Digitised images show the 1938 Sutton Hoo ship dig

Remarkable photographs show archaeologists uncovering Sutton Hoo ship in 1939 after they were handed to the National Trust in plastic bag by mystery donor

  • The remains of the 89ft Anglo-Saxon burial ship that was unearthed in a Suffolk field in the summer of 1939
  • It contained more than 260 pieces of treasure, including a helmet, weapons, armour, coins and jewellery
  • After treasure was removed, schoolteachers Maggie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff took more than 400 images
  • The photos were given to the National Trust in 2009 by mystery donor who turned out to be Lack’s nephew
  • Images now available to view online after a three-year digitisation project carried out by the National Trust 
  • Even now, more than 80 years on, the incredible artefacts recovered from Sutton Hoo constitute what is the greatest ever discovery of treasure in the UK.

    The haul was recovered from the remains of an 89ft Anglo-Saxon burial ship that was unearthed in a Suffolk field in the summer of 1939.

    More than 260 items were found, including a ceremonial helmet, weapons, armour, coins, jewellery, gold buckles, patterned plaques and silver cutlery.

    After the treasures were removed, hundreds of photographs, both in black and white and in rare colour, were taken by two schoolteachers – Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff – as the dig continued to progress.

    However, it wasn’t until 2009 that the images re-surfaced when they were left by a mystery donor at the reception of the National Trust’s headquarters in a plastic bag.

    That unknown individual turned out to be Andrew Lack, the great-nephew of Mercie, who passed away in 1985.

    Now, his 11 albums of black and white photos, plus one colour album and many other loose print, can be viewed for the first time online after a three-year digitisation project.

    Remarkably, the colour images are believed to be the earliest surviving original ones of a major archaeological dig. They were taken after Mercie and Wagstaff – who died in 1975 – somehow got hold of rolls of 35mm German colour film.

    More than 400 images of the 1939 Sutton Hoo excavation in Suffolk have been digitised by the National Trust. More than 260 pieces of treasure were recovered from the remains of an 89ft Anglo-Saxon burial ship at the site. Above: One of the newly-digitised photographs shows amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (left), along with helper Lieutenant Commander Hutchison (left) and British Museum expert Charles Phillips

    More than 400 images of the 1939 Sutton Hoo excavation in Suffolk have been digitised by the National Trust. More than 260 pieces of treasure were recovered from the remains of an 89ft Anglo-Saxon burial ship at the site. Above: One of the newly-digitised photographs shows amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (left), along with helper Lieutenant Commander Hutchison (left) and British Museum expert Charles Phillips

    After the treasures were removed, hundreds of photographs, both in black and white and in rare colour, were taken by two schoolteachers ¿ Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff ¿ as the dig continued to progress. Above: Barbara Wagstaff (right) and Mercie Lack (left) stand either side of the remains of the ship as other members of the dig sit within it

    After the treasures were removed, hundreds of photographs, both in black and white and in rare colour, were taken by two schoolteachers – Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff – as the dig continued to progress. Above: Barbara Wagstaff (right) and Mercie Lack (left) stand either side of the remains of the ship as other members of the dig sit within it

    As part of the digitisation project, every fragile image has been conserved and catalogued. Mercie and Wagstaff were present on the site between August 8 and 25, 1939 ¿ after the treasure haul had already been removed. The remains of the ancient ship were found by amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (pictured), who had been employed by landowner Edith Pretty after she became increasingly fascinated by the grass-covered mounds in the grounds of her home

    As part of the digitisation project, every fragile image has been conserved and catalogued. Mercie and Wagstaff were present on the site between August 8 and 25, 1939 – after the treasure haul had already been removed. The remains of the ancient ship were found by amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (pictured), who had been employed by landowner Edith Pretty after she became increasingly fascinated by the grass-covered mounds in the grounds of her home

    As part of the digitisation project, every fragile image has been conserved and catalogued.

    Mercie and Wagstaff were present on the site between August 8 and 25, 1939 – after the treasure haul had already been removed.

    They had asked permission to be on the site when they happened to be on holiday in the area.

    Between them, they took more than 400 photographs. Many of them were then put into albums and meticulously annotated.

    Other official photographs were taken of the dig and given to the British Museum – but the draw of these is that they were taken by amateurs driven by interest and fascination.

    The remains of the ancient ship were found by amateur archaeologist Basil Brown, who had been employed by landowner Edith Pretty after she became increasingly fascinated by the grass-covered mounds in the grounds of her home.

    During the several weeks of excavation that followed, Brown and his team unearthed the treasures that would send shockwaves through the archaeological world. 

    The most precious find of all was a sculpted full-face helmet (pictured above at the British museum), leading archaeologists to conclude the site was the final resting place of a 7th-century royal, probably Raedwald, a king of East Anglia

    The most precious find of all was a sculpted full-face helmet (pictured above at the British museum), leading archaeologists to conclude the site was the final resting place of a 7th-century royal, probably Raedwald, a king of East Anglia 

    Tt wasn't until 2009 that the images re-surfaced when they were left by a mystery donor at the reception of the National Trust's headquarters in a plastic bag. That unknown individual turned out to be Andrew Lack, the great-nephew of Mercie

    Tt wasn’t until 2009 that the images re-surfaced when they were left by a mystery donor at the reception of the National Trust’s headquarters in a plastic bag. That unknown individual turned out to be Andrew Lack, the great-nephew of Mercie 

    Remarkably, the colour images are believed to be the earliest surviving original ones of a major archaeological dig. They were taken after Mercie and Wagstaff somehow got hold of rolls of 35mm German colour film. Above: Basil Brown (top left) is seen at the dig site with fellow amateur archaeologist Lieutenant Commander Hutchinson and Wagstaff

    Remarkably, the colour images are believed to be the earliest surviving original ones of a major archaeological dig. They were taken after Mercie and Wagstaff somehow got hold of rolls of 35mm German colour film. Above: Basil Brown (top left) is seen at the dig site with fellow amateur archaeologist Lieutenant Commander Hutchinson and Wagstaff 

    A group of naval cadets are pictured during a visit to the dig site. During several weeks of excavation, Brown and his team unearthed the treasures that would send shockwaves through the archaeological world

    A group of naval cadets are pictured during a visit to the dig site. During several weeks of excavation, Brown and his team unearthed the treasures that would send shockwaves through the archaeological world

    The team ultimately pulled a haul of 263 ornate treasures from the earth in the Suffolk field. Above: Members of the dig team look at sheets of photographs at the site

    The team ultimately pulled a haul of 263 ornate treasures from the earth in the Suffolk field. Above: Members of the dig team look at sheets of photographs at the site

    British Museum archaeologist Charles Phillips starting to uncover the scarf bolts at the stern of the ship

    British Museum archaeologist Charles Phillips starting to uncover the scarf bolts at the stern of the ship

    Photograph taken in the centre of the boat to show the tools used in the excavation

    Photograph taken in the centre of the boat to show the tools used in the excavation

    The most precious find of all was a sculpted full-face helmet, leading archologists to conclude the site was the final resting place of a 7th-century royal, probably Raedwald, a king of East Anglia.

    When the spectacular artefacts began to emerge from the mud, Brown was removed from his lead role in the dig as experts from the British Museum – led by professional archaeologist Charles Phillips – took over.

    A new team of archaeologists was brought in by Phillips, including Stuart Piggott and his young wife Peggy Preston.

    All of the key players were portrayed in last year’s fictionalised film account, The Dig, which starred Ralph Fiennes as Brown and Johnny Flynn and Lily James as the Piggotts.

    The team ultimately pulled a haul of 263 ornate treasures from the earth in the Suffolk field.

    Edith Pretty, Charles Phillips and friends standing on top of the burial mound and watching the excavation on August 10 1939

    Edith Pretty, Charles Phillips and friends standing on top of the burial mound and watching the excavation on August 10 1939

    View of the excavation with Mr Crosley measuring, a work man removing sand, Lieutenant Commander Hutchison and Basil Brown excavating and Barbara Wagstaff observing

    View of the excavation with Mr Crosley measuring, a work man removing sand, Lieutenant Commander Hutchison and Basil Brown excavating and Barbara Wagstaff observing

    Artist William Palmer Robins, who sketched the ship excavation, off to lunch at 1o'clock on August 15, 1939

    Artist William Palmer Robins, who sketched the ship excavation, off to lunch at 1o’clock on August 15, 1939

    These also included a double-edged sword – a prestigious weapon only available to high status warriors – a gold shield and an ornate belt buckle that displayed the best of early medieval craftsmanship.

    Experts first thought the treasures were Viking, but realised they were Anglo-Saxon on closer inspection.

    Some of the treasures dated back to the Byzantine Empire, while others had travelled to Suffolk from the East, such as some jewellery set with Sri Lankan garnets.

    The treasures rewrote the history of the Dark Ages in Europe, with historians able to delve into the Anglo-Saxons trading networks with Europe like never before.

    The only notable omission from the finds was the sign of any body buried alongside them.

    Experts suggest the acidic soil could have dissolved the bones of the once great warrior, but this theory has been disputed over the decades as other bones had been found in the other tumulus on the site.

    Either way, the discovery was made just in time. When war broke out, the dig had to be abandoned and the grounds were used by the Army as a tank training ground.

    The heavy machines flattened many of the historical mounds, and caused damage to the intact outline of the ship.

    After a treasure inquest deemed all of the priceless riches rightfully belonged to Mrs Pretty, she donated all of the artefacts to the British Museum – becoming the institution’s most significant living donor.

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