacts revealed a world of craftsmanship and cultural sophistication rather than what was previously thought to be the Dark Ages.
Pieces like the famous iron helmet, inspired by late Roman cavalry headgear, are craftsmanship hard to match today.
Coins from the Merovingian dynasty, now modern France and Germany, and silverware from the Byzantine Empire, now modern Turkey, reveal extensive trade networks.
And the finds confirmed the Anglo-Saxon way of life depicted in the medieval epic Beowulf saga.
It was truly a time of warriors, large wooden communal halls and awe-inspiring funerals, in part depicted in the 2007 animated fantasy film of the same name starring actor Ray Winstone.
Sutton Hoo Archeology and Engagement Manager Laura Howarth explains its significance.
She said: “We often refer to the discovery of the Great Ship Burial at Sutton Hoo as the one that changed history.
“A bold statement to make and yet this find remains the richest burial ever found in medieval Europe.” Sutton Hoo has been dubbed England’s own Valley of the Kings.
Excavations continue to yield new discoveries, including a second ship, an Anglo-Saxon folk cemetery and even bound bodies from possible executions in the 7th century.
But much more hides below.
Archaeologists have found tantalizing traces of other cultures spanning through the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages in addition to the Roman, Anglo-Saxon and later periods.
Laura hopes the new investigations “will tell us more about the arguably lesser-known periods of Sutton Hoo’s history and highlight the stories of different people as other pieces of the puzzle of how this landscape has been used over the centuries will hopefully be revealed.”
All finds are on display at the British Museum and Sutton Hoo.