New Anglo-Saxon Cemetery Finds Compared to Sutton Hoo Hoard

New Anglo-Saxon Cemetery Finds Compared to Sutton Hoo Hoard

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An Anglo-Saxon burial ground has been excavated on land destined to become University of Cambridge student accommodation. Archaeologists have called the hoard of grave artifacts one of archaeology's “most significant finds” since the in 1939 discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasure hoard.

Excavators working for England’s University of Cambridge were redeveloping the city’s Croft Gardens for new student accommodation when they discovered an Anglo-Saxon cemetery . Containing over 60 graves, strewn among the ancient Anglo-Saxon bodies the researchers discovered bronze brooches, bead necklaces, glass flasks and pottery, and weapons dating to between 450 and 600 AD. Furthermore, Iron Age structures and Roman period artifacts were also discovered at this site.

A Surprising Number Of Anglo-Saxon Burials

Dr Caroline Goodson is a senior Cambridge University lecturer and she said in a press release that the excavation of this cemetery provides “an outstanding opportunity” for the university archaeologists to explore very early medieval Britain. Furthermore, the researcher says each of the artifacts tells a different part of the story of how ancient Britons interacted with contemporary cultures on Continental Europe.

Image taken from arial drone footage of the site. ( Dronescapes / Kings College)

A team of excavators from Albion Archaeology approached the site on Barton Road in Newnham (West Cambridge) in the understanding that evidence of an early medieval cemetery was reported in the nineteenth century. David Ingham, from Albion Archaeology, told the Daily Mail that while they always knew there was a chance of finding a cemetery, “we didn't expect to find as many graves as we did.” Ingham added that what “really surprised us” was how well the ancient items had survived beneath so many 20th century houses.

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A Post-Roman Archaeological Treasure Hoard

Last summer a series of existing 20th century buildings at Croft Gardens were demolished when the university began developing new student accommodations. Dr Caroline Goodson said the construction project presented the university archaeologists with the perfect opportunity to “investigate the area archaeologically.” Goodson added that while burials from the Anglo-Saxon period are often found in small numbers, or with the bones barely surviving because of the soil's acidity, “this cemetery offers a real chance to fill some of the gaps in our knowledge about the people who lived in East Anglia after the Roman period had ended”.

The early Anglo-Saxon period burials, with their brooches, necklaces, pottery and weapons, is already revealing new information about dress, burial habits, and health and disease of the time period.

According to Professor Goodson, new methods of analysis are being applied to the discoveries made at the site in the hope of finding fresh information “about migration and family relationships across medieval Britain and Northern Europe.”

Professor Michael Proctor, Provost of King's College Cambridge told the press “These finds are tremendously exciting for King’s,” and that he will appoint a four-year research fellow to continue the work.

A Roman glass vessel was one of the many items unearthed at the site. ( Albion Archaeology )

Cambridge Is On A Roll

It could be said Cambridge is on something of an ‘archaeological roll.’ Only last week I wrote a news article for Ancient Origins about a new paper that looks at the “skeletal trauma" discovered on hundreds of people who lived in medieval Cambridge between the 10th and 14th century. This study revealed varying levels of “physical hardship across lower classes,” demonstrating that while the traditionally posh city hosts the second oldest university in the English-speaking world, for the majority of folk, life was hard, and dangerous if not downright awful.

What is refreshing in all these new studies coming out of Cambridge is that the archaeologists are clearly not as interested in the royal and noble history of the city, as they are in the people’s history. The excavation of this Anglo-Saxon cemetery, and the discoveries presented in the last paper, mean that Cambridge will very soon have new insights into the day to day lives of folk living in the city between the 6th and 14th centuries.

The discovery at Sutton Hoo: when the Dark Ages were lit up

The year 1939 saw a rare ray of light shine into the Dark Ages, and made people realise that the Anglo-Saxon period did not deserve that gloomy moniker. In 1938, Edith Pretty, owner of Sutton Hoo House in Suffolk, had commissioned a local archaeologist, Basil Brown, to investigate the huge tumulus on her land. Brown did not do as he was asked. On examining it he saw that a trench had been dug into its centre, assumed it to have been robbed and moved on to the smaller surrounding tumuli. Having found next to nothing, in the following year he returned his attention to his original subject. He quickly unearthed rivets in rows, and as the outline of a boat slowly emerged it became apparent that the earlier grave robbers had ceased their digging just inches short of a burial hoard of unexampled beauty.

While the wood of the ship and the flesh of the man had dissolved in the acidic Suffolk soil, the gold, silver and iron of his wealth remained. For the first time, indeed for the only time, historians had a chance to see the sort of objects that a great man of the seventh century had in his hall. From a range of ornate war gear – a sword, an axe-hammer, a huge circular shield decorated with wild animals, a coat of mail, a collection of spears – to auspicious displays of wealth – a silver dish three-quarters of a metre in diameter, a complex buckle wrought from pure gold, fine shoulder clasps – to feasting equipment – a cauldron, drinking horns, a lyre – the man had all he needed to live in eternity as he had on earth. His boat was pointing west and in his purse were 40 gold pieces, one for each of the ghostly oarsmen who would row him to the other place.

The real story of The Dig

Sutton Hoo’s seventh-century treasures have fired up the imaginations of history lovers for decades, most recently inspiring new Netflix film The Dig. Professor Martin Carver talks to David Musgrove about the real history of the remarkable 1939 excavation…

What can we learn from the discovery at Sutton Hoo?

The burial shows us that this corner of Suffolk was extraordinarily well connected to the world around it. Much of the craftsmanship, particularly the helmet and buckle, was clearly influenced or accomplished by Scandinavian work. The silver dish was made in Byzantium c500. The gold coins, which allow us to date the burial to the 620s or soon after, are Frankish. One of the bowls appears to be from Egypt. After looking at Sutton Hoo it is impossible to think of early Anglo-Saxon society as being cut off from the rest of the world, impossible to think of their leaders as little Englanders, but rather we are forced to consider them as self-consciously part of a wider European society stretching from the Mediterranean to the North Sea.

Seeing the funerary magnificence of Sutton Hoo not only revealed to historians the exotic tastes of early medieval bigwigs, it also served as a reminder of how they should observe the period. To assume that seventh-century Anglo-Saxons were ‘primitive’ is to assume that an absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

Thinking in these terms raises great questions about the grave. The assumption has long been that the inhabitant of the mound was a king of East Anglia, probably Redwald, who converted to Christianity before lapsing into paganism. Who else but a king would be buried with such finery?

But as Professor James Campbell of Oxford has argued, to assume we have a royal burial is to ignore the fact that the tomb is almost entirely without context. It is something of a minor miracle that the spoils of Sutton Hoo remained undisturbed until the 1930s. The largest burial mounds must always have been the most alluring for entrepreneurial grave robbers and, consequently, we should expect that these obvious, unguarded burials were interfered with at some point in the intervening centuries. The Anglo-Saxons themselves were not innocent of the crime – in Beowulf, the dragon who kills the eponymous hero is disturbed from his tumulus by a thief. This is to say that we cannot know exactly how prevalent burials like Sutton Hoo once were. It may be that there was a time when they were not that unusual.

We do not know, and have no way of knowing, how much treasure there was in seventh-century England. There may have been a great many men who had become rich from conquest and protection racketeering. There may even have been many who had access to examples of such craftsmanship (whoever made the exquisite shoulder-clasps and belt was evidently not doing it for the first time). And so Sutton Hoo also acts as a reminder of how much we do not know about Anglo-Saxon history, about how we must think before we make even the shallowest assumptive leap.

If the grave’s precise status is in doubt, its uniqueness is not, and the treasure is a much needed feast for the eyes in a period starved of visual aids. While the Anglo-Saxons have left us some manuscripts, some coins, the occasional church that survived the great Norman renovations, a post-Conquest tapestry, and the clutter of archaeology, compared to all subsequent eras, there is not much to see. Consequently, the splendour of Sutton Hoo was immediately destined for iconic status and publishers have been consistently keen (as we have here) to use the helmet as a cover illustration.

This one relic from Anglo-Saxon England has, in some ways, come to define the whole period. As a reminder of the centrality of militarism to the age this is fitting but it has, perhaps, also done something to harden in the public imagination the idea that the Anglo-Saxons were nothing more than noble warriors. This is unfortunate because we now understand a great deal about the complexities and sophistication of late Anglo-Saxon government and know that, by the eighth century at the very latest, they were much more than barbarian champions of military households. We know this largely because of the work of archaeologists. Over the past 50 years our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon economy has accelerated beyond all expectation and, as it has, we have become vastly more aware of the government machinery which exploited and regulated it. Huge numbers of coins have been exhumed by metal detectorists showing how standardised royal coinage was circulating in Britain by the late eighth century, and how, by the mid-tenth century, there was a currency of perhaps several million coins, regularly recalled and recoined – presumably to tax, and assure quality.

This was very much a national system. During the reign of King Edgar (ruled 959 to 975) it seems few parts of England were further than 15 miles from a royal mint. Such clues show us how capable these kings were of centralised government, how good they were at imposing uniform standards over wide areas, and why we might describe their kingdom as a ‘state’. Thus archaeologists have unearthed a society’s progression from a world of plunder and tribute, to one of toll and tax.

But despite such rich academic discoveries, popular appreciation of the Anglo-Saxons since the Second World War has, if anything, been on the wane. The Victorians were fascinated by the origins of England and its government and so had a fondness and fascination for the state-building of Alfred the Great and his heirs. But there has been little room for the Anglo-Saxons in the modern British mindset. Whereas 19th century scholars revelled in their Teutonic past, by the mid-20th century, England’s German heritage evinced little pride, and the very concept of volk had been sullied by history’s most monstrous crimes. This intellectual backdrop meant that as Britain became a modern nation of many peoples, so Anglo-Saxon history came to be seen as insular, primitive, misogynistic and irrelevant to the point where the word ‘medieval’ has become a term of abuse deployed by those who know nothing of the medieval world.

Indeed, in recent times, our pre-Conquest predecessors have been co-opted by the far right (along with the cross of St George), and turned into symbols of a ‘pure England’. This manipulation is wrong, for the Anglo-Saxons were no more ‘ethnically pure’ than the English of today. Recognising this reveals just how dangerous and unhelpful the rejection of parts of our history can be: dangerous because, discarded, they can be poached by the ignorant and unhelpful because the internationalism of their time actually mirrors ours.

Because Anglo-Saxon culture lurks behind our laws and rights, behind our system of government, behind our towns and behind the words that one in five people on Earth can understand, it is neither nationalistic nor insular to say that we should take an interest in it.

There ought to be no room for nationalistic pride in the study and appreciation of history. We did not do these things we were not yet born. For many of us, these were not even the deeds of our ancestors. But they are, nonetheless, a large part of our cultural inheritance and, to a certain extent, that of the world. To ignore Anglo-Saxon culture is to needlessly rebury our treasure in the mound and leave it to the mercy of robbers.

Alex Burghart is one of the authors of the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (, a database of known people from the period – and formerly a tutor and researcher at King’s College London. He was writing to commemorate 70 years since the discovery at Sutton Hoo.

The Anglo-Saxons: a condensed history

The first centuries of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain are so obscure that very little can be said about them with any certainty (not that this has prevented some tireless academics from saying much). After the withdrawal of the Roman army from Britain in AD 410, peoples from Germany and Scandinavia are known to have settled here. Marked by an almost complete lack of evidence, by 597 an area which under the Romans had been urbanised, monetarised, and Christianised, had become rustic, had no real currency and was largely pagan.

In 596, inspired by some Anglian slaves he had seen in the marketplace in Rome, Pope Gregory despatched a group of missionaries to Britain to convert the Anglo-Saxons. Over the following 90 years gradually the different kingdoms accepted the new faith but not without occasional resistance – the huge pagan-style burial at Sutton Hoo appears to hail from a time when Christianity was in the land but not quite in everybody’s hearts.

Politically, the general (though by no means consistent) pattern of the period 600–900 was that a large number of small polities gradually conquered or merged with each other. Some, like Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex, also continued to expand their interests at their ‘Celtic’ neighbours’ expense. This was not an easy task: the Northumbrians were pushed back by the Picts at Nechtansmere in 685, and the Mercians would resort to buildings Offa’s Dyke against the Welsh.

By the death of Offa of Mercia (796), only five kingdoms remained: Wessex, Essex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria. Offa had conquered Kent, Sussex and East Anglia, and his successors inherited these gains. But in the 820s Wessex invaded the southern domains and an insurrection in East

Anglia drove the Mercians out. There the status quo remained until 865 when it was violently disturbed by Danish armies, commonly known as Vikings. Their forces swiftly conquered East Anglia, Northumbria, part of Mercia and very nearly Wessex until the organisational prowess (and good fortune) of Alfred the Great of Wessex (who ruled from 871 to 899) halted their advance.

A much ignored moment in English history occurred in c879 when, after centuries of rivalry, Mercia accepted Alfred’s lordship and a ‘kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons’ was born. This union, forged in the face of threats from Danish armies, was then inherited, albeit shakily, by Alfred’s son, Edward (ruled 899 to 924). Edward set about the conquest of the Danelaw, extending his power into the Midlands and East Anglia.

In turn Edward’s son, Athelstan (ruled 924 to 939) ‘completed’ the task begun in earnest by his father and, in 927, conquered Northumbria. With fewer proximal rivals, the unified kingdom of England flourished. During the mid- and late tenth century it developed a highly organised and centralised coinage, established royal patronage over episcopal and abbatial appointments and extended the West Saxon system of shires to the newly acquired parts of the kingdom.

Such administrative and economic success once again attracted the envious eyes of neighbouring peoples. During the reign of Æthelred II, the Unready (ruled 978 to 1016), seaborne Danes frequently exacted heavy tribute as the price of their keeping the peace. In 1016 the nature of this hostility shifted. King Cnut of Denmark (ruled 1016–1035) defeated Æthelred’s son Edmund at the Battle of Assandun, receiving half of England for his victory and succeeding to the rest on Edmund’s death a few weeks later. Cnut’s North Sea Empire was inherited by his son, Harthacnut, who ruled until 1042, at which time the kingdom reverted to Æthelred’s son, Edward the Confessor (ruled 1042 to 1066).

Along with 1966, 1066 is perhaps one of the most recognisable dates in English history. It is also one of the cleanest period breaks in the whole of world history. The future of the English language, the make-up of the English aristocracy, and the direction of English political culture were altered in a few hours at Hastings on 14 October 1066 when William of Normandy defeated and killed King Harold. William sealed his victory with a coronation in London on Christmas Day that same year (aping Charlemagne’s imperial crowning in Rome, 266 years before), thus beginning the age of the Anglo-Normans.

When was Sutton Hoo discovered?

In the late 1930s, Edith Pretty, a landowner at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, asked archaeologist Basil Brown to investigate the largest of several Anglo-Saxon burial mounds on her property.

Inside, he made one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries of all time.

"Archaeologists painstakingly brushed away layers of sandy soil to reveal the shape of a ship beneath a mound.

"And in the centre of the ship they found a burial chamber full of the most extraordinary treasures," writes the National Trust.

Dating to the early AD 600s, "this outstanding burial clearly commemorated a leading figure of East Anglia," says the British Museum.

What is in the exhibition?

The exhibition will be held in the Sutton Hoo site, which has recently undergone a huge revamp. Many of the finds from Sutton Hoo were donated by the landowner to the British Museum, but some of these will be returning for the exhibition alongside the Staffordshire Hoard. Visitors will be able to see all of the exhibits in the exhibition hall, as well as visit the new display about Sutton Hoo, which includes a mixture of original pieces and reconstructions. A visit to the site also includes walking trails to the mounds, a visit to Mrs Pretty&rsquos house filled with details about the archaeological excavation, and new for 2020, a viewing tower which overlooks the burial site.

The viewing tower is currently under construction and will enable visitors to look out over the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo.

Edith Pretty was born in Elland, Yorkshire, [1] to Elizabeth (née Brunton, died 1919) [2] and Robert Dempster (born 1853). [1] [3] [4] She had an older sister, Elizabeth. The Dempsters were wealthy industrialists who amassed their fortune from the manufacture of equipment related to the gas industry. Robert Dempster's father, also Robert Dempster, had founded Robert Dempster and Sons in 1855 for this purpose. [5] [6]

In 1884 the family moved to Manchester, where her father founded the engineering firm of R. & J. Dempster with his brother, John. [7] [2] Edith and her family travelled extensively abroad, visiting Egypt, Greece, and Austria-Hungary. After finishing her education at Roedean School, Edith spent six months in Paris in 1901. Later that year, the family embarked on a world tour that included visits to the British Raj and the United States. [1]

From 1907 to 1925, Edith's father took a lease on Vale Royal Abbey, a country house near Whitegate, Cheshire, the family seat of Lord Delamere. Edith grew up with an indoor staff of 25 in addition to 18 gardeners. She engaged in public and charitable works that included helping to buy land for a Christian mission. [1] [4]

During World War I, Edith served as quartermaster at the Red Cross' auxiliary hospital at Winsford, and helped to house Belgian refugees. [2] By 1917 she was working with the French Red Cross at Vitry-le-François, and Le Bourget in France. [1] [8]

After her mother's death in 1919, Edith cared for her father at Vale Royal. [2] When he died in Cape Town during a visit to South Africa in 1925, [9] Edith and her sister inherited an estate valued at more than £500,000 – about £16 million in 2006. [1]

In 1926, Edith married Frank Pretty (1879–1934) of Ipswich, [10] who had first proposed on her 18th birthday, and had corresponded with her during the War. Pretty was the son of William Tertius Pretty (1842–1916), owner of a corset-making and drapery business in Ipswich. [1] Pretty had been a Major in the Suffolk Regiment's 4th (Territorial) Battalion [11] and had been wounded twice during the War. His participation in 1915 in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle was captured in a 1918 painting by the artist Fred Roe. [12] [ failed verification ] After the War, Pretty continued to serve the Suffolk Regiment, obtaining the rank of Lt. Colonel and commander of the 4th Battalion [13] in 1922, [9] while also working in the family business. [1] [11]

Edith gave up the lease on Vale Royal after her marriage and bought the 213-hectare (526-acre) Sutton Hoo estate, including Sutton Hoo House, along the River Deben, near Woodbridge, Suffolk. She served as a magistrate in Woodbridge, [1] and in 1926 donated the Dempster Challenge Cup to Winsford Urban District Council, her former Red Cross posting. The Cup has been awarded annually for most years since to a plot-holder on Winsford's garden allotments. [14] [15] [16] [17]

In 1930, at the age of 47, Edith gave birth to a son, Robert Dempster Pretty. Frank Pretty died on his 56th birthday in 1934, from stomach cancer diagnosed earlier that year. [1]

Edith became interested in Spiritualism, visiting faith healer William Parish and supporting a spiritualist church in Woodbridge. [18]

Edith had become acquainted with archaeological digs early in her life through her travels. In addition, her friend Florence Sayce's Egyptologist uncle, Archibald Sayce and her father excavated [19] a Cistercian abbey adjoining their home at Vale Royal. [20] [18] [8] [4]

Around 18 ancient burial mounds lay on the Sutton Hoo estate, about 457 m (500 yards) from the Pretty home (now Tranmer House, then called Sutton Hoo House). [20] [10] At the 1937 Woodbridge Flower Fete, Edith discussed the possibility of an excavation with Vincent B. Redstone, a member of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, and Fellow of both the Royal Historical Society and the Society of Antiquaries. [21] [22] Redstone and the curator of the Ipswich Corporation Museum, Guy Maynard, met Edith in July regarding the project, and self-taught Suffolk archaeologist Basil Brown was subsequently invited to excavate the mounds. [8] Promising finds were made, and Brown returned in the summer of 1939 for further work on the project. He soon unearthed the remains of a large burial site, containing what was later identified as a 7th-century Saxon ship, which may have been the last resting-place of King Rædwald of East Anglia. A curator of the British Museum described the discovery as "one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time". [18] [1]

The excavation was subsequently taken over by a team of professional archaeologists headed by Charles Phillips and included Cecily Margaret Guido and Stuart Piggott. [8] : 99–100 In September 1939, a treasure trove inquest determined that the grave goods unearthed from the ship were Pretty's property to do with as she chose. She subsequently donated the trove to the British Museum. In recognition of this, prime minister Winston Churchill later offered Pretty the honour of a CBE, but she declined. [1]

Edith Pretty died on 17 December 1942 in Richmond Hospital at the age of 59 after suffering a stroke, and was buried in All Saints churchyard at Sutton. A portrait of a 56-year-old Edith was painted by the Dutch artist Cor Visser and donated to the National Trust by David Pretty, her grandson. [1] [23] Most of her estate of £400,000 was placed in a trust for her son, Robert, who was subsequently cared for by his aunt, Elizabeth. Robert died of cancer in June 1988 at the age of 57. [1] Sutton Hoo was used by the War Office until 1946, when it was sold. In the late 20th century the house and Sutton Hoo burial site were bequeathed by the Tranmer family to the The National Trust, which now manages the site.

Pretty was the subject of a play by Karen Forbes performed at Sutton Hoo in 2019, [24] and features in the novel The Dig by John Preston, published in 2007. She is portrayed by Carey Mulligan in the film adaptation of the same name on the Netflix streaming service in 2021. [25]

Some suggestions for further reading (useful but not essential)

Backhouse, J. The Lindisfarne Gospels (Oxford 1981)
Brown, M.P., & C.A.Farr, Mercia, an Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in Europe (Leicester 2001)
Bruce-Mitford, R., Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology (Gollancz 1974)
Coatsworth, E., & M. Pinder, The Art of the Anglo-Saxon Goldsmith &ndash Fine Metalwork in Anglo-Saxon England: Its Practice and Practitioners (Boydell 2002)
Evans, A., The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial (British Museum 1986)
Heaney, Seamus (tr.) Beowulf: An Illustrated Edition, ed. J.Niles (Norton 2007)
Leahy, K., & R.Bland, The Staffordshire Hoard (British Museum 2009)
Speake, G., Anglo-Saxon Animal Art (Oxford 1980)
Webster, L., & J.Backhouse, The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture AD 600-900 (British Museum 1991)
Youngs, S., The Work of Angels: Masterpieces of Celtic Metalwork, 6th-9th Centuries (British Museum 1989)

The Dig: the real history of the remarkable Sutton Hoo excavation

Sutton Hoo’s seventh-century treasures have fired up the imaginations of history lovers for decades, most recently inspiring new Netflix film The Dig. Professor Martin Carver talks to David Musgrove about the real history of the remarkable 1939 excavation…

This competition is now closed

Published: January 29, 2021 at 4:04 am

During the summer before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, a team at Sutton Hoo raced to unearth and record the fabulous – and now globally famous – seventh-century ship burial in rural Suffolk. Now the excavation is the subject of a Netflix film starring Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan and Lily James (available to stream worldwide from 29 January 2021).

The film is based on the book The Dig (2008), a historical novel by John Preston, which “is a real drama about people. It’s more about the people than it is about the dig,” says Professor Martin Carver, professor emeritus at the University of York and an expert on Sutton Hoo. “I think if you pull back the lens a bit, then the drama is even more exciting than that. It’s a drama of different peoples, and different classes of people in England on the eve of the Second World War, investigating the major monument of the Germans who had invaded a thousand years earlier. And they’re awaiting the beginning of an invasion from modern Germany.”

Here is a brief introduction to the characters involved in the excavations, and the real treasures found at Sutton Hoo in 1939…

Who was Edith Pretty, played by Carey Mulligan?

In 1926 Edith Pretty and her husband, Colonel Frank Pretty, purchased Sutton Hoo House and its estate of sandy heath and woodland. Colonel Pretty died in 1934, survived by Edith and their young son, Robert. The widowed Mrs Pretty decided to investigate the curious cluster of 18 raised earth mounds that she could see from the window of her house. She had travelled to Egypt, and she had watched her father excavate a Cistercian monastery in Cheshire in her youth, so she knew a bit about how archaeology worked.

Who was Basil Brown, played by Ralph Fiennes?

Basil Brown was a self-taught archaeologist, recommended by Ipswich Museum. Mrs Pretty paid him 30 shillings a week and provided two labourers to work with him. In June 1938, Brown began work, and over the course of the summer, he ran trenches into several mounds. He found evidence for a ship burial in Mound 2, demonstrated by the presence of scattered iron rivets of the kind used in early clinker-built ships. He also uncovered artefacts that were indicative of an early medieval date for the mounds, and he found that all of the barrows he looked at had already been subject to excavation.

What’s the backdrop to the Sutton Hoo excavation? When did it happen?

Europe was tensing for war. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain had signed the Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler in September 1938, but the peace deal had already unravelled by March 1939 with Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia.

Nevertheless, Basil Brown was back on site in Sutton Hoo on 8 May 1939.

Who was buried at Sutton Hoo?

What soon became evident during the 1939 excavation was that this was something special, as Brown and his small team discovered the now-famous ship burial in Mound 1. When news broke of the finding, an excavation team led by the Cambridge academic Charles Phillips was sent to Sutton Hoo to take over from Brown. Before the end of the summer, the amazing haul of riches from the ship burial had been successfully excavated in the tense pre-war atmosphere, and it’s this human drama that is re-told in The Dig.

Further excavations took place through the 1960s and into the 1990s, uncovering the richest burial ground ever to have been found in northern Europe. But who was buried there, and why? These questions have kept archaeologists and historians guessing ever since the site was uncovered.

Professor Carver offers his own explanations for the early medieval mounds (and you can find the full interview with Carver in the upcoming February 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine, on sale 21 January 2021). Sutton Hoo is thought to be the burial ground of the early seventh-century rulers of one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, which had grown up in the aftermath of the Roman imperial presence in Britain. Those mounds were, according to Carver, an explosive expression of intent from East Anglia’s pagan rulers against the spreading power of Christianity (Pope Gregory the Great famously sent Augustine as a missionary to England in AD 597).

“It’s a great burst of activity. I imagine these mounds must have been very demonstrative. The burials are extravagant and very richly furnished. They are strong statements about the wish to continue this particular regime, this dynasty, and in some ways there are signs of anxiety of what’s coming from over the Channel,” Carver says. “In other words, a more obvious Christian union, a kind of re-enactment of the Roman empire, which they really don’t want to be part of. So I think that’s why the investment is so big. People are calling to their gods, if you like, for protection.”

We can’t be sure of the figure memorialised in the famous ship burial, but the leading candidate – and the man Carver favours – is King Raedwald, who is thought to have died in the 620s. His burial chamber at the centre of the ship was surrounded by objects, both military and domestic, and it was perhaps intended to be a display on view for some time before earth was piled up on top of it.

“This was like a furnished mini-hall of the man lying in state. He had his personal things with him in the coffin, and on top were his warrior’s uniform and his equipment for hosting a feast [in the afterlife]. At one end of the chamber is cooking equipment, and at the other end is parade gear and regalia. It would have been a tremendous sight,” Carver says.

“In my imagination, and this is harder to prove,” Carver muses, “I think this spectacle would have been available for several days, perhaps longer, for people to walk round the edge and look in.”

According to Carver, the spectators “would be people who knew the dead man. One imagines this whole funeral was created by his unnamed wife, who seems to be quite a character [her story is referenced in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, where she is said to have “seduced” her converted Christian husband back to paganism]. The people looking on would have recognised the famous objects in the burial chamber and explained what they were seeing to each other and to their children.”

This was a crucial means of relaying history at the time, as Carver says: “The next generation remembers what the last generation said and so on. So stories were handed down. We’re not dealing with a literate society. And of course, Christianity was a big threshold over which a lot of these stories never crossed, which is why archaeologists love to dig them up.”

Martin Carver is professor emeritus at the University of York and an expert on Sutton Hoo, leading excavations there from 1983 to 1993. His books on the topic include The Sutton Hoo Story: Encounters with Early England (Boydell Press, 2017). David Musgrove is BBC History Magazine’s content director and a doctor of medieval archaeology

An in-depth interview with Professor Martin Carver about the 1938/39 digs and the treasures of Sutton Hoo will be released on our podcast soon

Find out more about visiting Sutton Hoo, managed by the National Trust.

History of archaeology at Sutton Hoo

Archaeology in process at Sutton Hoo Sarah Haile

The discovery of the Great Ship Burial in 1939 not only stunned the archaeology world, but it set the scene for further exploration. Later archaeological campaigns have solved mysteries left by the original dig and revealed more about life in this Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

1600s - Tudor treasure-seekers

We know that the archaeological explorations that unearthed the Great Ship Burial in 1939 were not the first attempts on Sutton Hoo&rsquos mysterious mounds.

Having been left untouched since their creation in approximately 625AD, fast forward to the Tudor period, a time when people were able to obtain a license from the Crown to excavate here. Far from the honourable curiosity that later drove Edith Pretty and Basil Brown, these individuals were after treasure, of which they found a great deal. Valuable objects found would have been melted down and shared between the finder and the Crown

It was through our good fortune, rather than a lack of trying, that these treasure-seekers missed the contents of at least two of the mounds, leaving them undisturbed for the future.

1860 - Plundering for profit

A major campaign of excavation took place at Sutton Hoo in the 19th Century. You can still see small dips in some of the mounds from this activity.

Whilst the excavator plundered a large quantity of rivets, they failed to appreciate that these were part of a ship burial. Rather than explore further, the rivets were allegedly taken to a blacksmith to forge horseshoes.

As with the Tudor treasure-seekers, these gentleman collectors left virtually no record of their finds. However, whilst so much that could have been learned had been lost, there was still a great deal yet to be discovered.

1938 - A tantalising start

After being appointed by landowner Edith Pretty, local archaeologist Basil Brown&rsquos initial excavation at Sutton Hoo took place in June and July of 1938, and focused on three of the burial mounds.

By using the traditional technique of cutting a trench across the mounds, Basil went in search of the chamber, or pit, that lies under all burial mounds. He was looking for a difference in soil colour, which indicates the presence of an in-filled chamber or grave. This was made more difficult than usual, due to interference from &lsquorobbers trenches&rsquo left by treasure seekers centuries before.

Whilst Basil was to discover that each of the mounds had been robbed, still they revealed hints of the glorious finds to come. Within Mound 3, he unearthed the remains of a cremated man, along with a corroded iron axe-head, part of a decorated limestone plaque, fragments of pottery and the lid of a Mediterranean jug. Mound 2 revealed pieces of iron, which Basil recognised as ships&rsquo rivets - although having been previously scattered by grave robbers, they did not immediately suggest a ship burial. He also recovered a beautiful piece of blue glass, a gilt bronze disc, iron knives and the tip of a sword blade.

Mound 4 was the last of the 1938 season, and whilst it had a very shallow pit, and also showed signs of having been robbed, careful excavation revealed some tantalising fragments of bronze, high-quality textile and bone.

Basil had discovered just enough for another season of excavation to be planned&hellip.

1939 - The Great Ship Burial

In May 1939 Basil returned to the site. Having had the previous year&rsquos experience, he felt ready to take on Mound 1, the largest of the burial mounds.

On the discovery of the first piece of iron, Basil immediately stopped work and carefully explored the area with a small trowel. He uncovered five rivets in position on what turned out to be the prow of a ship. Presented with this unforeseen discovery, Basil had to change his trench technique, making it wider to encompass the emerging form. As he worked, Basil revealed the ghost of a ship, including the fragile outline of the curving wood in the sand, showing where all the planks, ribs and even some of the tholes for oars would have been.

Chamber of secrets

Basil reached the burial chamber, located in the centre of the ship, on 14 June 1939. Alarmed at finding signs of robbery, Basil gave a sigh of relief when he realised that quarrying in the Middle Ages had changed the shape of the mound, so when robbers had dug into what they thought was the central burial chamber, they had missed.

On the discovery that Mound 1 was a large ship burial, its chamber undisturbed, word quickly spread. It became evident to Edith Pretty that the significance of what had been found called for experts, and so the dig was swiftly handed over to Charles Phillips of Cambridge University and his handpicked team of brilliant young archaeologists. It was to become the richest grave ever excavated in Europe.

Race against time

At any moment, war could be declared, so without time to source specialist equipment, Charles&rsquo team used what was to hand including a coal shovel, pastry brushes, penknives and a pair of bellows! In the following weeks, excitement mounted with the revelation of treasure after treasure. In total, there were 263 finds of gold, garnet, silver, bronze, enamel, iron, wood, bone, textile, feathers and fur. Amongst the finds included a pattern-welded sword with a jeweled hilt, intricate shoulder clasps of gold inlaid with garnet and glass and the iconic Sutton Hoo helmet - although, when this was excavated, archaeologists found only a series of its shattered fragments.

It was at this point that Charles Phillips was able to identify the ship burials as Anglo-Saxon, and not Viking, confirming Basil&rsquos original conclusion.

War was declared on 3rd September 1939 and the treasures were buried once more, but this time in a disused London Underground tunnel. They survived the Blitz, but the plans of the ship were not stored underground, and went up in flames. This loss led archaeologists to return to the burial site decades later to find answers to a few burning questions.

1965 - 71 - Mystery solved

Two decades after the war, excavations resumed. Led by Rupert Bruce-Mitford and Paul Ashbee, a team returned to find out more about the Great Ship Burial in Mound 1. Most pressing was the question of why no human remains had been found in this elaborate burial. The mystery was solved by chemical analysis of the sand below the burial chamber, which showed high phosphate levels. This established that a body had decomposed there, and certainly the acidic nature of the region&rsquos soil would explain why timbers and human remains alike had dissolved over time.

1983 - 93 - Widening the search

With previous digs focusing on the Great Ship Burial, archaeologist Martin Carver was keen to explore some of the other mounds within the Royal Burial Ground and the areas in between. His instincts were right and, over the course of a decade beginning in 1983, his efforts were rewarded by rich new discoveries including a second ship burial, the resting place of a warrior and the gruesome &lsquosand bodies&rsquo.

The second ship

Following Basil&rsquos initial finds in Mound 2, Martin&rsquos team correctly deduced that this was likely to have contained a very rich ship burial of a person of comparable status to Rædwald. Though the grave had been robbed, and subsequently excavated by Basil, some fine objects had either been left behind or missed, including: two decorated gilt-bronze discs, a bronze brooch and a silver buckle. The tip of a sword blade showing elaborate pattern welding bore a resemblance to that found in the Great Ship Burial in Mound 1, and silver gilt drinking horn mounts were discovered in both mounds and found to have been struck from the same dies. Although the rituals were not identical, comparisons of the content of the burials suggests a similar date and status.

A woman of status

During this decade of investigations, Mound 14 was found to have been the only discernible high-status burial of a woman so far discovered in the Royal Burial Ground, leading some to conclude that this was the resting place of a queen, and perhaps Rædwald&rsquos widow.

Ghosts in the sand

Moving away from the mounds, Martin Carver&rsquos team started to look at the areas in between, and when the soil was scraped back, the outlines of more graves appeared. With careful excavation, human forms could be detected as areas of harder, darker sand. These &lsquosand bodies&rsquo lay in a variety of distorted positions, indicating that, unlike previous finds, these individuals had not been ceremoniously buried. There were other gruesome details: bound legs and ankles, broken necks and some severed heads.

Thirty-nine individuals were found in total, and all died violently - but why? A clue lay in the discovery of post-holes found nearby, which are thought to be the location of the uprights of an early gallows.

With paganism on the wane, the laws of the new Christian administration helped keep order for the kings that followed Rædwald, and capital punishment was part of that order.

What had recently been a Royal Burial Ground for pagan kings, it seems, had become the gruesome resting place for those denied a Christian burial.

Warrior at peace

Towards the end of Martin Carver&rsquos investigations in 1991, there was a marvellous discovery in Mound 17. Much like the Great Ship Burial, it only survived robbers by chance.

The robbers dug straight down in to the centre of the mound, but as it contained two graves, side by side, they dug between and missed both of them. The remains of a young man had been buried in a tree trunk coffin with his weapons and other grave goods including a very fine horse harness. A celebration of this man&rsquos status as a warrior was expressed by the presence of a shield, two spears and a fine sword with a jewelled belt fitting - there were also drinking vessels and food, including lamb chops. The other grave contained the skeleton of his horse.

Reconstructing Mound 2

The final piece of work carried out by Martin Carver was the reconstruction of Mound 2, the only one to receive this treatment. Being one of the biggest of the mounds, it was a prime candidate for reconstruction, and was Martin&rsquos archaeological experiment to see both how this monumental marker would have dominated the seventh-century landscape and also how it would change over time.

1986 - Building a Byzantine bucket

In 1986, during the time that the Tranmers were living at Sutton Hoo, harrowing in the Garden Field brought the Bromeswell Bucket to the surface. Made in the 6th Century, judging by the letterforms used within the bucket&rsquos design, it was already a hundred years old when it arrived here from Antioch in modern Turkey, but then in the Byzantine Empire.

Like many of Sutton Hoo&rsquos most fascinating finds, it was unearthed in fragments. Further discoveries during a metal detecting survey in 2012 unearthed more pieces of this Byzantine bucket.

Through painstaking work, we&rsquove carefully cleaned and reshaped each bucket fragment into its original form. By delicately fixing each piece of our ancient jigsaw onto a mount we&rsquore able to see how this exotic piece of craftsmanship would originally have looked.

2000 - Going further back in time

When building our Visitor Centre during 2000, the area of another hoo peninsula was investigated by Suffolk County Council archaeology unit, revealing an additional Anglo-Saxon cemetery that predated the Royal Burial Ground. Home to the previously discovered Bromeswell Bucket, archaeologists went on to find 13 cremations and 9 burials in the area excavated, five of which were under small burial mounds.

Not quite as grand as the ship burials, these were the graves of residents from a variety of low to relatively high status families. Women had been buried with everyday items including combs, bowls, small knives, shoulder brooches and beads. In many of the male graves were found a spear and a shield. These were part-time warriors, ready to take up arms, but who spent most of their lives farming the land. Despite their lower-status, it&rsquos quite possible that these were the grandparents and great grandparents of East Anglian kings, such as those laid to rest in the Royal Burial Ground many years later.

2017 and 2018 - Research continues

New technological developments over the years allow us to continue to find new strands to the Sutton Hoo story.

Most recently, a team from Bradford University explored the mounds using Ground Penetrating Radar and drone-mounted lasers (LiDAR). These non destructive techniques use pulses of radar and laser respectively, helping to reveal minute details of the construction of the mounds as well as marks left on their surfaces by World War II tanks.

Exploring the viewing tower footprint

Whilst making plans to build the new 17-metre viewing tower overlooking the burial mounds, we carried out an excavation of the ground where the base of the new tower now sits.

Over two weeks in May 2018, Sutton Hoo staff and volunteers helped archaeologists from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) with their investigations. The BBC, ITV and Radio 4 all came along to enjoy the palpable sense of anticipation as we dug knowing that there was a real possibility of finding something incredible.

Whilst we didn&rsquot uncover anything to rival previous discoveries, the finds told the long history of Sutton Hoo, from prehistoric flints and evidence of Anglo-Saxon camp fires right up to a bread packet from the 1980s!

2019 - Unleash your inner archaeologist

Thanks to funding provided by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, we&rsquove been able to train our volunteers to study a landscape&rsquos geophysics using an earth resistance meter.

If you&rsquod like to discover Sutton Hoo&rsquos hidden depths for yourself, our new volunteer archaeologists are running public participation sessions here on site. Visit our events page for more information.

The Dig (2021)

Yes. Growing up, Edith had traveled a great deal with her family, visiting Austria-Hungry, Greece, and in her late twenties, Egypt. During her travels, she witnessed several excavations. The Dig true story reveals that her father had also been involved in the excavation of a Cistercian Abbey next to their home at Vale Royal. After she had married Frank Pretty and settled at their Sutton Hoo estate in Suffolk, Edith had always been interested in excavating the 18 mounds on their property. Their home on the estate, Tranmer House, is pictured below.

Why was the location called "Sutton Hoo"?

Was Edith Pretty a widow?

Yes. At the time Edith Pretty (portrayed by Carey Mulligan) hired local archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate the mounds on her Sutton Hoo estate in southeast Suffolk, she had been a widow for several years. Her husband, Frank Pretty, had died of stomach cancer on his 56th birthday in 1934. They had one son, Robert Dempster Pretty, who she had given birth to in 1930 at the age of 47. Robert is portrayed by Archie Barnes in The Dig movie.

How did Edith Pretty end up hiring archaeologist Basil Brown to explore the mounds on her property?

At the Woodbridge Flower Fete (festival) in 1937, Edith Pretty talked to Vincent B. Redstone, a member of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, about potentially excavating the mounds on her Sutton Hoo estate. In July of that year, a formal meeting was held during which Pretty, Redstone, and the curator of the Ipswich Corporation Museum, Guy Maynard, discussed the possibility of excavation. Maynard recommended local archaeologist Basil Brown (played by Ralph Fiennes in The Dig movie) to find out what, if anything, lay beneath the strange mounds on Pretty's land.

Edith Pretty hired Basil Brown, agreeing to pay him 30 shillings a week for two weeks to explore the mounds. He arrived on June 20, 1938 and stayed with Pretty's chauffeur. With the help of two workers on Pretty's estate, Brown first excavated what became known as Mound 3. He made several promising finds, including the remains of a cremated man, fragments of early Saxon pottery, rotten wooden fibers that together resembled a tray, the lid of a Mediterranean jug, a portion of a decorated limestone plaque, and a corroded iron axe head. It was enough to convince Pretty to have him excavate two more mounds in hopes of discovering more Sutton Hoo treasure.

He next excavated Mound 2 and Mound 4. He found little in the latter, as it appeared to have been robbed. In Mound 2, he found a bead, Bronze Age pottery shards, a gilt bronze disc, a piece of blue glass, the tip of a sword blade, iron knives, a ship's rivets, and a smaller boat that appeared to have been cut in half, with one half placed on top of the other as a cover. However, the top half was missing, suggesting the site had been looted. The excavation of Mound 2 and the discovery of this smaller boat is not included in the movie or book. Brown stayed until August 9, 1938, completing his first of two seasons of excavating the burial site. Edith Pretty gave the items to the Ipswich Museum, where they were put on display. The British Museum was also informed of the discoveries.

Brown came back on May 8, 1939 to continue the excavation, this time focusing on the largest hill, Mound 1, which concealed what became known as the Sutton Hoo burial ship. In The Dig movie and book, the entire excavation is condensed into one season in 1939, ending at the outbreak of WWII.

Was Basil Brown a professional archaeologist?

Like in The Dig movie, the true story confirms that Basil Brown was not considered to be a professional archaeologist. He was a local, self-taught, amateur archaeologist. However, it could be argued that in terms of experience, he was just as qualified as the professionals who would later end up taking over the Sutton Hoo dig. He had spent years exploring the countryside in north Suffolk in search of Roman artifacts. He had discovered eight medieval buildings, ancient roads, and the locations of Roman settlements. In 1934, Brown discovered and excavated a Roman kiln at Wattisfield, which was taken to the Ipswich Museum in 1935. In the process, he got to know the museum's curator, Guy Maynard, who hired Brown to work for the museum on a contractual basis.

His first job for the museum was to spend 13 weeks exploring the Suffolk villages of Stutson and Stanton Chare. He discovered a Roman villa at Stanton Chare, resulting in an extension of his contract to three seasons (30 weeks) from 1936 to 1938. Despite being paid to do what he loved, the semi-regular income wasn't enough and he had to continue working as an insurance agent and a special police constable to make ends meet.

Does actress Carey Mulligan resemble Edith Pretty?

In researching The Dig true story, we immediately discovered that one of the biggest liberties the movie takes is that despite aging her a little with makeup, actress Carey Mulligan is approximately 20 years younger than the real Edith Pretty was at the time of the excavation of the Sutton Hoo burial mounds. Mulligan was approximately 34 at the time of filming and Pretty was around 55 when the excavation on her Sutton Hoo property took place. However, we did discover that Mulligan better resembles Pretty when she was younger (pictured below).

Is the movie's romance between Peggy Piggott and Rory Lomax real?

No. In conducting The Dig fact check, we discovered that Johnny Flynn's character, photographer Rory Lomax, who is the cousin of Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), is entirely fictional. The romance with Peggy Piggott (Lily James) is fictional as well. It was likely inspired by the fact that Peggy Piggott's 1936 marriage to Stuart Piggott (portrayed by Ben Chaplin in the film) eventually ended in divorce in 1954. The novel falsely implies that they had just gotten married and interrupted their honeymoon to join the excavation. In the movie, Peggy complains that Stuart is more interested in working in the lab with John Brailsford than spending time with her. She finds herself taking an interest in the fictional Rory Lomax, who is called up by the RAF and heads off to war. Did Peggy and Stuart's marriage really end because Stuart was a closeted gay man? Find out in our episode The Dig: History vs. Hollywood.

Was Edith Pretty involved in spiritualism?

Yes. The movie only alludes to Edith's interest in spiritualism when she asks Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) if he saw anything while he was momentarily buried alive following a cave-in at the site. The informal religious movement known as spiritualism was still popular in the 1930s, and Edith had befriended a faith healer named William Parish. Spiritualists like Parish believed that the living can communicate with the spirits of the dead, usually by way of mediums. Edith funded the construction of a chapel for Parish and she backed the Woodbridge Spiritualist Church. There was a rumor that either Edith or a friend of hers had dreams/visions of soldiers walking around with swords and spears atop the mounds on her property. She sent archaeologist Basil Brown to the church, where he was told by a medium, "You are digging in the sand. The message is, 'Keep digging, you will find what you are searching for.'" The medium's advice came true in 1939 when the 88-foot burial ship was discovered in Mound 1.

Is the fleeting romance between Edith Pretty and Basil Brown real?

Did Basil Brown really discover a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon burial ship?

Yes. Among the 18 ancient burial mounds on Edith Pretty's 526-acre Sutton Hoo estate was a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon ship, which is thought to have been the final resting place of King Rædwald of East Anglia (c. 560 - c. 624). Unlike in the movie, the discovery of the Anglo-Saxon burial ship in Mound 1 didn't come as a complete surprise. In real life, Basil Brown had discovered similar iron ship rivets and a smaller boat in Mound 2 the previous year (not shown in the movie).

As he excavated Mound 1, Brown was assisted by Edith Pretty's gardener, John Jacobs, and her gamekeeper, William Spooner. Inside the 88-foot ship Brown discovered in Mound 1, was a burial chamber full of treasure, which, like in the movie, was excavated with the help of Charles Phillips and his team after they took over the dig. The ship burial helped shed light on a historical period that lacks documentation, and it changed how historians viewed the flow of ideas and objects across Europe in the 7th century. "The Dark Ages are no longer dark," declares archaeologist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) in the movie. It's true that as a result of the Sutton Hoo discovery, Anglo-Saxon England was no longer thought of as part of the Dark Ages, at least not to the same degree it had been.

Did journalists really descend on the Sutton Hoo dig site?

Did a burial mound cave in on Basil Brown?

No. While it makes for a suspenseful moment in The Dig movie and novel, the true story seems to lack any record of Basil Brown being nearly buried alive. As John Preston stated in his novel's author's note, "Certain changes have been made for dramatic effect." While there was no mention of a cave-in happening in real life, there was worry that a hill of sandy soil that had acted as a viewing platform could give way.

Had anyone else attempted to dig up the mounds prior to Basil Brown?

Yes. In Tudor times, gravediggers had attempted to dig up Mound 1 (the mound in which the Sutton Hoo burial ship was found). We know this because fragments of a pot from that period were found in a pit. It appears as if the diggers gave up, had lunch, and then threw the remains of their food into the mound. What they didn't realize is that they weren't digging in the center of the mound and were instead off to some degree.

Did professional archaeologists take over the excavation of Sutton Hoo from Basil Brown?

Yes. After professional archaeologist Charles Phillips visited the excavation on June 6, 1939, he reasoned from the size of the ship that it could be a royal burial. Realizing the potential significance of the burial site at Sutton Hoo, Phillips and Ipswich Museum curator Guy Maynard decided to involve the British Museum's Department of Antiquities. Edith Pretty was hesitant to do so, fearing that the dig would be delayed indefinitely.

Like in The Dig movie, a fact check confirms that professional British archaeologist Charles Phillips was assigned to take over the Sutton Hoo excavation and was to begin his work there in July 1939, focusing on the ship's burial chamber. Despite being told to stop until Phillip's team arrived, Basil Brown continued to work on excavating the ship. Phillips recruited Welsh archaeologist William Grimes, British archaeologist O.G.S. Crawford, and husband and wife archaeologists Stuart and Peggy Piggott. They discovered more than 260 additional items of the Sutton Hoo treasure. Some of the things found inside the burial chamber included weapons, gold and garnet jewelry, silver, containers, shoes, buckles, gold coins and ignots, baptismal spoons, drinking horns and vessels, etc. The Sutton Hoo helmet, exquisite gold shoulder clasps, gold belt buckle, and the Sutton Hoo sword are four of the most significant items.

Another reason more archaeologists were brought in was because they knew war could break out at any moment and they were in a hurry to finish the excavation and get the items to a safe place.

Was Basil Brown allowed to continue working at the site?

Yes, but The Dig true story reveals that Charles Phillips was now in charge of the excavation of the ship's burial chamber that Basil Brown had discovered in Mound 1. In real life, Charles Phillips and Basil Brown were respectful to one another during the excavation. Phillips even complimented Brown on the meticulous manner with which he had excavated the ship. He somewhat reluctantly gives a similar compliment in the film. Brown assisted Phillips after he arrived.

What happened to the artifacts found at Sutton Hoo?

At a treasure trove inquest on August 14, 1939, Basil Brown testified and helped convince officials that the enormous find at Sutton Hoo was the property of Edith Pretty. After the inquest, Pretty ended up donating the Sutton Hoo treasure to the British Museum. To commend her generosity and contribution to the country, Winston Churchill offered her a designation of CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) but she declined.

Edith Pretty never got to see the full impact of her generosity. Although the first Sutton Hoo exhibition opened at the British Museum in 1940, it was soon packed up and kept in underground tunnels between Aldwych and Holborn tube stations to shield it from air raids during WWII. Pretty's land was used for military training during the war. Tanks drove over the burial mounds. She never got to see the full impact of her generosity. Edith Pretty died in 1942 at age 59 following a stroke. Her son Robert, then just 12 years old, went to live with his Aunt Elizabeth (his mother's sister).

Have any other burial grounds been found near Sutton Hoo?

Yes. A second burial ground was found in the year 2000 on another hill-spur roughly 1,600 ft upstream from the original burial mounds at Sutton Hoo. Both cemeteries are in close proximity to the River Deben.

Was The Dig filmed at Sutton Hoo?

There was no filming done at the actual Sutton Hoo site, which is a historic monument. It would have been impossible to physically recreate the excavation of the royal burial ship at the location. Some scenes were filmed in nearby villages, including Snape, Thorpeness and Butley.


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