In Praise of Sutton Hoo Woo

September 14, 2011

All right, I admit it, I am writing this post mostly as an excuse to use the phrase “Sutton Hoo woo.” It’s a lovely phrase. Try saying it. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

See, wasn’t that satisfying?

More seriously, though, we’ve all heard psychics claiming that they have worked with the police and provided material assistance in finding missing persons and dead bodies and in solving cases. In every instance, these claims have proved to be dubious, at best. We’ve also heard of dowsers claiming to have found…well, all sorts of things using their magic sticks.

The excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial may be an instance where fringe beliefs actually did contribute to the discovery of a great treasure and human remains (sort of). Now, right off the bat, I should make two things clear: in the first place, it’s unclear to what extent unconventional beliefs contributed to England’s greatest archaeological discovery. Secondly, I’m not saying that anything extraordinary actually happened. Ghosts and magic sticks didn’t actually lead to the discovery, but the belief in ghosts and magic sticks may have acted as a catalyst. I guess what I’m saying is that someone who is a bit of a woo can also be a Big Damn Hero.

In this case, our Big Damn Hero is the delightfully named Mrs. Pretty. Edith May Pretty was the daughter of a wealthy northern industrialist. In 1926, she married Col. Frank Pretty, and the two of them bought Sutton Hoo House, a large Edwardian mansion near Woodbridge in Suffolk. In 1930, Mrs. Pretty found herself pregnant at the age of 47. Four years later, her husband died.

After her husband’s death, Mrs. Pretty became interested in spiritualism, frequently travelling to London to consult with a spiritualist medium. According to Joseph Allen McCullough, Mrs. Pretty “claimed to have strange dreams and visions of the place, including a vivid dream where an Anglo-Saxon funeral procession buried the body of their king inside a ship in the largest of the mounds.”  According to the video below, it was a friend of Mrs. Pretty’s who saw the ghosts:

Mrs. Pretty also had a nephew who was a dowser. He said there was treasure under Mound 1. Armed with this supernatural information, Mrs. Pretty decided to hire herself an archaeologist. She consulted with Guy Maynard, curator of the Ipswich Museum, who suggested Basil Brown, a self-taught but conscientious and successful excavator. She paid him 30 shillings a week and provided him with accommodation in the chauffeur’s cottage and the assistance of two estate workers (one of whom was named Tom Sawyer).

Based (allegedly) on the supernatural insights she had gained, Mrs. Pretty suggested that Brown excavate Mound 1.  Brown did begin to excavate Mound 1 (using a long probe designed by Mrs. Pretty), but concluded, logically if erroneously, that Mound 1 had been looted. Instead he turned to Mounds 2, 3 and 4. Mounds 3 and 4 were cremation burials that had been looted. Mound 2–one of the largest mounds–produced a number of scattered rivets. It was a ship burial, but it too had been looted.

The next year (1939), Mrs. Pretty again suggested that Brown excavate Mound 1. He did so, with extraordinary results. As with Mound 2, he found ship rivets, but in Mound 1, they were still in place. The dark coloration of the sandy soil also showed the outline of an enormous ship (larger than any other Migration Era or Viking Age ship yet discovered).  At this point, the Office of Works and the British Museum got involved, even though they had other things to worry about: the Office of Works was busy building airstrips, and the British Museum was busy crating up its treasures and sending them to the London Underground for safekeeping in anticipation of WWII. Consequently, the initial excavation was a rather hurried affair, but worth it. Mound 1 proved to be an unlooted, probably royal Anglo-Saxon ship burial:

The ship

The helmet

Recreation of helmet made by Tower of London armourers

Buckle

Shoulder clasp

No body or bones were actually found, but in subsequent excavations, phosphate traces were found in the soil, suggesting that a body had once lain there. The soil is highly acidic; almost no wood from the ship survived either.

After the treasures were unearthed, a coroner’s inquest was held to decide who was the rightful owner: the crown or Mrs. Pretty. The court decided that the treasure belonged to Mrs. Pretty. Martin Carver, who led the most recent excavations at Sutton Hoo, describes what happened after the inquest:

Charles Phillips [who led the British Museum excavation] mentions family pressure to keep the jewellery, but Mrs. Pretty’s own position is less certain. Her spiritualist counsellor soon came to stay with her, and Phillips took a stroll with him that evening on the heath, volunteering his opinion that a presentation of all the finds to the nation “would be a splendid gesture” (Carver, p. 22)

Ultimately, Mrs. Pretty did donate the treasure to the British Museum, “thus making the most generous donation to the Museum ever made in the lifetime of a donor. Mrs Pretty was offered the honour of Dame of the British Empire, which she declined” (Carver, p. 22). The treasure was then taken to the London Underground for the duration of the war.

So, how much influence did spiritualism and dowsing have in the discovery of the ship burial? I have no idea. Certainly, some of the claims seem exaggerated. Carver downplays the influence: “whatever her sensitivity to the attentions of solicitous phantoms, Mrs Pretty was no stranger to scientific archaelogy” (p. 4). She had visited the pyramids in Egypt, and her father had gotten permission to excavate the remains of a Cistercian Abbey near their family home in Cheshire:

She would have been aware of the responsibilities of excavating burial mounds, and had already refused to allow enthusiastic amateurs to try their hand. In her case a keen eye and an educated curiosity would have encouraged investigation as surely as any interest in the other world. (Carver, p. 4)

More importantly, there is nothing mystic about the discovery: Mrs. Pretty lived on an estate that had big, honking mounds in the back yard. No one knew exactly what they were, but the idea that they were burials was hardly outlandish. And with pagan burials comes treasure. There had been rumors of treasure for centuries. Certainly the looters thought there was treasure. Nor is the interest in Mound 1 particularly surprising. It’s really big (admittedly, so is Mound 2).

Still, it seems likely that Mrs. Pretty’s interest in spiritualism and her faith in her nephew’s dowsing may have played some role in her decision to hire someone to excavate, and her spiritualist medium may have encouraged her to donate the treasure to the British Museum.

Edith May Pretty: First Class Woo.  Big Damn Hero.

ES

REFERENCES:

Bruce-Mitford, Rupert. The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial: A Handbook. London: British Museum, 1972.

Carver, Martin. Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

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