Sutton Hoo: capturing a ghost ship

Sutton Hoo, Suffolk

This photograph, showing the excavation of the famous Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo, was taken by Mercie Lack (1894-1985) in 1939. It is one of hundreds of images of the investigation that are now available to browse online thanks to the conservation and digitisation efforts of the National Trust.

© National Trust

Mercie, a schoolmistress and keen amateur photographer, visited the site with her friend Barbara Wagstaff (1895-1973), a fellow teacher and photography enthusiast. They went on to produce over half of all recorded negatives from the excavation (see CA 374).

All grave goods had been removed by the time Mercie and Barbara arrived, but their images document the structure of the ship and the excavation process. This photo, taken in the centre of the vessel, highlights the rather rudimentary tools used during the dig. ‘All were of the simplest kind and used by hand,’ Mercie noted in an accompanying typewritten caption. ‘Those most in use were the short-handled brushes and the builder’s trowels, while fingers and even a pastry brush were used for small details.’

Now Mercie’s ten albums of black-and-white images and single colour album, as well as loose prints by both Mercie and Barbara, have been carefully digitised by the National Trust. Each photograph was digitally reproduced under studio lighting, with every page shot multiple times in high-resolution using an overhead digital camera (also pictured). Individual prints and annotations were also captured, producing more than 4,000 images in all.

In an unpublished book reflecting on the excavation, Mercie wrote: ‘The ship, alas, was of a fleeting nature, a kind of ghost ship, revealed only for a short time during which it was possible to make records, photographs, and sketches, and then it was gone forever.’

The images can be viewed at

Text: H Blair
Images: Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image © National Trust; © National Trust/Josh Ward.

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