Friday 29 January 2021

Is Britain a country which finally recognises its old and Uncrowned King of Sutton Hoo, the brilliant Basil Brown ?

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This week 'The Dig' has reached cinema and TV screens in Britain and around the world with the actor, Ralph Fiennes in the role of Basil Brown, the amateur  archaeologist who unearthed Britain's greatest archaeological find, the Anglo-Saxon, Sutton Hoo Ship Burial. Ralph was 17 years old when Basil died at the age of 89 in 1977, so there was no chance of chatting with him before he adopted Basil's persona, but there is no doubt that he researched Basil's life when he took on the role and he has said that he loved playing him. He certainly worked hard to perfect his Suffolk accent before he played Basil as the socially awkward 'Amateur' Archaeologist, who was robbed of the accolades he deserved in 1930s Britain, by his educated, social and 'Professional' superiors. Plaingoldband has said that Ralph : 'really brought that quiet intelligence and symbiotic nature of man and locus to the part' and was playing : 'a remarkable man' who 'was an embodiment of Suffolk. The earth, smell, sky....he was part of it and it, him'. 

Basil was born in 1888 in the village of Bucklesham, east of Ipswich, in the County of Suffolk, the son of Charlotte and George, who was a tenant farmer who moved the family to Church Farm near Rickinghall when Basil was a few months old. Clearly a bright lad, from the age of five he both dug on the farm to see what the soil could offer and studied the astronomical texts that he had inherited from his grandfather. He attended the village school to pick up ' the three R's' until he was 12 and then in 1900, left to work on the farm, although he apparently also received some extra tuition from two retired churchmen

It is a mark of his determination to improve his education that he attended evening classes and earned a certificate in drawing when he was 14 and then diplomas with 'distinction' for Astronomy, Geography and Geology through studies with the Harmsworth Self-Educator Correspondence College. Then, in his later teens, he used text books and radio broadcasts to teach himself Latin and learn to speak French with some fluency, while also picking up some Greek, German and Spanish. 

When he was 35 he married May Oldfield and together they struggled to make a living as tenants on the small farm Basil had picked up after his father died. He continued to pursue his interest in Astronomy using his 2 inch telescope and in 1932, at the age of 44, his four year work on 'Astronomical Atlases, Maps and Charts: An Historical and General Guide' was published.  Two years later he and May rented a cottage in Rickinghall. Basil now made his money from odd jobs and as a special police constable and insurance agent, but things were so bad financially that Basil was forced to let his 12 year membership of the British Astronomical Association lapse. Basil's determination and expertise impressed Ralph Fiennes when he researched Basil's life, prior to playing him in The Dig.

In his spare time he continued his interest in archaeology in the north Suffolk countryside and built up his reputation by uncovering eight medieval buildings, identifying Roman settlements and tracing ancient roads. His investigations of Roman industrial potteries led to the discovery, excavation and successful removal to Ipswich Museum in 1935 of a Roman kiln at Wattisfield. In the process he got to know the Curator of the Museum, Guy Maynard and H. A. Harris, the Secretary of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology. 

His Report in 'The site and finds thereon', which contained his illustrations, demonstrated that he could do this within the conventions used by 'professional' archaeologists. We might wonder, however, what May thought about the fact that, at a time of celebration, he wrote : 'On Christmas Day, 1934, the first kiln site in this area was located. Trial excavations in Cork Wood a short distance from where the urn had been found of definite Roman-period occupation layer, it was decided to test the field adjoining the wood where Roman sherds had been noticed in some profusion, these in all probability having been brought up to the surface by deep ploughing incidental to the cultivation of sugar beet.' 

His first contract with the Museum and the Suffolk Institute was for thirteen weeks of archaeological work in 1935 at Stuston and at Stanton Chare at £2 per week. His discovery and work at the Roman villa at the latter extended over three seasons between 1936 and 38, but his wage of £1 10 shillings per week forced him to continue as a constable and insurance man. 

The genesis of Basil's work at Sutton Hoo began when Edith May Pretty, played by Carey Mulligan in 'The Dig', was curious about the contents of about eighteen ancient mounds on her 526-acre Suffolk estate along the River Deben, near Woodbridge. It had a long history with 77 Saxon households recorded in the Norman Domesday Survey of 1086. When Edith discussed the matter with Guy Maynard in 1937, he offered her the services of Basil as her excavator and in the Summer of 1938 she agreed to pay Basil £3 for two weeks work at Sutton Hoo. 

After he had made the 35 mile bicycle ride from Rickinghall, complete with library books he had brought spanning the Bronze Age to the Anglo-Saxon period along with some excavation reports, Basil was lodged with Edith's  chauffeur in his cottage. When he set to work with his spade and his philosophy : 'a good spade and patience worked wonders', he decided to copy the cross-trench digging methods used in 1934 excavations of Iron Age mounds at Warborough Hill in Norfolk, where Rainbird Clarke was similarly strapped for time. Working all the daylight hours and with the help of Edith's labourers, Basil excavated three mounds and discovered that they were burial sites which showed signs of having been robbed during the Medieval period. 

In what became 'Mound 2', he began digging along the old ground surface towards it and then  carefully with tools borrowed from the Pretty household : a coal shovel, pastry brushes and a penknife. On 7 July Jack Jacobs found the first piece of iron and Basil immediately recognised it as a ship's rivet, when he recalled the description he'd read and seen of the ship-burial of a clinker built vessel at Snape Common in Suffolk in 1862.  Bronze Age pottery shards and a bead were also found, but with the two weeks up, exploration came to a halt and Basil had no inkling of what the next season's dig would bring.

Returning to Sutton Hoo in the summer of 1939, Basil started to excavate  Mound 1, the largest mound, of which he painted a water colour in his diary. He was assisted by the gardener and gamekeeper at his usual time of 5am when, he said : “soils can best be studied”. 

On 11 May digging into Mound 1, he discovered iron rivets that were similar but bigger than those found in the previous mound, suggesting an even larger sailing vessel. Basil recorded in his diary : 'About mid-day Jacobs (the gardener), who by the way had never seen a ship rivet before and being for the first time engaged in excavation work, called out he had found a bit of iron, afterwards found to be a loose one at the end of a ship. I immediately stopped the work and carefully explored the area with a small trowel and uncovered five rivets in position on what turned out to be the stem of a ship'.

In 1965 Basil described these moments in a BBC TV programme :

 On 11 July he found more rivets. Then the shape of the boat began to emerge, in effect a ghost ship, since the wooden hull had disappeared in the intervening 1300 years after it had been dragged into position from the River Deben for its land burial. Evidence suggested that the site had been looted and there were signs of a cremation, along with a gold-plated shield boss and glass fragments. It was at this point Basil demonstrated his understated brilliance as excavated the ship even though the timbers had long ago rotted into the sand, and it was not even apparent, at first, what type of ship it was and there were no text books to consult.

Basil cycled to the 12 miles to Ipswich Museum to report the find to Guy Maynard, who advised him to proceed with care in uncovering the impression of the ship and its rivets. Basil was excited but cautious : 'Whether the ship contains much or not the ship itself is of great interest as ship burials in this country are rare'. Later in the week he wrote : 'Work continues and the ship begins to look like one. The rivets show up extremely well towards sunset. Mrs Pretty appears to be greatly interested'.

On the 23rd May he recorded in his diary : 'It is a big find and as we go on the ship gets wider and we are certain of a length of at least 50 feet. We must now be approaching the cabin amidships'. A week later he recorded that he narrowly escaped being buried beneath 10 tons of sand while Mrs Pretty would seem to have spent most of her time buying planks from local builders. The excitement mounted : 'Mrs Pretty is anxious to get to the burial. But I’m afraid everyone will have to wait a few days longer before they know what the ship contains. Certainly now we have beaten the record for ships found in burial mounds in the British Isles'.

Wednesday 14th June was a very special day for Basil, and his diary conveys the excitement he felt as he worked. He had returned after tea, on his own, to excavate the central area and found two iron rings which showed the green of bronze, and 'what was undoubtedly wood which gave out a hollow sound'.  He thought the iron objects might be part of an anchor. Once he had covered the objects with Hessian cloth he went to report to Mrs Pretty : 'I saw the footman who took a message to her that I had found the burial. I went to my lodging very tired', before he went to sleep, he made a drawing of what he had found and wrote up his notes. By Thursday 29th June Basil was confident that he had reached the west end of the ship. At last he was able to write : 'The ship measurements are roughly it is 82 feet long with a 15 feet beam. A ship this size must have been that of a king or a person of very great importance and it is the find of a lifetime'.                                

The reduction in the importance of Basil's role in the excavation began when   Charles Phillips, a 38 year old Fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge, played by Ken Stott in 'The Dig', heard rumours about the dig during a visit tp the University's Museum of Archaeology and arranged to meet Guy. Together, they drove to Sutton Hoo and after inspection of the site Charles suggested that the British Museum and the Ancient Monuments Department of the Ministry of Works should be telephoned and informed.  
Basil was not invited to attend the meeting convened at Sutton Hoo by representatives of the British Museum, the Office of Works, Cambridge University, Ipswich Museum and the Suffolk Institute three days later which gave Charles control over excavations, starting in July. He recorded in his diary : 'I am to be his assistant, but still in the employ of Mrs. Pretty'. Making the best of his disappointment Basil wrote : 'Anyway, I shall not have so much bother and responsibility now in case anything went wrong. I think we shall be able to co-operate all right, at least I hope so.' 
Writing in the 'Telegraph' Alex Preston said : 'Unhappily, Brown never got to explore the treasure trove in any detail. As soon as the importance of the dig became apparent, first his superiors at Ipswich Museum, and then Charles Phillips and the British Museum, swept in to steal his glory, and Brown was relegated to a menial role'. 

In 'The Dig', he retreats into a kind of pained aloofness as the team unearth more and more astonishing treasures. Whether this picture of a disconsolate Basil is true is questioned by the fact that he accepted the status quo and apparently held no grudges about the views of professional archaeologists. He said of Charles Phillips, 'We respected each other's knowledge and abilities' and recorded that Charles had said : “my excavation had been perfect, and could not have been better done”. Basil kept clear of arguments among the 'professionals' and just got on with the job. 

In reality Basil's relegation to a back seat was formalised when, ensconced in the Bull Hotel at Woodbridge, Charles took charge of the excavations. Basil recorded in  his diary : 'He is not staying at the mansion but at a hotel in Woodbridge. He had not been told about this by Ipswich Museum and was a bit bellicose'.
Employed by the Office of Works, Charles brought in his own team that included William Grimes, Osbert Crawford, and Stuart and Peggy Piggot, played in 'The Dig' by Lily James. At the same time he fell out with Guy Maynard and excluded Ipswich Museum from the Dig. Basil was 'allowed' to continue to work in June and uncovered the burial chamber on the 14th, followed later by the ship's stern, but was excluded from excavating the burial chamber which he had located.  

Rupert Bruce-Mitford, another professional archaeologist brought in by Charles. later wrote that Basil : 'exposed elements of the intact burial-deposit, but left it undisturbed, handing the formidable task ahead over to C.W.Phillips'. He also wrote 'Brown never published any of his archaeological work' but 'a personal diary of his excavations at Sutton Hoo in 1939' was published which Rupert described as : 'besides being informative and entertaining, it is a very human and touching document; it makes very good reading'.   

Caught in a rare coloured photo : Basil on the left, William Grimes in his boiler suit in the centre and Barbara Wagstaff, the photographer of the dig.

It is hard to imagine what Basil thought as he stood by and watched the 263 dazzling treasures retrieved from the ship. There were weapons made of gold, silver and bronze, many of them beautifully crafted and several originating from the Mediterranean, Scandinavia, Egypt and beyond. 

Basil recorded in his diary : 'I was not prepared for the sight when I returned in the afternoon and found Mrs Pretty there. They shouted out to me "They've found the treasures come and see". I must admit that I never expected to see so much gold in any dig in this country. There was a heavy gold buckle and the framework with hinges etc of a beautiful gold purse in which were 39 gold coins.'

Professor Martin Carver, an expert on Sutton Hoo, has said the ship was a "furnished mini-hall of the man lying in state. He had his personal things with him in the coffin, and on top were his warrior's uniform and his equipment for hosting a feast in the afterlife". 

The Sutton Hoo helmet, uncovered in pieces, was to become the most iconic of Britain's Anglo-Saxon artefacts, an object whose extravagant beauty punctured the myth of the 'Dark' Ages. The quality of the jewelry alone revealed that the owners had been extremely sophisticated, while the stamps on the silver Anastasius Dish proved that their trading routes stretched as far as Constantinople. Most scholars have suggested that the ship was the grave of the 7th century King Raedwald of East Anglia and in the years that followed the dig, its contents fundamentally changed Britain's understanding of its Anglo-Saxon forebears. 

In August, Basil's wife, May wrote to Edith and said : 'I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your great kindness in giving my dear husband this work to do. I know how delighted he is and it is the work he loves. How proud his dear parents would be but I feel as they have passed by they may know. I always ask for guidance in my husband's work and it has been granted. I was delighted to read about you little son playing and digging for treasure'. 

On 14th August, Basil gave evidence at the Sutton Hoo Treasure Trove Inquiry held in Melton Parish Hall, where the billiard table had been removed to make space and a field of mangel-wurzles had been converted into a car park. Some of the treasures, on show in a cabinet in the Hall, were guarded by the local constabulary. The jury of 14 local men, which included the blacksmith and the secretary of the golf club, were asked to rule on whether the Sutton Hoo Treasure had been deliberately concealed, in which case it would belong the Crown. In the event, the jury ruled that the occupant of the burial had wanted people to know about the ship and its treasure, so it was given to Mrs Pretty, who five days later gifted it to the nation.

With the coming of the Second World War in September 1939, the 263 finds were transported to London for safekeeping and concealed underground at Aldwych Tube Station. Back at Sutton Hoo and working with a farm labourer, Basil took care to cover the excavated ship site with hessian and bracken.

During the War, Basil performed a few archaeological tasks for the Museum, but was principally engaged in Civil Defense work in Suffolk and after the War was again employed by the Museum, nominally as an 'attendant'. In 1961, at the age of 73, Basil retired, but continued to conduct excavations at Broom Hills in Rickinghall between 1964 and 68 and adopted a participatory approach to his dig and encouraged residents, old and young, to help. As a result, a whole generation of 1950s and 60s schoolchildren who lived in Rickinghall and the surrounding villages have fond memories of helping him. They helped with the initial digging as well as being given small trowels and brushes to scrape gently at the earth to uncover the finds as they worked he would explain the significance of fragments of pots they had unearthed and how changes in the soil colour gave vital clues as to what had been there. 

After suffering either a stroke or a heart attack in 1965, his days with a shovel and his active involvement in the digs came to an end. Financially, things got a little easier for Basil the following year when Rupert Bruce-Mitford, who after his work at Sutton Hoo eventually became the Keeper at the Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities in the British Museum, ensured that Basil was awarded a Civil-List pension of £250 in 1966. 

Basil died in the Spring of 1977 of pneumonia at his home "Cambria" in Rickinghall at the age of 89. Basil himself said : 

"I will first of all say that of the many actors in the drama. I am the only one who went through the 1938 and 1939 digs and Mrs Petty remarked during the 1939 dig that : "Mr Brown began the ship and he will be here at the finish".”


I met Charles Phillips on one occasion, about 40 years ago, in the early 1980s when he was in his early eighties and I was in my early thirties. As the Secretary of the Medway Branch of the Historical Association I had invited him to give a talk the members on the subject of 'Sutton Hoo'. I met him at the station and was immediately struck by his appearance. He was still a big man, made even larger and more impressive by his old fashioned black raincoat with a shoulder cape and black fedora hat. 

Over our meal, before the talk, he was most impressed that I had read one of the books written by his wife, the historian, Margaret Mann Phillips. I'd managed to get hold of the epidiascope he had requested from the local library, for him to project his photographic glass slides, which had been taken at the dig and would illustrate his talk. I remember nothing of the talk, apart from the fact that he spent about 50% of time forcefully excoriating the views of other archaeologists, with whom he'd disagreed. It was about the time the first Indiana Jones film had been released and 1940s archaeologists, albeit fictional ones, had a certain romance. Charles Phillips, in the twilight of his life, was still playing the role of the 1940s celebrity archaeologist which, of course, he once was. I think I felt a bit sorry for him.


  1. Thank you, I’ve been attempting to read everything I can on Sutton Hoo and Basil Brown since watching The Dig last evening..leave it to a link on twitter to get me the insider perspective I was craving. Wonderful wrap up of events. Thank you.

  2. What a great post, so well researched. It is a shame Bazils own Diaries arn't published they would make for interesting reading. Thank you for this I just so glad Bazil is getting his glory. I wish he would have known.

  3. Agree with the above post, I too came here from a Twitter link looking for more information about Basil Browne. Great article, many thanks.

  4. This is fascinating. I am so glad Basil Brown's central role in this discovery has now been fully revealed and appreciated.

  5. Great post. Very interesting, thank you!

  6. Can’t disagree with the other comments. Very interesting and informative read. 👍

  7. Fascinating article; and a great deal of research!

  8. Really enjoyed the article and the photos.

  9. Lovely and interesting piece of writing. Thank you.

  10. Enjoyed reading more about Bazil Brown who was obviously a clever man. He probably accepted the hierarchy of gentry and academia without much resentment s as it was just the way it was (and might still be!)

  11. That was an excellent read, thanks very much. We watched The Dig last week and both of us are really interested in the ancient history of Britain, from before the Romans to the Middle Ages.
    Hopefully we can make it to Suffolk later this year (Covid permitting), it would be fascinating to see what is in the museum.

  12. This is so beautiful... Fascinating to read about Basil Brown. Goes to show people didn't have major expectations back then, they found happiness and hope in simple things. I am happy he finally got the recognition he deserved. Do you know if any of his family members are still alive?

  13. I am very grateful to you for sharing this with me. Basil Brown had a hard life but did so much to overcome the disadvantages of his lowly background. Nice to hear his latter years were more comfortable. Very much the Best of British. Great that he's been immortalised in this film.

  14. Thank you for celebrating the life of Basil Brown

  15. I loved your informative article . Thank you so much .
    Do we have any more enthusiastic self educated characters like Basil Brown in Britain these days , we don't breed that sort of gentleman anymore do we?

  16. What a fascinating article, thanks for tweeting it to me. I remember visiting the Sutton Hoo site back in the 1990s and being given a tour by the local volunteers. Amazing.

  17. Absolutely wonderful story and the best I've seen. Thanks so much for your contribution.

  18. Congratulations on this work, very remarkable.

  19. Excellent post, and awesome photos, giving me a really understanding of the people present at the time. Congratulations on the post.

  20. Martin Carver in his book "Sutton Hoo burial ground of kings?" sayd that Basil ignored an order to stop work, made after the initial meeting of experts on 9 June. Instead he carried on digging for four weeks until the BM arrived to start their work. His initiative ensured that the site was not pillaged and equally importantly meant that the treasure was found before work was stopped at the outbreak of war.

  21. Brilliant information great read

  22. What a pity these snobby academics didn’t value Basil Brown enough to award him a substantial financial award & the recognition he deserved shortly after the dig. I was also a bit disappointed that Mrs Pretty a kindly lady of wealth didn’t do more to ensure Mr Brown was recompensed for his incredible talent. But I did enjoy the book. I just think it’s a shame that Mr Basil Brown wasn’t given his recognition sooner.

  23. Admirable la vida y pasión, su intuición y el minucioso trabajo que tenía Basil en lo que hacía, su oficio. Ya eso es suficiente para que tenga mi admiración total. Cuantos Basil existirán aún en distintas disciplinas...
    Muchas gracias por la excelente información, su homenaje.