Halloween Tale: The Forgotten Archeologist Who Discovered Saxon Treasure in a Haunted Field

Eccentric widow Edith Pretty saw the ghostly figure of a warrior on one of the mounds in an exposed field on her land in Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge in rural Suffolk.  This vision was followed by vivid dreams in which she saw and heard a funeral procession in the same area.

Edith had been living alone with her 9 year old son in Sutton Hoo House since the death of her husband in 1934.  She developed an interest in spiritualism during her husband’s illness (he suffered from stomach cancer) and brought in spiritualists to help him during this time.  Edith’s belief that there was something of significance in the field was encouraged by her nephew, Russell Perkins, who was a dowser and is thought to have told his aunt that there was hidden treasure in the mounds.

Sutton Hoo/Tranmer House – Mrs Edith Pretty’s House
Interior – Sutton Hoo (Tranmer) House

Who was Basil Brown? With her curiosity aroused in the summer of 1938, Edith Pretty decided to engage self-taught local Archeologist Basil Brown to investigate.  Basil was an intelligent man who had had a humble education attending the large mixed ability classes at the local village school in Rickinghall, Suffolk, in which he developed a dislike of the subject of history allegedly because he always wanted to prove his teachers wrong!  After leaving school he went to work at his father’s farm but was not a natural farmer.  He then pursued an interest in astronomy and gained recognition in 1923 by publishing ‘Astronomical Atlases, Maps and Charts: An Historical and General Guide’.  In the 1930s he developed his love and knowledge of archeology and began working for Ipswich Museum and the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology.  It was the museum who introduced Basil to Edith (who had asked for recommendations for someone suitable to undertake the excavation project at Sutton Hoo).

The Excavations

Basil, working with Mrs Pretty’s gardener and gamekeeper, began digging and unearthed several ancient Saxon burial mounds which had been disturbed or plundered in the past.  Excavations stopped during the winter and then resumed in May 1939.  Within a short space of time in this second period of excavations, they discovered the hull of a Saxon Burial Ship (of around 27 metres in length) in a mound which had not been looted.  It is thought that the person buried with this ship was Raedwald, a 7th century King of East Anglia – which at that time would have included the Lands of the North Folk (now Norfolk) and the Lands of the South Folk (now Suffolk).  Raedwald was not only King of the East Angles but also held the lofty position of King of Kings – so is considered by some to be the First King of England.

Basil Brown’s plan for the excavations

The ship is thought to date from the early 7th century AD.  Although hardly any of the original ship timber had survived, the form of the ship was perfectly preserved in the sand.  The heavy oak ship would have been hauled up the hill and lowered into a prepared trench.  Only the tops of the stem and stern posts would have been seen above the land surface.  The covered mound would have been a symbol of power visible to those using the nearby waterway.  Although no body was found, soil analysis confirms that it had dispersed into the acidic soil.

Excavations – Sutton Hoo
Middlesex Explorer – Mound 2

Ship Burial

Rulers in Norway, Sweden and Denmark around the same time also shared the same beliefs in ship burial and this world is described in the Old English poem Beowulf (see pic of my copy).

Beowulf

Other cultures, such as the ancient Egyptians, also used ships to bury goods to transport into the after-life (although rulers would not be buried with them in the same way as was the Saxon custom).  Here is a photo of the Khufu ship (King Cheops) I saw when in Cairo many years ago which was thought to have been buried in a pit in the Giza pyramid complex for this reason.

Khufu Ship - Cairo
Khufu Ship – Cairo

The Arrival of Charles Phillips

Unfortunately, rumours of Basil’s incredible discovery had leaked out and reached the The British Museum, The Ministry of Works and Charles Phillips, a pompous Cambridge don and expert in all things Saxon, who weighed into the project. Phillips felt that a discovery of this importance could not be left to a man with no formal training and two estate workers.

The British Museum told Basil to stop excavating but he ignored them.  Then, just as he was on the verge of exploring the treasure chamber, The British Museum announced that Charles Phillips would be taking charge of the excavation.  An outraged Edith Pretty insisted that Basil remained working on the project which he did until the site was covered upon the outbreak of World War 2 – sadly demoted to shovelling and wheel-barrow duties.

The new excavating team took charge of investigations into the burial chamber which was packed with treasures – gold jewellery, byzantine silverware, a lavish feasting set and, perhaps the most famous items – an ornate iron helmet and golden buckle (replicas of which can be viewed in the Sutton Hoo Museum).

Replica Gold Buckle – Sutton Hoo
Replica Saxon Helmet – Sutton Hoo

How These Treasures Found Their Way to Middlesex

In August 1939, an inquest at the local parish hall decided that Edith Pretty was the rightful owner of the treasures.  Edith decided to donate the findings to The British Museum, Great Russell Street in London’s Capital County – Middlesex where a large number of them remain to this day in Room 41.

Later Years

Edith Pretty passed away in 1942.  Upon the outbreak of the Second War World, Basil returned to his home village of Rickinghall and continued to pursue his love of archeology  carrying out excavations at local sites and sometimes working for the Ipswich Museum.  He encouraged local children to become involved in his digs and many of them had fond memories of helping him.

The British Museum’s attitude towards Basil softened, as evidenced by a letter from them to him displayed in Sutton Hoo (Tranmer) House dated 29 January 1970, which advised that they were planning to publish his log and diary and reads ‘It reflects great credit on you and makes excellent reading and shows very clearly all the work that was done before Phillips arrived’.

It seems that Basil was not particularly concerned about gaining recognition or money from Sutton Hoo and was content to live out the rest of his days doing what he loved.  In 2009, a plaque was placed on the wall of Rickinghall Inferior Church to commemorate this well respected and fondly remembered resident.

Middlesex Explorer’s Visit

I very much enjoyed my visiting to Sutton Hoo.  I did a guided tour of the burial site – which I definately recommend.  I learnt that the National Trust would like to build a high raised platform around the site so that visitors can get an aerial view.  If will be interesting to see if this does go ahead in the future.

Whilst at Sutton Hoo I explored Edith Pretty’s House – now known as Tranmer House.  There is also an exhibition hall which tells the story of Sutton Hoo through a mixture of original and high quality replica objects. In the exhibition area you can also view one of the ‘Sandmen of Sutton Hoo’ whose body was preserved in the sand in one of the mounds.  Below is a photo of one of the preserved bodies that can be viewed on the site itself.

Sandman – Sutton Hoo

The following photos show some of the original finds which can be viewed in the exhibiton hall.

Finds from Mound 17
Finds from mound 17

The Sutton Hoo cafe has a picturesque view across the fields and there are lovely walks around the estate.

Whilst in the area, I took some time to explore the attractive town of Woodbridge.

Woodbridge – Suffolk

 

Woodbridge Suffolk
Woodbridge – Suffolk
Woodbridge – Suffolk

Click here for more information on Sutton Hoo and here for information on Woodbridge.

Learn more about the Ghosts of Sutton Hoo in the following You Tube clip.

 

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