Explained: The great Sutton Hoo discovery of the 1930s that ‘The Dig’ explores

How was the Sutton Hoo ship burial excavated? What was the significance of the excavation?

Twenty-five minutes into the recently released British drama, ‘The Dig’, archaeologist and excavator Basil Brown (played by Ralph Fiennes) ushers Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) and her son atop the mound he had been digging up at the latter’s estate in Suffolk, England. As he marvelled at the colossal ship that emerged from underneath the mound, he dramatically imagined out loud the way in which it might have found its way there. “I’d expect this is a grave of a great man. A warrior, or a king. They must have pulled his ship all the way up that hill from the river. Now, they’d have put it on ropes, and they’d have hauled it over logs. Men, horses, it must have taken hundreds of them… Can you imagine the send off they’d be giving him? The songs they’d be singing,” narrated Brown.

Thus was made the Sutton Hoo ship burial discovery, arguably one of the most significant archaeological finds in Europe, and perhaps the world. The magnificent discovery which led to history being rewritten in Europe is the subject of the 2007 novel by journalist and writer John Preston, titled ‘The Dig’. It went on to inspire director Simon Stone’s recent film by the same name.

An interesting parallel that can be drawn with India here is the rediscovery of the ancient port city of Muziris in Kerala. A series of extensive excavations carried out by the Kerala Council of Historical Research in Pattanam, North Paravur, in 2006-07 led the council to claim that the first century BCE Muziris port has been discovered. The findings here ranged from human bones, gold ornaments, glass beads, iron pottery, etc. Artefacts found in the area pointed to extensive trade links with the Romans, Mesopotamians and Chinese. The most remarkable find though was a brick structural wharf complex, with nine bollards to harbour boats. In the middle of this was found a decaying canoe. The rediscovery of Muziris led to extensive conservation efforts in the area and inspired several other archaeological digs in and around the region.

How was the Sutton Hoo ship burial excavated?

In 1926, Colonel Frank Pretty, a retired commanding officer in the Suffolk Regiment, along with his wife Edith Pretty, bought a large white Edwardian house in Sutton Hoo, in south east Suffolk. In 1934, Colonel Pretty died, leaving behind his wife with his four-year-old son. Alone, and suffering from ill health herself, Pretty found consolation in counsel of a spiritualist medium. Scholars say these circumstances had some influence on her decision to begin investigation of the burial grounds in her estate.

“The impetus, according to some accounts, was provided by friends and relatives, among them a nephew, a dowser, who insisted that gold was to be found; while others speak of shadowy figures around the mounds after dusk, and a vision of a man on a white horse,” writes archaeologist Martin Carver in his book, ‘Sutton Hoo: Burial grounds of kings’. Carver led the last excavation in the site in 1983.

But Pretty was also well aware of the merits of scientific archaeology and thereby contacted the curator of Ipswich Museum, Guy Maynard. The latter recommended Brown, a self-taught archaeologist, and an amateur astronomer who had gained some reputation for having a nose for antiquity. About his dedication to his archaeological endeavours, his assistant John Jacobs had recollected how he had gone out in the midst of a heavy downpour to tend to the Sutton Hoo excavations. “I think he would have slept there if he had his bed,” said Jacobs, as quoted by Carver in his book.

Brown began work on the Sutton Hoo mounds on June 20, 1938. First the smaller mounds were excavated. Brown realised that they had been raided by grave diggers. However, the discovery of a bronze disc indicated that the site was older than the 9th century Viking era. In May 1939, Brown began work on the larger mound and soon came across lumps of iron which he recognised as a ship’s rivets.

Days of assiduous digging revealed a vessel as large as 90 feet, with the capacity to accommodate at least 20 rowers on each side.

Before Brown could explore further, archaeologist Charles Phillips of Cambridge University reached the site on hearing rumours about the find. Astonished at what he saw, and after discussions with the British museum and Ipswich Museum, he took over the excavation himself. Brown was sidelined to working as a labourer.

One from among the team of archaeologists, Peggy Piggott, within days of her arrival, was the first to discover a piece of gold from the dig. Within days, a treasure trove of 250 items were discovered. Elaborate jewellery, feasting vessels, swords from Asia, silverware from Byzantine, and coins from France were discovered.

Pretty decided to bequeath the treasure as a gift to the nation. Thereby it was handed over to the British museum. It was, at that time, the largest gift handed over to the British Museum by any living donor. However, as the World War broke out, the Sutton Hoo finds were put away in storage. It was shown to the public nine years after Pretty’s death in 1942, without any reference to Brown. It was only recently that Brown’s contribution was acknowledged in the permanent collection of the finds in the British Museum.

What was the significance of the excavation?

“These people were not savage warriors. These were sophisticated people with incredible artistry. The dark ages are no longer dark,” says Phillip (played by Ken Stott), while announcing the significance of the great dig. The discovery of the ship illuminated the four centuries between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Vikings.

The period between 500 CE to 1066 CE would be referred to as the Dark Ages. The Anglo-Saxons who ruled over different parts of England at this time, were known to be crude and uncivilised people. The discovery of the artefacts which dated to this period altered this perception considerably. It showed that not only were the Anglo-Saxons highly cultured, but were also connected to the wider world through trade, as is evident from the helmet and buckle influenced by Scandinavian work, a silver dish from Byzantine and bowls from Egypt.

Once the significance of the discovery became apparent, the area was explored by other archaeologists in the 1960s and 80s and several other individual graves were discovered.

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