Another slant on the Sutton Hoo ship story, by Valerie Fenwick                                                          

John Preston's novel, The Dig, and now the beautiful film based on it, has breathed renewed interest in Sutton Hoo.  As soon as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted there will be a welcome influx of visitors.  Naturally there will be questions about the film and the way the excavation is portrayed.  As I knew the chief characters later in life and took a key part in the ship re-excavation and publication of the ship-burial, I thought to provide a few corrections for NAS readers. 

Firstly, the film was based on the novel by John Preston, who admitted to having taken some liberties for dramatic affect. The novel was unlikely to change public perception of the ship-burial excavation. It did not detract from the story that he telescoped the 1938 and 1939 excavations, omitted the site photographer (OGS Crawford) – replacing him with a fictitious relative of Mrs Pretty, made numerous other 'adjustments' and omitted the survey of the ship.   

The film's superbly created characters have replaced the original, perhaps less colourful, people. Incidents were necessarily created to add a bit of drama. Examples are: Basil Brown buried by a landslide; his touching friendship with nine-year-old Robert Pretty; the use of ferries and long cycle rides; the plane diving overhead to crash into the Deben; the marital mismatch of the Piggotts and hint of unfaithfulness and homosexuality. 

The omission of the last part of the excavation – the ship itself (also left out of the book) – has skewed the roles of Basil Brown and Charles Phillips.  It would have shown that Basil Brown (officially the latter's assistant) did continue to excavate the rest of the ship. The photographic record shows both of them working alongside the Science Museum survey team. To Phillips the ship was the most important and interesting find and Basil's achievement was to have uncovered it carefully. 

There was indeed a clash of personalities on the site but it emanated from Ipswich Museum.  Basil records his problems with an unnamed member of its staff who tried to oust him and take over his Sutton Hoo excavation the previous year. When the intact ship-burial was found Reid Moir and Maynard were desperate to ensure that the finds went to their museum. Basil was placed in a difficult position and sensibly insisted that he was working for Mrs Pretty. 

What ensued was another clash, this time between the generations, Reid Moir, Guy Maynard and Basil Brown, in their fifties and sixties, were all old guard, a generation older than the new breed of archaeologists, who arrived with skills now formally taught in Mortimer Wheeler's fledgling Institute of Archaeology. The film cannot show this because the key actors are the wrong age. Grimes and Piggott were in their twenties, without university education, brilliant, but not the middle-aged academics portrayed. Phillips was only in his thirties with a track-record of outstanding excavation. All had come from modest backgrounds and class was not a factor. 

Mrs Pretty had already died when the British Museum prepared to re-excavate Mound I in 1964. I took Basil Brown to the site (providing a photo opportunity for the Woodbridge Reporter), and we remained friends until he died. He expressed no bitterness at the way things had turned out and had been recognised with a special government pension. Basil was a lone excavator (as he termed himself), and fully aware that he lacked the skills to deal with the burial chamber deposit or record the ship impression. The film and Ralph Fiennes' sensitive portrayal is a wonderful tribute to him, but it should not obscure the debt we owe to Charles Phillips for his, inevitably unpopular, intervention to direct what had become a rescue operation.



Peggy Piggott (top) uses a vertical pointer to avoid parallax. Her young husband plans and numbers every item before it can be lifted with extreme care by W.F. Grimes. O.G.S. Crawford (unseen) is the site photographer.