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.'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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZaK78BWeO0&t=2m20s
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 : https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1606687446200084
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.'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'.
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.
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".”
What a great post 👍ReplyDelete
Brilliant post thank you.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
Agree with the above post, I too came here from a Twitter link looking for more information about Basil Browne. Great article, many thanks.ReplyDelete
This is fascinating. I am so glad Basil Brown's central role in this discovery has now been fully revealed and appreciated.ReplyDelete
Great post. Very interesting, thank you!ReplyDelete
Can’t disagree with the other comments. Very interesting and informative read. 👍ReplyDelete
Really enjoyed this article.ReplyDelete
Fascinating article; and a great deal of research!ReplyDelete
Really enjoyed the article and the photos.ReplyDelete
Lovely and interesting piece of writing. Thank you.ReplyDelete
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!)ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
Hopefully we can make it to Suffolk later this year (Covid permitting), it would be fascinating to see what is in the museum.
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?ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
Thank you for celebrating the life of Basil BrownReplyDelete
I loved your informative article . Thank you so much .ReplyDelete
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?
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.ReplyDelete
Absolutely wonderful story and the best I've seen. Thanks so much for your contribution.ReplyDelete
Congratulations on this work, very remarkable.ReplyDelete
Excellent post, and awesome photos, giving me a really understanding of the people present at the time. Congratulations on the post.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
Brilliant information great readReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
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...ReplyDelete
Muchas gracias por la excelente información, su homenaje.