After exploring smaller mounds at the now-famous Suffolk site of Sutton Hoo the year before, in May 1939 local archaeologist Basil Brown turned his attention to the largest: Mound 1. As excavation continued, now under Charles Phillips from Cambridge, the Anglo-Saxon ship burial yielded a series of spectacular objects, among them a sword with a jewelled hilt and glittering golden shoulder clasps inlaid with garnet and glass. The eye-catching finds were taken to the British Museum in London, but the site itself continued to attract attention.
Two schoolteachers, who were holidaying in the area, made visits to the dig between 8 and 25 August. Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff were keen amateur photographers and, between them, took more than 400 photographs of the excavation, mainly in black and white, but also some on Agfacolor slide film, which was briefly on sale before the outbreak of the Second World War. Lack shot a short section of 8mm film too.
Their personal collection of Sutton Hoo images – 11 albums, loose prints, contact prints, and negatives – was given to the National Trust by Andrew Lack (Mercie’s great-nephew) and has now been digitised, making the fragile photographs available to view online. Shown here is one of Wagstaff’s images, with the ghostly outline of the ship, whose planks had eroded in the acidic soil, clearly visible. In the foreground, Basil Brown (wearing a hat) works in the ship. To his right stands a man thought to be Frank Gillman from the Science Museum’s surveying team but labelled ‘George’ (perhaps a nickname) in Lack’s amply annotated albums, according to the National Trust. They are watched over by naval cadets, one group in a series of visitors, including royalty, over that eventful summer.
For information on visiting the Sutton Hoo site and to explore the images, see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo.
IMAGE: original photograph by Barbara Wagstaff ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image © National Trust.