Hidden holiday snaps reveal figures behind legendary Sutton Hoo excavations of the 1930s

By Culture24 Staff | 19 November 2010
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A black and white photo of men digging soil
Charles Philips, landowner Edith Pretty and Princess Marie Louise (left) at the Sutton Hoo dig© British Museum
The 1938 excavation at Sutton Hoo, the Suffolk epicentre of Medieval burials, has always been clouded in exotic mystery.

The short story is that estate owner Edith May Pretty, tipped off by locals warning of untold gold and dowsers sensing lucrative finds under the soils, escorted local archaeologist Basil Brown to the grounds, where he uncovered the ship of the Anglo-Saxon King Raedwald and his most treasured possessions.

Until now, few photographs have focused on the dig itself, but a discovery by National Trust archaeologist Angus Wainwright looks certain to reveal the full story via a pair of 1930s holidaymakers.

A photo of people digging at an archaeological site
Archaeologist Basil Brown (back), Charles Philips (left) and Barbara Wagstaff with camera (right) in the trench© British Museum
Amateur photographers Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff arrived at the site shortly after eerie centrepiece the Sutton Hoo helmet was identified, going on to take 447 pictures of an investigation which was largely overlooked at the onset of the Second World War.

A relative of Lack is believed to have donated the collection to the visitor reception several years ago, but their significance was only realised when Wainwright perused the eight-album catalogue of the project, showing Brown and his co-workers in action and visits by intrigued dignitaries such as Princess Marie Louise, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter.

The suited archaeological team are seen crouching in the pits or poring over their plans. Poles are jabbed into the mud and measurements are drawn in some of the earliest colour images from an archaeological site, taken on German 35mm Agfa slide film which was only briefly available before the outbreak of hostilities.

A black and white photo of people looking at plans in a field
This photo is thought to show holiday snapper Mercie Lack as she shows Basil Brown and his team her contact sheets© British Museum
The Trust now plans to put 40 on public display and pursue funding to conserve and digitise more.

“These photographs are important not only for the light they shed on the excavations, but as a historic collection in their own right,” points out Wainwright, who says the real fascination for researchers lies in the people the snaps capture.

“The fact that there were only a few British women photographers around at that time makes the collection even more special.

"It is particularly exciting that these original albums have survived in relatively good condition, and the detailed annotations give us a glimpse of what it was like for someone lucky enough to have witnessed this great event.

"We hope that this exhibition will help us unearth more about the ladies behind the camera, as well as trace the individual who kindly donated this amazing collection to Sutton Hoo.”

Captured on Camera: The Summer of 1939 runs at Sutton Hoo until March 2011.
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