LETTERS • NEWS • COMMENT • CONTEXT
Excavating the CA archive Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.
As this month’s contribution to the ‘great excavations’ mini-series, I turn my attention to a ‘great’ project of Anglo-Saxon archaeology: Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. The site is one of the bestknown in the country thanks to the stunning array of high-status grave goods recovered during the 1939 excavations and displayed in the British Museum since the late 1940s. But in this column I want to focus not on the objects but rather on the two great post-war phases of fieldwork undertaken on the site between 1965 and 1971, led by Rupert Bruce-Mitford, and then again between 1983 and 1992, led by Martin Carver. With CA having launched in March 1967, the timing of these projects coincides perfectly with the emergence and growth of the magazine.
THE 1965-1971 EXCAVATIONS Bruce-Mitford’s involvement in Sutton Hoo dates back to the pre-war fieldwork in 1939. Having joined the staff of the British Museum in 1937, he was familiar with the site, and in his semiautobiographical book Anglo-Saxon and Mediaeval Archaeology (1989) he notes that as early as 1940 he had been informed that on his return to the museum from war service he would be responsible for the curation of the Sutton Hoo finds. These had been hastily put into storage when war was declared only weeks after the end of the fieldwork in August 1939. Bruce-Mitford’s return duly took place in 1946, and he quickly concluded that there were still unanswered questions from the site.
ABOVE The cover of CA 95 featured Sutton Hoo at night. The floodlit photo, taken with the help of BBC technicians, helped to reveal the contours of the site.
was particularly the case when CA was first getting established – I also missed out on covering early work at Silbury Hill due to a similar lack of chutzpah. I did visit Bruce-Mitford's excavations at Sutton Hoo, but we did not get an article out of it. Funnily enough, I had previously met him when I was a schoolboy, digging at DMVs in the 1950s. I took some pottery to the British Museum, and Bruce-Mitford looked at it for me and said it was the first St Neots ware found in Warwickshire.']
In the magazine’s coverage of the first volume of the site reports in CA 57 (July 1977) Andrew notes: ‘the book that everyone is talking about I have not yet seen. I refer, of course, to the first volume of the Sutton Hoo report, which costs, apparently, no less than £45… One cannot help feeling that this type of scholarly publication simply should not be published by a commercial-type organisation… Above all, of course, they should have sought a big fat subsidy, equivalent at least to the standard DoE subsidy of 75 per cent of the printing costs… By publishing it at £45 [roughly £270 in 2018 terms], the British Museum has surely failed in its duty’. More favourable mention in this period comes in CA 65 (February 1979), when the Selkirks visited a new archaeological gallery – not as might be expected at the British Museum, but rather at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. There,
Such is the origin of the 1965-1971 excavations – what of CA’s reporting on them? There is passing mention in early volumes of the magazine, including, in CA 10 (September 1968), of the ‘media archaeology’ of the BBC’s Chronicle programme, which had visited the summer 1968 fieldwork. But the intriguing fact is that there is no in-depth report in CA on the excavations of this period.
[Ed's note: I asked Andrew Selkirk about this, and he explained: 'I have never been much of an extrovert, and am not always good at approaching my seniors – that the front quarter of the fibre-glass cast of the Sutton Hoo ship – taken during the 1965-1971 excavations prior to destroying the impression in order to excavate underneath – was displayed alongside the stylistically comparable but later Graveney boat from Kent (dating from the front quarter of the fibre-glass cast of the Sutton Hoo ship – taken during the 1965-1971 excavations prior to destroying the impression in order to excavate underneath – was displayed alongside the stylistically comparable but later Graveney boat from Kent (dating from the 10th rather than 6th-7th century) that had been discovered in 1970.
the 10th rather than 6th-7th century) that had been discovered in 1970.
LEFT In 1978, the National Maritime Museum opened its new archaeology gallery with a cast of the Sutton Hoo ship and the Graveney boat, discovered in 1970. CA 65 covered the launch.