Home > News & Press Releases

TimeLine Auctions: In Memory of Basil Brown

This catalogue is dedicated to the team who laboured to bring the treasures of Sutton Hoo to light.

"The story of the discovery is well known and has been recently dramatized as in the film The Dig starring Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan and Lily James."

The land at Sutton Hoo, overlooking the River Deben in Suffolk, was owned by Edith and Frank Pretty. Edith was from a wealthy background in Yorkshire while Frank was heir to an important Suffolk drapery business and had served with distinction in the First World War. The couple had one son, Robert, born in 1937 when Edith was 47 years old. Frank died four years later; Edith found it hard to accept her loss and promoted the then-popular spiritualist cause locally in an attempt to make contact with her departed husband. She came to believe that some humps and hillocks on her estate were haunted and decided to investigate.

On the advice of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, Mrs Pretty employed local freelance archaeological excavator Basil Brown to undertake the project. Brown was very familiar with the soils of Suffolk and had been a contracting excavator for local museums for several decades. He was a remarkable autodidact and published author on astronomical subjects, who read Latin, French, Spanish and German. He volunteered for the Suffolk Royal Army Medical Corps in 1916, having been declared medically unfit for active service.

Brown surveyed the site and advised against digging the most prominent mound: he saw that a similar mound (now called Mound 2) showed signs of having been disturbed and wished to understand the best method of excavation without damaging undisturbed archaeology. His results in the summer of 1938 were encouraging – Brown realised that a quantity of iron rivets must be from a wooden ship, but they were deposited randomly indicating that the earth had been moved and the mound despoiled. The lessons Brown learnt in this preliminary work enabled him to tackle the larger project (Mound 1) the next summer with the supervised help of Mrs Pretty’s gardener John Jacobs and William Spooner, her gamekeeper.

Brown soon began to detect ferrous stains in the sandy soil, arranged regularly in rows, from which he deduced that another ship had been buried here and that it had not been disturbed. Subsequent work revealed the presence of a quantity of gold ornaments, at which point it was considered necessary to bring in a team of experts from the British Museum under Charles Phillips. Brown was allowed to continue working on the site, but the excavation of the great wealth of treasures was undertaken by Phillips’ group. The valuable material was removed from the site in moss-filled wooden trays and taken to London where it rested in an Underground tunnel for the next six years during the Second World War.

Edith Pretty’s legal ownership of the finds recovered from her land was established by a treasure trove inquest in September 1939. She decided that their importance was such that they should be available to the public generally and she therefore donated them to the nation. They are presently displayed in the British Museum, and the Sutton Hoo site is now furnished with an award-winning visitor centre managed by the National Trust which retells the story of the treasures and their discovery.

Basil Brown went on to excavate several more important sites in the county, including the West Stow settlement which he identified as an Anglo-Saxon village based on the pottery kilns. He later retired from paid archaeological work but continued his private investigations around his home in Rickingall, Suffolk. He died in 1977 having suffered a heart attack some years before.

Edith Pretty died from a stroke in 1942 aged 59. Her bequest to the nation – even then valued at over a million pounds – is still the single most valuable such gift ever made.

S. Pollington
for TimeLine Auctions