Saturday 20 February 2021

Has Britain recognised its old and 'Uncrowned Queen' of Sutton Hoo, the brilliant Peggy Piggott ?

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Peggy Piggott, played by Lily James appears in the Netfix production, 'The Dig', based on the 1939 excavation of the Anglo-Saxon, Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, as an adjunct to her older husband, Stuart. When Charles Phillips the leader of the Dig is heard to declare “We need Piggott!”, he certainly meant Stuart and not Peggy. When the Piggotts arrive on site, apparently newly married, her expertise is given scant recognition and she herself declared that she hadn’t done much “actual fieldwork yet” and clumsily put her foot through a hollow feature in the ship. She is shown retrieving the first gold objects from the burial, but her main function in the story is to provide the fictional basis of a sub plot based on her romantic liaison with the fictional photographer, Rory Lomax. 

In reality Peggy was the Aunt of John Preston who brought her back to life, thirteen years after she had died, in his 2007 novel, 'The Dig' which provided the basis for the Netflix Movie. He said at the time : 'Peggy was a rather shadowy figure when I was growing up. My father did disapprove of her. She divorced my uncle, Stuart Piggott, after 14 years of marriage for non-consummation, so there was a bit of a family schism as a result of that. It is a source of great sadness to me that I didn't know her better'.

When it came to John's creation of Peggy's character in 'The Dig', John said about her and the other characters : 'I hope that I haven't kind of played fast and loose with them. Having said that, you've got to allow yourself the freedom to breathe life into them. You just hope that what you are effectively making them do isn't so far removed from what they might have done in life...and Peggy wanted romantic fulfilment'.

Cecily Margaret Preston was born into a wealthy family two years before the outbreak of the First World War, in the Autumn of 1912, the daughter of Elsie and Arthur, a Cambridge University-educated engineer and ironmaster, who was also recorded as 'of independent means'  at the time of her birth. Her early years were spent in the wealthy family home, a twenty-roomed mansion with 5 servants, called 'Wood Lodge', West Wickham in Kent.

Living on the line of a Roman road, the 'London to Lewes Way', as a child Peggy  had already developed an interest in Roman coins. However, family tragedy struck in 1920, when her father drowned in the sea at St. Columb in Cornwall, in the summer of her eighth birthday. Her mother, with the four children, may have been separated from her father at the time, since a woman of her mother's name married a 'Percival Boddington' in the same year. In the event Peggy was not brought by her mother, but with an aunt on her mother's, the Fidgeon side of the family. 

Her education was almost certainly in an independent public school for girls, and quite possibly as a boarder at the one her mother had attended in Eastbourne and she obviously maintained her interest in archaeology because, she applied for a place on the three year Diploma in Archaeology course at a college at the University of Cambridge and took up her place at the age 19 in 1931. 

Doubtless, she would have preferred to have followed the undergraduate degree course in Archaeology but, at the time, that was debarred to women applicants. At some point she met the Victorian archaeologist Maud Cunningham, who had carried out her most famous excavation was at Woodhenge near Amesbury in Wiltshire and was her senior by 43 years and in relation to the sexist prejudice that she had encountered and Peggy was likely to encounter, advised her not to go into archaeology because it was "far too difficult"

At Cambridge Peggy made made important connections in the world of early 20th century archaeology and on the 5th August 1933, her 21st birthday, she spent the day digging on an excavation led by the wife and husband team Tessa and Mortimer Wheeler in St. Albans on the remains of the Roman town of Verulamium (St. Albans).

In 1935, she began to study for her postgraduate diploma in  Western European Prehistory at the new London Institute for Archaeology which was attached to University College London and had been just set up by the Wheelers. It was here that she was fortunate to have attended the lectures of Robin Collingwood whose most important contribution to British archaeology was his insistence on the Question and Answer Method : Excavations should not take place unless there was a question to be answered.  

Her fellow student, Peggy Drower, who was destined to become one of the 'Great Ladies of Egyptology', was studying for her degree under the tutleage of  Sir Flinders Petrie at University College, became friends with Peggy and joined her on the summer dig at Verulamium. The two women shared a tent on site and helped to clear the Roman pavements. 

It was at the Institute that she met fellow student, the brilliant  Stuart Piggott, played by Ben Chaplin in 'The Dig', who was two years her senior and had a lot of practical experience of archaeology in the field, but lacked paper  qualifications. In 1933, for example, at the age of 23, he had worked as Assistant Director to  Alexander Keiller, the wealthy confectionery magnate, who wished to excavate the Neolithic site at Windmill Hill, near Avebury in Wiltshire.    

In the summer of 1935, Peggy worked on the 5,000 year old Neolithic Camp on Whitehawk Hill near Brighton. This was the last year of her friendship with Tessa Wheeler, with whom she had formed a close relationship and Tessa's death at the age of 43 in 1936 must have affected her deeply. After graduating with her Diploma that Summer Peggy married Stuart in the Autumn and they moved to Priory Farm in Hampshire, an early 19th century Gothic Revival house which they proceeded to update. 

In the following year, at the age of 25, she directed her first excavation at the Middle Bronze Age burial mound and cemetery at Latch Farm in Hampshire and headed of a team of two paid men and three  volunteers and was photographed with archaeologist E. Cecil Curwen examining finds from the dig. She was pictured in the the Brighton Herald newspaper and the accompanying article mentioned that pieces of ceramic from the excavation ‘are now being examined by an expert, Miss Preston, at the Brighton Library, in the hope that out of the hundreds of small pieces complete vessels may be reassembled’ .

David Hatch, an expert on Hampshire archaeology has said : “I would have thought Peggy's digging experience, particularly the work at Latch Farm, would have given her a good deal of self-confidence. She had to deal with a very eccentric local collector (Herbert Druitt) whose family had owned the land occupied by the round barrow and sold it for development. Druitt got his hands on the first four vessels and wouldn't release them for publication. I think she probably had to put up with enough sexist and ageist prejudice there to last a lifetime”. 

The publication of her treatise on the use of cremation urns founded Peggy's reputation as a respected academic and in 1938 and early 1939, she worked with Stuart and Gerhard Bersu, who seems to have been as great an influence on her as the Wheelers. Together they worked on the Early Iron Age site of Little Woodbury in Wiltshire. 

Her experience and skill as an excavator, alongside those of Stuart, made her a natural choice, for Charles Phillips, played by Ken Stott in 'The Dig', to supplement the team he assembled to finish the excavation of the Great Ship Burial at Sutton Hoo in the Summer of 1939. It is clear that Peggy's declaration to Charles that she hadn't  done much "actual fieldwork yet", was a long way from the truth, as was the act of the sure-footed Peggy, accidentally putting her foot through a hollow in the excavation.  

Peggy, along with the rest of the team didn't know, at this point, whether there was any burial chamber in the ship, since these had usually been robbed in the past. At first some pieces of wood and bronze appeared and then on Sunday July 22nd the whole character of the excavation changed. Peggy recalled the events the events for the BBC TV 'Chronicle' programme in 1965, when she was 53, along with the other participants : Basil Brown, Stuart Piggott, Charles Phillips, Jack Jacobs and John Ward Perkins. 

She said : 
"I remember that Charles Phillips had gone down to Woodbridge and we were working quietly away in the usual morning routine, cleaning up the structure of the ship when quite suddenly, as I was trowelling - brushing the sand, one of these lovely garnet and gold ornaments was revealed and of course, at that moment, we were immensely excited. Everybody rushed round and said this really is something tremendous because it means we're not digging a Viking ship, but a Saxon one. And a few minutes after we were gathered round there, Charles Phillips returned and I remember him saying : "My godfathers" and all day, for the rest of the day, he went on saying : "Oh dear, oh dear". It was then more pieces of jewelry were found all over the burial chamber". She was interviewed after her divorce from Stuart and remarriage, as Margaret Guido :

Peggy's moment of discovery was recreated in 'The Dig' :

She went on : "When we first saw the jewelry we were naturally wildly excited. It looked so beautiful the garnets and the gold, lying there in the sand and with the black ribs of the boat behind and we all crowded round and looked at it and felt that we were in on a boys' adventure from the point of view of the excitement of it all. We were also slightly alarmed because we'd got to be more careful in future, because, here we were, we few people responsible for an enormously valuable find. Then of course the atmosphere was very much spoilt for us by the fact that we were watching the papers every day for news about the war situation which we felt was imminent and most of us who had no experience of another war thought the moment it began the air in the sky would be black with planes obliterating what was left of Sutton Hoo and probably us as well".

Stuart recalled that evening : 

"As you know whenever you're excavating anything, any monument of any period, people think that you must be finding gold and usually ask you if you have and on this occasion I remember very well, after we had discovered the first of the gold objects, coming back to the pub in the evening, to the Bull in Woodbridge, for a much needed drink and having the usual question : 
"Well Old Boy have you found any gold today ?" "Yes", I said. "My pockets are absolutely full". And as I spoke, I was holding the box containing the great gold belt buckle. I had a rather sweaty hand in the pocket of my coat and figured the best thing to do was to take them at face value. "Oh", they said. "Splendid. You must have a drink" and "Yes" I said. "I need one"." 

Although Peggy is shown retrieving the first gold object from the soil, her main contribution to the Netflix drama is as being part of a fictional romantic subplot, involving a liaison with the fictional Sutton Hoo 
photographer, Rory Lomax, played by Johnny Flynn, as an escape from her passionless marriage to Stuart, In fact a visual archive from Sutton Hoo does exist, with one series of photographs taken by the archaeologist, OGS Crawford, and another by Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff, seen here, to the left and right of the ship's imprint, with William Grimes and Charles Phillips working below. The women were two friends who were keen on archaeology and were visiting the area on holiday for two weeks in the summer of 1939. 

Their archive of  447 photographs was taken on Leica cameras, 72 Agfa 35mm colour slides and film of Basil Brown excavating captured on a 16mm cine-camera, today forms a critical component of the excavation record. In fact, their work at Sutton Hoo included some of the first colour images in British archaeology and here Mercie has captured Barbara with William Grimes with Basil Brown on the left.  After the War, they both successfully applied for membership to the Royal Photographers Society as  Associate Members, using their photo essays of the excavation at Sutton Hoo in their submission and their photographs now form part of the British Museum Sutton Hoo Archive. 

During the 1940s, with Stuart serving in India during the Second World War, Peggy was at the height of her productivity, producing an average of two publications each year. With skill and energy she worked on Bronze Age enclosures in Wiltshire, the hilltop enclosure site of Ram's Hill in Berkshire, stone circles in Dorset, the excavation of eighteen barrows in Hampshire and Wiltshire, as well as others on Crichel and Launceston Downs in Dorset and the tape measure she used has survived. 

In one of his letters to Peggy from India Stuart included his poem :                                                            

After his return from India Stuart resumed his career in archaeology in 1946 was offered the Abercromby Chair in Archaeology at Edinburgh University in succession to the great Gordon Childe and succeeded in making Edinburgh an archaeology department of international standing. In addition, He continued to publish widely. 

For about 10 years after the War, Peggy and Stuart lived Priory Farm, in the Hampshire village of  Rockbourne, near Fordingbridge. They briefly got to know, before he died in 1940, the old Arts and Crafts artist, Heyward Sumner who lived down the road at Cuckoo Hill. The painter, John Craxton, stayed with them and while there painted some of Stuarts's bronze age ceramics and other acquaintances were the poet John Betjeman, who lived in Farnborough and the author, Agatha Christie, who was married to the archaeologist Maz Mallowan. 

Peggy worked with Stuart for one last time on the site of Braidwood Hill Fort in Scotland and then in 1954, when Peggy was 42 years old, their relationship ended and two years later they divorced.  After the divorce, Peggy moved to Sicily, briefly reverting to her maiden name of 'Preston', before she met and married Luigi Guido. Two years later, Luigi had a psychotic breakdown and spent six months strapped to his bed while being cared for by her and at the end of this period, he suddenly decided to leave her and moved back to Sicily and Peggy never heard from him again. 

Peggy became an ancient bead expert and curator at Devizes Museum and was still doing fieldwork in her seventies, in the 1980s. If she had wished to pursue a career in academia in those more enlightened years she undoubtedly would have, like Stuart, achieved a professorship. In the event, in retirement, she became the companion and cared for A. W. Lawrence, a classical scholar and younger brother of T. E. Lawrence, 'Laurence of Arabia', who after the death of his wife in 1986, had moved in with Peggy and they lived together until his death in 1991.

Peggy then renewed her friendship with Stuart and her support for him with his health failing, led her to visit him regularly at his home during the last 4 or 5 years of her life, before she predeceased him by two years at the age of 82 in 1994.

                                           Peggy in 1939 : Uncrowned Queen of Sutton Hoo 

One comment : Fascinating stuff. I have visited the Institute of Archaeology, the ruins in St. Albans, and read Arch & Anth at Girton College, so many of the names were so familiar to me. It's lovely to read more about one of the shadowy characters. 

And for Basil Brown :

Friday, 29 January 2021


Thursday 4 February 2021

Has Britain fully recognised the importance of the part played by Basil Brown at Sutton Hoo ?

Page views : 747

Last week when I researched the role of Basil Brown the 1939 archaeological dig at Sutton Hoo, with a view to publishing my post (below) to coincide with the world world transmission of the Netflix movie, 'The Dig', I had no idea of the reception that my post would bring. 

Friday, 29 January 2021

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

By posting a link on twitter : 'For Basil Brown. the 'Uncrowned King' of Sutton Hoo, you might like : a small tribute :', I have been overwhelmed with the response. Google Analytics tells me that to date, the post has received over 13,000 page views. At the same time, I have received replies and comments from tweeters as far afield as Singapore, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Dubai, Bayreuth, Toronto, Yukon, Costa Rica, Auckland, and in the USA from San Francisco, E. Tennessee, Pittsburg. Isolated by the Covid Pandemic, it has put me in touch with the world. 

In terms of recognition, I'm particularly proud of the fact that the historian Tom Holland tweeted : 'A fine and moving tribute to Basil Brown, which anyone who has watched 'The Dig' will enjoy'. Also the great historian, Simon Schama replied : 'this is lovely thank you'.

In answer to the question : Has Basil been given the credit he deserved in the recovery of the Sutton Hoo Ship treasures ?  The end credits in the movie, 'The Dig', read : 

'Safely hidden underground' :

The Sutton Hoo Treasure was taken from the British Museum to the Aldwych Underground Station in 1939, to protect from possible German aerial bombardment during the Second World War. In the War, the Museum was bombed on several occasions, but the Treasure remained safely stored 28 metres underground. It saw the light of day again, at the end of the War, before the end of 1945.

'First shown to the general public nine years after Edith's death'

The Treasure was indeed displayed for the first time, 9 years after Edith's death at its first public appearance at the Festival of Britain in London in 1951. There were 8 million visits to the Museum and many people went more than once, so it safe to say that the treasures were seen by millions of visitors. 

'Basil Brown's name was not mentioned' :

Apparently, this was true for the Festival and the Museum and when the Treasure went on permanent display in the late 1950s, Basil's name not mentioned on the information boards. Sue Brunning, Lead Curator for the Museum's Sutton Hoo Collection, has said : "I don't believe there was any great conspiracy to omit Basil's name. The emphasis in the 1950s was very much on the artefacts themselves, which were mind-blowing, but his name has definitely been on the boards since the permanent display was created in room 41, in 1985" and his name does appear 'alongside that of Edith in the British Museum's permanent display'. However, on the Edith Pretty page of the British Museum's website, a click on the name 'Basil Brown' brings up no information, but just half a dozen photos from the Sutton Hoo Dig.

'It is only in recent years that Basil's unique contribution to archaeology has been recognised' :

It probably true say that a recognition of Basil's 'unique contribution' in terms of his approach and techniques, has only been recognised in this century and therefore 'in recent years'. However, his 'contribution' to Sutton Hoo has been publicly accredited for the last 35 years, which is hardly 'recent' and 'privately' for much longer. 

Sue Brunning has said : "In fact, the first full published account of the Sutton Hoo finds, written by Charles Phillips in 1940 in the 'Journal of Antiquity', included mention of Basil Brown, so he was being acknowledged within a year of the dig, even if you would have had to track it down to read it. That 1940 archive report has since been made available to read online."

It is probably true to say that Basil has gained more recognition at the local and Suffolk level than at national level. Simon Knott has said : 'To be fair, Basil Brown has been well known locally for his role. There's been a display about him in Ipswich Museum for many years and the new lecture hall at the Suffolk Archives Building, 'The Hold' in Ipswich, is named after him'. In addition, to this one road in a new build in Rickighall, 'Basil Brown Close', bears his name.

After Basil's death in 1977, his wife May, donated his personal records to  Ipswich Museum, but it wasn't until the 1990s, that the Suffolk Archaeology Department started to transcribe some of his notebooks. Then in 2014, 'The Basil Brown Collection', owned by the Museum, containing his diaries, notebooks and photograph albums, was deposited with the Suffolk Archives, with the agreement of Ipswich Borough Council which owns the Museum.

In 2009 the 'Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History' held a special service in Basil's honour in St Mary's Church in the village Rickinghall, where he lived. They commissioned the creation of a plaque in his memory which will be unveiled was unveiled to mark the 70th anniversary since his unearthing of the ship. The plaque was handed over by its creator and Institute member, Gilbert Burroughs, who formed an interest in archaeology after meeting Basil in the 1950s, who said : 
“He was a humble man, he was not pushy at all and whilst he was not a professional in the sense that he went to university and got degrees he was an excellent archaeologist and I think that really stands out by the fact that anyone who looks at the photographs of the Sutton Hoo boat can see it was not an amateur dig”. As well as honouring him with the plaque, the Institute hoped to find out what happened to Basil's ashes after he was cremated at Ipswich Crematorium in 1977 in the hope of being able to lay a wreath at the site. 

Since composing my first post on Basil I came across this 'BBC Archive' film interview of Basil, which demonstrates that he was little like the Basil portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in 'The Dig'.