Anyone who has visited Sutton Hoo will view the huge ship grave and the National Trust exhibition of priceless royal treasures with a sense of awe and wonder. It is over sixty years ago since this seventh-century Anglo-Saxon burial ground and great royal grave was unearthed in a Suffolk field. It still has an inescapable fascination.
The helmet, of which this is a reconstruction on display at Sutton Hoo, has become an icon of the early medieval period and is described by the British Museum:
The face-mask is the helmet’s most remarkable feature. It works as a visual puzzle, with two possible ‘solutions’. The first is of a human face, comprising eye-sockets, eyebrows, moustache, mouth and a nose with two small holes so that the wearer could breathe. The copper alloy eyebrows are inlaid with silver wire and tiny garnets. Each ends in a gilded boar’s head – a symbol of strength and courage appropriate for a warrior. The second ‘solution’ is of a bird or dragon flying upwards. Its tail is formed by the moustache, its body by the nose, and its wings by the eyebrows. Its head extends from between the wings, and lays nose-to-nose with another animal head at the end of a low iron crest that runs over the helmet’s cap.
THE DIG – a novel by JOHN PRESTON
John Preston’s discovery that his aunt, Peggy Piggott, had helped out on the dig prompted him to research and write this book. Digging deeper he discovered a story of intrigue and heartbreak, thus providing further material for this, his fourth novel. The story is a quiet dramatisation of the events of the events of 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Preston approaches the drama of the excavation through the eyes of those who were there. Basil Brown, a local man with a great interest in archaeology and self taught, first unearthed the ship and was eventually pushed aside by Charles Phillips, fellow of Selwyn College, expert in all things Anglo Saxon and pompous Cambridge don who eventually had Brown removed so he could take charge of the dig himself. Even though Basil was demoted to menial shovelling duties he is for me the real hero of this story. I suppose it’s because I like fighting for the underdog.
Mrs Edith Pretty, the widowed owner of Sutton Hoo House on whose land the burial mounds lie was a keen spiritualist who tried to make contact with her dead husband and it is her interest in this had some bearing on her decision to start excavating the mounds.
But best of all is Peggy Piggott, Preston’s aunt, a young history scholar who interrupted her honeymoon to take part in the dig. She has just married a limp wristed archaeologist who was brought in by the professionals when the importance of the dig became clear. It is clear that their marriage was doomed from the start.
During the dig, all of these characters find that the archaeology takes over their personal concerns. Love, memories and personal advancement take second place to those emotions churned up by the finding of a coin, a bead or a belt buckle. As the group contemplate the scale and archaeological wealth of the burial ship, their excitement increases. I never thought the subject of archaeology could be so gripping!
The descriptive narrative of the novel, especially the practicalities of the dig, will resonate with many detectorists. We can identify with some of the characters and Basil Brown in particular. The rivalries and clashes of the archaeologists are vividly portrayed, but the treasure is eventually presented to the British Museum by Mrs Pretty (her land – her treasure, was the decision of the court).
This is a wonderful and evocative novel. John Preston has skilfully recreated the suspense and the excitement of this important excavation whilst at the same time giving us an emotionally charged drama. I found this a delicious read. A bonus is the delicate portrait of a pre-war Suffolk, few cars, empty roads and dark pubs with decent beer.
Basil Brown – Son of the Soil
Edith Pretty originally employed Basil Brown to make the excavation. He realised that they were probably burial mounds and had been dug before. To his surprise the largest mound revealed the shape of a ship in the soil. He realised the importance of the discovery and contacted the British Museum who took over and sent ‘expert archaeologists’ to complete the task. From that moment on, and although he continued to assist in the excavation, Basil received little recognition for his efforts. Later, in recognition of his work at Sutton Hoo, he was awarded a pension of £250 a year.
How pleased I was on my recent visit to Sutton Hoo to see that the National Trust, in addition to plugging the ‘awe-inspiring Anglo-Saxon burial site’ had opened up the outhouse that Edith Pretty had let Basil use as a base whilst he worked there. Although I couldn’t find anything on the NT site about this, I found the place intriguing and evocative, and spent a great deal if time looking around. Here are some pictures taken at the time: