Historic meetings: When Edith Pretty met Basil Brown

When Edith Pretty met Basil Brown

The curiosity of English landowner Edith Pretty about what was buried underground at her Suffolk estate led to one of the most important archaeological finds in British history. The widow was responsible for the excavation of the world-famous Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Woodbridge.

Unearthed during 1938 and 1939, after Pretty enlisted the services of archaeologist Basil Brown to solve the mystery of the mounds protruding from the ground around her home, Sutton Hoo House; the remarkable find is believed to be the grave of the Anglo-Saxon King Raedwald of East Anglia.

© Ziko-C / Commons Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0

As an important link to understanding the history of East Anglia’s Anglo-Saxon kingdom, the site shed fresh light on a period that had lacked documentation. Today, many of the burial finds are exhibited at the British Museum, after Pretty donated them to the nation in an act of selfless generosity.

Meeting of minds

When Edith Pretty met Basil Brown, she had been widowed for four years, following the untimely death of her husband, Frank, aged 56, from cancer, in 1934. She had long been curious about 20 mounds of earth that were dotted around Sutton Hoo estate, so decided to organise an archaeological dig.

Brown was a self-taught archaeologist; a remarkable man who had left school at 12 to work full-time on his father’s farm. He attended evening classes to achieve a high level of education and went on to become a respected archaeologist and astronomer.

When they met to carry out the dig, it was described as a “meeting of minds and souls” by actor Ralph Fiennes, who portrayed Brown in the 2021 Netflix film, The Dig, which premiered on 29th January.

Wealthy industrialists

Born in 1883 in Calderdale, Yorkshire, Pretty came from a wealthy background. Her grandfather, Robert Dempster, had founded his own business, Robert Dempster and Sons, in 1855, to manufacture equipment for the growing gas industry.

Pretty’s father inherited the family business and in 1884, he went on to establish his own company, the engineering firm R&J Dempster. Pretty was well-educated at Roedean School on the outskirts of Brighton.

She finished her education in Paris and was extremely well-travelled, visiting Greece, Egypt and Austria-Hungary with her family. During the Great War, she served at the Red Cross’s auxiliary hospital at Winsford, helped to house Belgian refugees and worked with the French Red Cross.

Her mother died in 1919 and her father in 1925, so she and her sister, Elizabeth, inherited the family estate, valued at more than £500,000 – around £16 million in today’s money.

Her husband, Frank Pretty, was wounded during WWI when he served with the Suffolk Regiment. After the war, the couple enjoyed a happy marriage and had a son, Robert Dempster Pretty.

Farming family

Born in 1888, Brown came from a farming family in Bucklesham, Suffolk. As a child, he had worked the land at Church Farm, near Rickinghall, where his father, George, was a tenant farmer.

Fascinated by the astronomy books he was given at the age of five by his grandfather, the youngster pursued his interest at night classes, after leaving school with no qualifications. He earned diplomas with distinction in geology, astronomy and geography at the Harmsworth Self-Educator college.

He taught himself Latin and French through textbooks and also acquired some knowledge of German, Greek and Spanish from radio broadcasts. During WW1, he served with the Suffolk Royal Army Medical Corps.

Brown married a domestic servant, Dorothy May Oldfield, in 1923 and they attempted to work his late father’s farm, but it made a poor living. In his spare time, he pursued an archaeological career, looking for Roman remains in the north Suffolk countryside.

He enjoyed great success in the field, uncovering eight medieval buildings, identifying Roman settlements and tracing ancient roads. He became involved with the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and eventually forged a new career as an archaeologist, working as a contractor for Ipswich Museum from 1935.

Sutton Hoo House

During Brown’s time working at the museum, the widowed Mrs Pretty had decided to investigate the mounds around Sutton Hoo estate. She had always been interested in archaeology and wanted to find out more about her surroundings.

Sutton Hoo was named after the surrounding parish of Sutton, with “hoo” meaning “hill”. According to historical documents, 77 households had lived in the village of Sutton in 1086. The mysterious mounds were recorded on maps in around 1601. In the 19th century, the estate was known as Hoo Farm.

When Pretty spoke to the curator of Ipswich Museum, Guy Maynard, about her desire to know what was causing the mounds, he introduced her to Brown, releasing him from his employment at the museum initially for three months to carry out a dig, for which he would be paid 30 shillings.

Lodging with Pretty’s chauffeur during his stay, Brown began digging with the help of some of her labourers. He unearthed three burial plots initially, but there were signs they had been robbed at some point.

However, he continued digging and on 7th July 1938, he discovered a ship’s rivet and Bronze Age pottery shards. A great mutual respect grew between Pretty and Brown as the dig continued, with more fascinating artefacts being unearthed each day.

Eventually, in 1939, he discovered an Anglo-Saxon burial site, including an entire ship and a rich collection of possessions, dating back 1,400 years. Historians said the spectacular find changed their understanding of early medieval Britain.

Raedwald of East Anglia

While it wasn’t uncommon to bury people in ships, including putting some of their possessions in the grave, the ship and artefacts found at Sutton Hoo were so spectacular that historians had never seen anything like them before.

Brown discovered an 80ft-long Anglo-Saxon ship containing 263 precious objects, made of materials including gold, iron, bone, garnet and feathers. They included a rare helmet with a human face design, intricate shoulder clasps, household items and weapons, some of which were linked to Sri Lanka and Syria.

The helmet in particular caused great excitement, as it was both a functional piece of protective armour for battles and was also a decorative and extravagant piece of metalwork, described as “the most iconic object” from the dig.

The face of the helmet features defined eyebrows, nose and moustache, creating the image of a man, believed to be King Raedwald, combined with a dragon’s head. As the most important Anglo-Saxon artefact ever found, it has become a symbol of the Early Middle Ages.

When excavated, it had deteriorated into rusted fragments, which were reconstructed between 1945 and 1946. It was put on display and then reconstructed again in 1970-71. In 1973, the Royal Armouries and the British Museum created a replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet, using electrotypes of the decorative elements.

Lead solder was used to strengthen the decorative effects, with modern techniques used to inlay the silver. The replica was made to give people a better idea of how the helmet would have looked during Raedwald’s lifetime. It is displayed alongside the original helmet in the British Museum in Room 41.

The artefacts changed historians’ perception of an era once known as the Dark Ages, as the items were beautifully crafted from materials gathered from all over the world.

Historians believe the tomb belonged to Raedwald, the Anglo-Saxon King of East Anglia from 599 AD until his death in around 624 AD. Details of his reign are scarce and historians can only date his birth between 560 and 580.

The Kingdom of East Anglia comprised the English counties of Suffolk and Norfolk and it was ruled as a small, independent kingdom. Raedwald had married and had three sons – Sigeberht, Raegenhere and Eorpwald. He also became known as Rex Anglorum, the “King of the Angles”.

How rare was the discovery?

The discovery was one of a kind, due to the magnitude and value of the find, both in monetary and historical terms. Historians believe Raedwald’s grave, known as the Treasure Ship, was probably the last such burial plot in Britain.

A study by the University of Cambridge attempted to analyse why such burials died out, as by the time the Anglo-Saxon king was interred, in around 624, such grand burials with a host of personal possessions were on their way out. After the seventh century, no-one was being buried with items in their graves.

Although the amazing find was on Pretty’s land, in keeping with the patriotic British spirit, she donated the artefacts to the British Museum in London, so the public could see them. To keep them safe during World War II, they were placed in the London Underground rail tunnels.

In the decades since Brown’s find, Sutton Hoo has been widely studied by generations of archaeologists. Its hidden treasures have included artefacts from the Byzantine Empire and the Middle East, improving researchers’ understanding of the trade links between Anglo-Saxon England and the rest of Europe.

As recently as the 1990s, further excavations uncovered another intact burial site, this time containing a young man, his horse and weapons.

Brown’s original, meticulous notebooks, photographs, drawings and plans are now kept by Suffolk County Council’s Archaeological Service and Ipswich Records Office.

Without the meeting between Edith Pretty and Basil Brown, when two enquiring minds came together to delve into the past, we may never have discovered the fascinating story behind the mounds of Sutton Hoo.

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