The farmer’s boy and the ship of gold: uncovering the treasures of Sutton Hoo

The story of the 1939 amateur dig in Suffolk that unearthed the richest grave found in Europe is now being retold on screen

Basil Brown was a farmer’s boy from Rickinghall in Suffolk who left school around the age of 13 to work on his father’s holdings. He seemed set to spend his life working the land.

Brown, who was born in 1888, certainly succeeded in the task – though not through farming. He went on to work the land in a very different way.

As a young man, he had nursed a passion: to unearth hidden treasures and reveal the local countryside’s archaeological secrets. And as the Netflix film The Dig, released on 29 January, reveals, he triumphed in stunning style – by discovering the Sutton Hoo treasure in 1939.

Beneath a large mound of earth on private land outside Woodbridge in Suffolk, Brown – who is played by Ralph Fiennes – uncovered the buried remains of an entire 27-metre-long ship; a secret chamber filled with gold and silver; a sword with a jewelled hilt; shoulder clasps of gold inlaid with garnet; and pieces of iron that were later assembled to create the elaborate, iconic Sutton Hoo helmet. The seventh-century hoard was the richest grave ever excavated in Europe.

“Brown uncovered this country’s greatest archaeological treasure and in the process transformed our understanding of English life in the early medieval period,” says Sue Brunning, curator of the British Museum’s Sutton Hoo collection.

“Before Sutton Hoo, it was thought Britain had declined badly in cultural and economic terms after the Romans left. But Brown revealed treasures in this quiet corner of England that could be traced from sources across Europe and Asia and showed a vast trade in riches was going on at the time. England was no cultural backwater.”

The Sutton Hoo helmet, the centrepiece of the collection, was reconstructed from fragments, and may have belonged to a king.
The Sutton Hoo helmet, the centrepiece of the collection, was reconstructed from fragments, and may have belonged to a king. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The original decision to excavate at Sutton Hoo was made by wealthy widow Edith Pretty (played by Carey Mulligan). Her estate there was peppered with burial mounds that had been looted in Tudor times. Was there any treasure left, she wondered? Experts at Ipswich Museum recommended Brown – who by this time had taken evening classes while running the smallholding he took over from his father, earned several diplomas, and begun working on local archaeological digs.

In 1938, he made a couple of excavations that provided promising results and decided the next year to investigate the largest mound on the property. Not long after he started, Brown uncovered a piece of rusting iron that he recognised as a rivet from the bow of a ship.

Very slowly he peeled back the soil to reveal the shape of an entire vessel. The wood had disintegrated but the rivets lay precisely in place revealing the perfect outline of a Saxon longship. It was an astonishing sight: a ghostly image of an ancient vessel imprinted on the Suffolk soil.

Sutton Hoo
Sutton Hoo

At the time, virtually all ship burials had been found in Norway and were of Norse origin. But Brown was quick to realise this was not a Viking vessel but an Anglo-Saxon ship from an earlier period. “It is the find of a lifetime,” he wrote in his diary on 29 June, 1939.

The dig progressed to reveal a separate burial chamber that was, again, painstakingly excavated. Its treasures proved equally exotic as Brown discovered on 22 July when he was summoned by his team’s excited shouts and found that a hoard treasure had been uncovered.

“I never expected to see so much gold in any dig in this country,” Brown wrote that night. “There was a heavy gold buckle, the framework of a beautiful gold purse, in which were 39 gold coins … a belt in solid gold with the finest cloisonné work. All the objects shone in the sunshine as on the day they were buried.”

The effort and resources involved in dragging a ship deep inland before filling it with treasure and then burying it would have been a remarkable undertaking that brings to mind images of the Old English poem Beowulf with its soaring timber halls and powerful kings and nobles. Brown had helped to repaint our image of early medieval England.

At first, no sign of any human remains were found at the site and it was concluded it was meant to be more of a cenotaph than a grave. “However, later excavation indicated decayed organic remains that could have been human,” said Brunning. “For good measure, a huge, ornate sword had been laid out in a way that was consistent with other graves of warriors. So I am confident this was the tomb of a great individual, perhaps even a king.”

Intricate detail depicting snakes and birds on a gold belt buckle, uncovered at the site.
Intricate detail depicting snakes and birds on a gold belt buckle, uncovered at the site. Photograph: Andrew Parsons/PA

The identity of that person is not so certain, however. The best candidate remains King Raedwald, who died around AD625, though there is still disagreement among archaeologists about who was interred at Sutton Hoo.

As to the immediate fate of Brown’s trove, that was less glamorous. On 3 September, Britain declared war on Germany and the country went into martial lockdown. Sutton Hoo was covered over and its gold and silver taken to Aldwych tube station in London where the British Museum was storing its greatest treasures. After only a few weeks in the sunlight, it was placed in a tunnel that lay 10 times deeper than its original Suffolk resting place and returned to the dark until the end of the war.

Today, the hoard has been given its own room at the British Museum. The helmet, which was found shattered in pieces at Sutton Hoo, has been put together and the rest of its treasures put on public display – a monument to the sophistication of our seventh-century predecessors and to Basil Brown who unearthed their glories.

“He did an incredible job in excavating the ship at Sutton Hoo,” says Brunning. “He may have been self-taught but he was a remarkable archaeologist. As to the film, I think it does great credit to the man and to the find.”


Robin McKie

The GuardianTramp

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