Rare photos of Sutton Hoo excavation go on display

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A collection of 1930s photographs taken by two holidaymakers at the excavation of one of Britain’s greatest archaeological discoveries will go on display for the first time at the National Trust’s Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. The rare images are among the few surviving records of what has become one of the ultimate discoveries – the ship burial of Anglo Saxon king Raedwald and his most treasured possessions.

Keen amateur photographers, Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff, were school mistresses holidaying in Suffolk, in 1939, shortly after the discovery of the ship burial. Thought to have been tipped off about the dig by an archaeologist, Mercie and Barbara arrived on site shortly after an iconic helmet, exquisite gold jewellery and other treasured possessions had been removed.

At the time, the impending outbreak of World War II overshadowed other events and, as a result, Mercie and Barbara captured a phase of the excavation that received little public attention – the investigation into the construction of the Anglo-Saxon ship.

The photographs catalogue the investigation in every detail, from the people involved, including archaeologist Basil Brown who made the discovery and visitors to the site such as Princess Marie Louise, to the methods used and the fashions of the time.

The collection also includes images taken on colour film, not readily available before the war. As a result, they are among the earliest colour images in existence from an archaeological site, which have allowed experts to gain further insight into the painstaking nature of the excavation.

Both women are believed to have donated their prints and negatives to the British Museum in the 1970s. However, it wasn’t until a few years ago that an anonymous donor, thought to be a family member of Mercie’s, left a duplicate set of over 400 prints, negatives and annotated albums to Sutton Hoo.

Until now, the majority of these prints have been kept in storage to conserve the collection and only a handful has previously been seen before, published in books.

Angus Wainwright, the National Trust’s Regional Archaeologist said, “These photographs are important not only for the light they shed on the excavations, but as a historic collection in its own right. The fact that there were only a few British women photographers around at that time makes the collection even more special. It is particularly exciting that these original albums have survived in relatively good condition and the detailed annotations give us a glimpse of what it was like for someone lucky enough to have witnessed this great event. We hope that this exhibition will help us unearth more about the ladies behind the camera, as well as trace the individual who kindly donated this amazing collection to Sutton Hoo.”

Captured on Camera: The Summer of 1939’ runs at Sutton Hoo, Woodbridge, Suffolk, from Saturday 20 November 2010 – Sunday 20 March 2011. For opening times and further details visit the Sutton Hoo web page or telephone 01394 389700.

Source: National Trust

Sharan Newman