right Edith Pretty commissioned the first excavation at Sutton Hoo and later donated all the finds to the nation.

The women of Sutton Hoo: tracing female stories at a celebrated cemetery

Sutton Hoo is best known as the location of an astonishing ‘princely’ Anglo-Saxon ship burial – but the site has compelling stories to tell about women too. Current Archaeology's Carly Hilts explores the lives of five fascinating females linked with the 7th-century site.

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On a ridge overlooking the River Deben, burial mounds rise from the sandy Suffolk soil. Sutton Hoo’s Anglo-Saxon barrow cemetery has captured the public imagination since archaeologists first excavated at the site more than 80 years ago – and these imaginings are often dominated by the remarkable contents of the Mound 1 ship burial, and its elite male occupant, surrounded by imported luxuries and the glitter of gold. Yet while this ‘princely’ grave, traditionally associated with the East Anglian king Rædwald (d. c.625), may be the most famous element of the burial ground, the site also has a number of fascinating female stories to tell.

In last month’s CA I reviewed The Dig, a new Netflix film about the 1939 excavation at Sutton Hoo, and while the atmosphere and aesthetics were wonderful, there was one aspect that struck an uncomfortable note: the contributions of most of the women involved in the investigations had been dramatically played down or omitted altogether. Better than complaining, though, is to help share these stories – so here we will meet four intriguing individuals who were involved in the original excavation, as well as a more shadowy figure: a high-status but nameless Anglo-Saxon woman who was laid to rest in splendid style at Sutton Hoo, but whose grave is much less well known than the celebrated ship burial excavated metres away.

right Peggy Piggott's tape measure, which she used during the 1939 excavation at Sutton Hoo; its leather case is marked with her surname. The object is held by Wiltshire Museum in Devizes; find out more at www.wiltshiremuseum.org.uk/?artwork= mrs-cecily-piggott-peggy-guido-featured- in-the-dig-film-of-sutton-hoo.
Peggy Piggott’s tape measure, which she used during the 1939 excavation at Sutton Hoo; its leather case is marked with her surname. The object is held by Wiltshire Museum in Devizes; find out more at www.wiltshiremuseum.org.uk/?artwork= mrs-cecily-piggott-peggy-guido-featured- in-the-dig-film-of-sutton-hoo. IMAGE: Wiltshire Museum, Devizes.

Peggy Piggott

Peggy Piggott was particularly poorly served by The Dig, portrayed as a timid and inexperienced member of the excavation team. While this characterisation was convenient for setting up a fictional romance arc, the truth is much more interesting.

Born Cecily Margaret Preston in Kent in 1912, Peggy had an early interest in archaeology, spending her 21st birthday excavating the remains of Verulamium (Roman St Albans) with Mortimer Wheeler and Tessa Verney Wheeler in 1933. Academic opportunities for women were limited at this time, and when Peggy graduated from Cambridge University in 1934 it was with a diploma rather than a degree (which were, until 1948, reserved for male students). She also studied at the Institute of Archaeology between 1935 and 1936, where she focused on Western European history and met fellow student Stuart Piggott. By the time they married in 1936, Peggy had worked on further investigations – a photograph in a 1935 edition of the Brighton Herald captures ‘Miss Preston reassembling fragments of pottery’, illustrating a report on E Cecil Curwen’s excavation of the Neolithic causewayed enclosure at Whitehawk Hill. The article itself refers to Peggy as ‘an expert’, and by 1937, aged 25, she was directing her own excavations.

The first was the excavation of a Bronze Age barrow and cremation cemetery at Latch Farm, Hampshire; a report in the Christchurch Times carries a description of ‘Mrs Stuart Piggott, who is in charge of excavations… seen registering the details of a find’. Publication of papers in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society soon followed, and by the time Peggy joined the Sutton Hoo team in 1939 she was an experienced excavator in her own right, having written up further Iron Age investigations in Berkshire, Wiltshire, and Dorset – a far cry from her film incarnation, who nervously says that she hasn’t ‘done much actual fieldwork yet’, before carelessly putting her foot through a hollow feature.

One detail that The Dig did get right, though, was that it was Peggy who found the first of Mound 1’s famous gold and garnet artefacts – a discovery that transformed the team’s understanding of what they were working on. We can hear about the find in Peggy’s own words, thanks to a 1965 BBC documentary about the excavation called The Million Pound Grave (you can watch clips at http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/sutton_hoo_dig_collection/zs6xqfr). Interviewed as Margaret Guido, having remarried eight years earlier, Peggy describes the moment she uncovered the sword pyramid:

Peggy Piggott, under her maiden name of ‘Preston’, is shown reassembling pottery fragments from the Neolithic causewayed enclosure at Whitehawk Hill. IMAGE: Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove, CC-BY-SA.

‘I remember that Charles Phillips [sent by the British Museum to take over the excavation] had gone down to Woodbridge, and we were working quietly away in our usual morning routine, cleaning up the structure of the ship, when quite suddenly as I was trowelling and brushing the sand, one of these lovely garnet and gold ornaments was revealed. And of course from that moment we were immensely excited, everybody rushed round and said this really is something tremendous, because of course it means we’re not digging a Viking ship but a Saxon one – and a few minutes after we were gathered round there, Charles Phillips returned, and I remember him saying “My godfathers!” – and all day, for the rest of the day, he went on saying “Oh dear, oh dear”.’

Even in describing the artefact’s significance, though, Peggy’s enthusiasm for prehistory and pottery – the subjects of her earliest investigations – shines through: ‘The mere finding of very valuable things alone is not enough to satisfy an archaeologist,’ she tells the interviewer. ‘It may be far more exciting to find one small muddy little bit of decorated pottery belonging to the Neolithic period or the Bronze Age, which tells you the date of the monument you are excavating, and for which you have excavated the monument, to get that information.’

Sutton Hoo did not mark the pinnacle of Peggy’s career, which spanned six decades and spawned some 50 publications. In the years that followed, she returned to excavating prehistoric sites in England and Scotland, publishing extensive research on the development of hillforts and Iron Age settlements that still influences archaeological understanding today, as well as creating relative chronological frameworks that were invaluable before the advent of radiocarbon dating. This work continued into the 1950s, until Peggy moved to Sicily following the end of her first marriage in 1956, where she published several works on Italian archaeology. Returning to British archaeology in the 1970s, she went on to become a leading expert in Iron Age, Roman, and Anglo-Saxon glass beads – her books on this subject are still definitive reference works.

LEFT This photograph shows the 1939 dig team excavating the central chamber of the Mound 1 ship burial at Sutton Hoo. Peggy Piggott is pictured in the centre.
This photograph shows the 1939 dig team excavating the central chamber of the Mound 1 ship burial at Sutton Hoo. Peggy Piggott is pictured in the centre. IMAGE: Trustees of the British Museum.

She became Vice President of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society in 1984, before being elected joint President with Stuart Piggott, a position that she held until her death in 1994. Peggy’s archaeological legacy was not limited to the prolific research that she produced: she also co-founded the Bead Study Trust and established the Peggy Guido Fund to promote further work on the glass beads she loved, while a bequest in her will allowed the National Trust to purchase land surrounding Silbury Hill, helping to preserve the Neolithic monument for the future. The Wiltshire Museum in Devizes still holds the tape measure that Peggy used at Sutton Hoo: a relic of one of her best-known excavations, but one that marked only an early point in a long and influential career.

Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff

Moving from excavating the Sutton Hoo ship to documenting its remains, our next encounter is with Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff, whose images make up most of our photographic record of the 1939 dig. Close friends, schoolteachers, and talented amateur photographers with an interest in archaeology (they had previously spent school holidays photographing carved stones for the British Museum), Mercie and Barbara were holidaying in the area when they visited Sutton Hoo and asked to take pictures of the excavation. Armed with Leica cameras and a cine-camera, over the course of August 1939 the pair went on to capture over 400 images, as well as a short film of Basil Brown digging. Most of their photographs are black and white, but they also had a couple of rolls of German 35mm Agfa colour slide film, and the resulting prints are thought to represent the earliest-known colour photographs showing a major archaeological excavation.

Mercie and Barbara were clearly trusted by the excavation team, as their photographs sometimes catch the other woman standing within the fragile outline of the ship itself. Many of their carefully annotated images show the investigation in action rather than recording empty trenches, capturing useful details of social history such as clothing, as well as the often impromptu tools used by some of the team (pastry brushes, a household kettle, bellows).

LEFT Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff’s images represent most of our photographic record of the 1939 Sutton Hoo excavation. Here, Barbara’s photo shows Mercie with members of the dig team might she be showing them her and Barbara’s work?
Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff’s images represent most of our photographic record of the 1939 Sutton Hoo excavation. Here, Barbara’s photo shows Mercie with members of the dig team might she be showing them her and Barbara’s work? IMAGE: Trustees of the British Museum.

Mercie and Barbara do not appear in The Dig – they are replaced by an entirely fictional male character – but they did receive recognition in their lifetime, as both used portfolios of their Sutton Hoo photographs to become Associates of the Royal Photographic Society in 1944. Their photos also form the focus of a conservation project that is currently running at the National Trust: albums of their images were recently donated to the Trust by Mercie Lack’s great-nephew, and, after careful cataloguing by National Trust staff and volunteers, each photograph is now being conserved and digitised as part of the Trust’s Collections Conservation Prioritisation programme. We will bring you further coverage of this project, and Mercie and Barbara’s work, in a future issue.

Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack’s photographs are being digitised by the National Trust. IMAGE: National Trust images.

Edith Pretty

Edith Pretty’s involvement with Sutton Hoo is much better known – it is hard to overlook her contribution when she owned the estate on which the mounds lay, and her former home, Sutton Hoo House (today Tranmer House), holds displays about the excavation and the individuals involved (see CA 355). Yet her earlier life is well worth exploring.

Born in Yorkshire in 1883, Edith (née Dempster) was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, and her undoubtedly privileged upbringing saw her travel widely with her family, visiting archaeological excavations and historic sites including Pompeii, the Pyramids, and the Taj Mahal. Closer to home, her father excavated a Cistercian abbey adjoining their grand Cheshire country home, Vale Royal. Might these early experiences have shaped Edith’s own keen interest in the past?

right Edith Pretty commissioned the first excavation at Sutton Hoo and later donated all the finds to the nation.
Edith Pretty commissioned the first excavation at Sutton Hoo and later donated all the finds to the nation. IMAGE: National Trust images.

Edith spent six months in Paris after leaving school, and the First World War saw her return to France under rather different circumstances, as a volunteer in a Red Cross hospital. Independent-minded and public-spirited, she became one of England’s first female magistrates in 1922, at the age of 36. Four years later, she married Frank Pretty, purchasing the Sutton Hoo estate in the same year. Their son, Robert, was born in 1930, but family happiness was short-lived, as Frank died just four years later. Faced with this loss, as well as her own declining health (possibly linked to typhoid contracted during pregnancy), the intellectually curious Edith’s interests seem to have turned inwards, and it was shortly afterwards, in 1937, that she began to discuss the possibility of excavating the mysterious mounds on her land.

Although the original project leader, Basil Brown, was sent by the Ipswich Museum, it was Edith who paid his wages during the excavation (30 shillings a week). Edith took a great interest in the project: many of the site photos show her watching the archaeologists from a wicker chair placed trench-side. Edith’s greatest contribution to our understanding of the Sutton Hoo burials, though, came after the excavation had concluded. The Treasure Trove inquest into the finds ruled that they were Edith’s property, but rather than selling the artefacts or keeping them for a private collection, she donated the whole assemblage to the nation. In recognition of this generous act, Prime Minister Winston Churchill nominated Edith for a CBE; she turned it down.

The Mound 14 ‘queen’

Our final Sutton Hoo woman does not appear in The Dig, for good reason: her burial was excavated over half a century after the original investigation, during Martin Carver’s work on the site between 1983 and 1992 (see CA 331). While this grave lacks the astonishing intactness of Mound 1, it speaks eloquently of a high-ranking female member of the dynasty buried at Sutton Hoo.

Mound 14 lies on the barrow cemetery’s eastern fringe. Excavation in 1991 revealed that its contents had been ransacked by graverobbers, but they had been interrupted before they could complete their plunder, apparently by a heavy rainstorm. Fine, silty soil had rapidly filled the shaft that the thieves had dug into the mound – and this layer was found to contain broken fragments of artefacts that the robbers had trampled into the mud in their haste to grab what they could. Thanks to these clues, we are able to reconstruct what this once-elaborate grave looked like.

Its occupant had been laid to rest in a timber-lined burial chamber. No wood from these walls has survived, but lines left by thin planks set on their edges could still be seen on the floor by Martin’s team. Within this, a rectangular shape has been interpreted as some kind of support for the body, possibly a padded couch or bed, as the 87 short, stubby iron tacks recovered may have been used to upholster it. No human remains have survived, but clues to the deceased’s sex and social standing can be gleaned from tiny fragments of the objects that had been placed around her.

left Overlooking the Sutton Hoo barrow cemetery: Mound 1 is the ship burial excavated in 1939; Mound 14, which was the burial of an elite woman, lies in the bottom right corner of the site.
Overlooking the Sutton Hoo barrow cemetery: Mound 1 is the ship burial excavated in 1939; Mound 14, which was the burial of an elite woman, lies in the bottom right corner of the site. IMAGE: C Hoppitt/Martin Carve.

These include a chatelaine – a set of chains hung with domestic utensils, worn by Anglo-Saxon women – while other fragments were interpreted as the remains of a silver-framed leather pouch, a silver bowl, at least one silver-mounted wooden drinking cup, and silver dress-fittings and buckles. There were also silver hinges hinting at an ornate casket, and an iron knife. Most significant, however, were rare traces of mineralised fabric, which had been preserved through contact with metal. Their crumpled condition suggests that they came from clothes that the woman was dressed in for burial, and detailed analysis by Penelope Walton Rogers (published in Sutton Hoo: a 7th-century princely burial ground in context) has helped to unpick what their layers represent.

These were high-quality textiles, types of fine tabby linen, decorated with wool embroidery and panels of tablet weaving – a technique used in Anglo-Saxon England and early medieval Scandinavia to decorate the borders and straps of garments. Because the burial was so thoroughly robbed, we cannot be certain of the garments’ position, but the association of some of the fragments with the chatelaine is helpful. Chatelaines are thought to have been worn on the left hip, hanging from a belt, and if we imagine the woman lying on her back with her arms at her side, her sleeve cuff may have touched the metal chain. Penelope suggests we might imagine a woman wearing an inner chemise with embroidered cuffs and, over this, an outer gown of finer linen which had wide bands of tablet-woven decoration at the end of its sleeves. One or both of these garments may have fastened at the throat with a brooch (only the pin was recovered), and a top layer of much coarser material may have been a woollen cloak or blanket that had been placed over her body.

left Mound 14, with its robbed burial chamber, was investigated during Martin Carver’s 1991 campaign at Sutton Hoo.
Mound 14, with its robbed burial chamber, was investigated during Martin Carver’s 1991 campaign at Sutton Hoo. IMAGE: Nigel Macbeth, courtesy of Martin Carver; Martin Carver.

While this wealthy woman’s name is unknown, dating evidence places her burial in the mid- to later 7th century, making Mound 14 sequentially the last of the Sutton Hoo barrows. Writing in The Sutton Hoo Story: encounters with early England, Martin Carver wonders whether she may have been the wife of the Mound 1 ‘prince’ (potentially even the politically astute wife of Rædwald described by Bede), and the architect of his magnificent ship burial. Martin calls this a ‘material eulogy’, showing that it combines royal finery with what might be interpreted as gestures of affectionate intimacy – whoever had assembled the weapons, feasting equipment, and gold ornaments had also taken the trouble to include clean linen, warm clothing, and the man’s shaving kit. ‘If the imagination is allowed free rein,’ Martin writes, ‘here is one of the last of the princely clan, a dowager who outlived the heroes she had commemorated.’

A fragment of textile, decorated with tablet-weaving, from the Mound 14 burial. IMAGE: Nigel Macbeth, courtesy of Martin Carver; Martin Carver.

While Sutton Hoo may today be popularly associated with the grave of an elite man, the last individual to join the barrow cemetery’s regal ranks was a woman who – while her story has been lost to history – was clearly esteemed by her community, buried in rich robes, and surrounded by beautiful objects. The names of the other Sutton Hoo women should not be allowed to fade so easily.

Listen to Carly Hilts talk about the women of Sutton Hoo on episode 1 of the PastCast.