Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sutton Hoo in 1951

'In 1944, on its return to the British Museum from evacuation, the whole of Sutton Hoo, field records as well as excavated material, had gone into the Research Laboratory. The British Museum research Laboratory at that time was recognized as leading the world in the application of science and conservation techniques to antiquities. Here, under Harold Plenderleith, experiences craftsmen had been working on the Sutton Hoo material for more than a year before I came on the scene. They included Herbert Maryon FSA, retired metallurgist and sculptor, specially recruited by the trustees in November 1944 to deal full-time with the real headaches - notably the crushed shield, helmet and drinking horns. When I began work I was given the freedom of the laboratory, and spent many hours with the craftsmen in the workshops. I sat with Maryon while he took me through the material and with infectious enthusiasm, demonstrating what he was doing.’ Rupert Bruce-Mitford, ‘Early Thoughts on Sutton Hoo’ Saxon 10 (1989), available in full here

Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo was excavated in the heat of high summer, 1939. The work was begun by Basil Brown, a local Suffolk archaeologist who had been digging on the site since the previous year, earning 30 shillings a week from Mrs. Pretty, the land's owner. Once the extent of his discoveries became clear Charles Phillips and a team from Cambridge and the British Museum bumped Brown from the dig. Barely out of the ground for six months the artefacts were put into storage for the war’s duration in the London Underground, where they spent the next five years resting safely in the tunnels between Holborn and Aldwych, having travelled from the BM to the Strand in boxes on a horse-cart, hidden beneath tarpaulins. According to some accounts, several of the items were wrapped in damp moss to preserve their condition - it fell to a British Museum employee to water the moss everyday to keep it moist - an act of loyal stewardship Raedwald might have approved of. (If true, Holborn Tube deserves a plaque in his honour...) The objects were recovered in later 1944, before the war’s end but when the tide had decisively turned. As the passage above makes clear, a team of experienced conservators from the BM’s Department of British and Medieval Antiquities, together with selected specialists like Maryon, would subsequently work for several years under Rupert Bruce-Mitford’s direction. Bruce-Mitford, then Assistant Keeper under Thomas Kendrick, oversaw the first display of the find to the public in early 1946. The following year visitors could buy the first of many editions of his The Sutton Hoo Ship-burial: a Provisional Guide. Those eager to consult Bruce-Mitford’s full, official report would have to wait another 36 years for the publication of the final volume of  The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial in 1983. 
In 1951 Life magazine visited the British Museum. British royalty were prominent and popular in North America at the time: George VI’s failing health had meant that the Princess Elizabeth had taken his place on majors tours of both Canada and the US. In Washington DC she met with Harry Truman. Whether the glamour of live royalty, albeit a descendent of Cerdic, rubbed off on the (probably) Wuffing inhabitant of Mound I is an open question. Whatever the motive behind the coverage a four-page story, ‘King’s Tomb is Greatest Find in Archaeology of England’, ran in Life’s 16th July issue, with 2 half-tone pictures and four colour plates. It is clear, however, that the photographer from Life’s London bureau, Larry Burrows, had taken considerably more pictures than those selected for the brief piece. That several of these had been excluded may have been a cause for relief for the BM’s authorities, who might well have felt that the image of a British Research Laboratory technician, clad in brown warehouse coat with drooping, ash-heavy woodbine pondering the possibilities of a pair of scabbard bosses failed to send the image of the BM as a true world leader in conservation technology. (Our man in the warehouse coat is not, I believe, Harold Plenderleith, though Herbert Maryon is seen above, with the aurochs drinking horn, and Rupert Bruce-Mitford posed with various artefacts.)
Whilst the pictures of the initial 1939 excavation and the ghostly boat imprint are well-known, as are   other items such as the ubiquitous helmet, these mid-twentieth century images are far less familiar to students of Anglo-Saxon England in the age of Bede - hence their partial reproduction and the embedded links given below. To the twenty-first century eye some of these images appear undeniably - if mildly - comic; the representation of the British class system coded into some of the poses is reminiscent of the famous ‘Frost Report’ sketch featuring Cleese, Barker and Corbett (‘I am middle class...’). Beyond that, however, the overlay of historical moments, and the growing distance from today of the world of Bruce-Mitford and post-war, 1950s Britain, give these photographs a certain power, and a certain hauntological quality, to use a much overused term.

A core selection of Burrow’s 1951 archived photographs can be seen, zoomed in on, and downloaded (with some restrictions for re-use) here. The brief published article can be read here.

A further, far more sombre, stratum of history is present here, too.  Larry Burrows was a London-born photographer who began working for Life at the age of 16. He learnt his trade as a technician working with Robert Capa and would have been about 24 when he took these pictures. In 1962 he began covering the war in Vietnam, and continued to do so until his death. Several of his harrowing photographs became iconic, and can be viewed in an online tribute to his work here. Burrows was killed when the helicopter he and several other photojournalists were travelling in was shot down over Laos in 1971. In 2008 the remains of the four were recovered and interred at the base of the Journalists Memorial in the 'Newseum', a museum of news and journalism located in Washington D.C.

The (partial) reproduction of the two images above is done so in accordance with the Life/Google stated terms that they may be used for personal, non-commercial purposes.

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