Photos of Sutton Hoo excavation digitised

‘The collection is a slice of social history in documenting an excavation taking place on the eve of the Second World War'

A collection of photographs capturing the excavation of Sutton Hoo in 1939 has been meticulously catalogued, conserved, and digitised.

Mercie Lack (1894-1985) and Barbara Wagstaff (1895-1974) were close friends, schoolmistresses, and amateur photographers with a keen interest in archaeology.

Whilst holidaying with her aunt, Mercie heard news of the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon ship burial nearby. Both Mercie and Barbara were granted permission to photograph the excavation.

Barbara Wagstaff A.R.P.S Mercie Lack showing members of the excavation team a selection of contact prints, with the excavation in the background
Original photograph by Barbara Wagstaff ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image © National Trust. 

Over the last three years, the National Trust has been carefully recording and digitising every image from a personal collection of photographs gifted by Mercie’s great nephew, Andrew Lack.

The collection includes 11 albums of black and white images, loose black and white prints, as well as an album of photos captured using 35mm German Agfa colour slide film – these are among the earliest surviving original colour photographs of any archaeological excavation.

Loose black and white prints and contact prints taken by Barbara are also included.

View of the excavation with Mr Crosley measuring, a work man removing sand, Lieutenant Commander Hutchison and Basil Brown excavating and Barbara Wagstaff observing. Photograph: Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image © National Trust. 

Staff and volunteers from Sutton Hoo worked together with photographic materials specialists to photograph each page and individual print, which resulted in over 4000 images, and conducted remedial conservation of the originals to repair any damage. These are stored in a closely controlled environment due to their fragile condition.

‘The official photographs were given to the British Museum, but our collection seems to be the personal set which these two photographers kept as their individual mementoes,’ said Laura Howarth, Archaeology and Engagement Manager at Sutton Hoo.

‘Mercie Lack’s photographic albums are meticulously annotated with not only who and what we are looking at in the photographs, but often the technical details of how the photographs were taken, such as the type of film and aperture.

‘The collection is also a slice of social history in documenting an excavation taking place on the eve of the Second World War, and photographs capture notable visitors to the site such as the artist W.P. Robins, a group of naval cadets and Princess Marie Louise, granddaughter of Queen Victoria.’

Mercie and Barbara went onto become Associates of the Royal Photographic Society in 1944.

Visitors to Sutton Hoo can now enjoy digital flickable versions of the albums in Tranmer House, which was recently refurbished with new exhibits telling the story of Edith Pretty and Basil Brown, before climbing a newly opened 17m-high tower that provides a view across the Royal Burial Ground. The full collection is now also available to access online.

Phil Morley View of the Tower with the Royal Burial Ground in the foreground. Image: National Trust, Phil Morley.

Other items from the Lack and Wagstaff collection are on in display at Tranmer House until November, including a sweet box in which some of the photographs were originally kept, and a copy of a book in which one of Mercie’s images was published.

You can also check out Current Archaeology Editor Carly Hilts' exploration of the lives of five fascinating females linked to Sutton Hoo, including Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff, as well as her review of The Dig.
You can also find out more about Lack and Wagstaff's photographic collection in the next issue of Current Archaeology (#381) out November.