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A selection of rare photographs showing one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time has gone on display at Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge, for the first time





A selection of photographs showing one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time has gone on display at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk for the first time.

Eleven photographs taken by Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff have gone on display inside Tranmer House, the former home of Edith Pretty.

Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff were schoolmistresses and best friends who visited Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge, in August 1939, when the Great Ship Burial was being excavated.

Watching displays of archive photos in Tranmer House, Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, East of England. Picture: Original photograph Barbara Wagstaff ARPS/Trustees of the British Museum, digital images © National Trust
Watching displays of archive photos in Tranmer House, Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, East of England. Picture: Original photograph Barbara Wagstaff ARPS/Trustees of the British Museum, digital images © National Trust

After gaining permission from Charles Phillips, they took over 400 individual photographs – around 60 per cent of the total number of recorded contemporary negatives from the excavation, which went on to gain worldwide renown as the richest burial ever found in northern Europe and England’s own ‘Valley of the Kings’.

Some of the negatives were turned into prints during the Second World War and are now part of a temporary display, which also marks the release of the National Trust’s new book, 100 Photographs from the Collections of the National Trust.

The book explores the role of photography in everyday life, from how it is used as a medium to celebrate pets, places, family and friends, to how it has evolved from its invention in the 1840s right through to the present day.

One of the original photographs by Barbara Wagstaff that features in a new temporary exhibition at Sutton Hoo. Picture: Original photograph Barbara Wagstaff ARPS/Trustees of the British Museum
One of the original photographs by Barbara Wagstaff that features in a new temporary exhibition at Sutton Hoo. Picture: Original photograph Barbara Wagstaff ARPS/Trustees of the British Museum

Sutton Hoo is featured in the book, along with a photograph by Mercie Lack, which shows the excavation taking place by Suffolk-born archaeologist Basil Brown and Lieutenant Commander Hutchison of the Science Museum, as well as Lack’s friend Barbara Wagstaff, whose black and white contact print is also featured.

Jack Clark, collections and house officer at Sutton Hoo, said: “We’re proud to be displaying original Lack and Wagstaff prints in Tranmer House for the first time, and to celebrate being featured in 100 Photographs from the Collections of the National Trust, alongside 99 other extraordinary collections.

“It’s a testament not only to the magnitude of the discovery at Sutton Hoo, but also to the skill of Lack and Wagstaff, who recorded the excavation of the 27m fossil of the ship in meticulous detail.”

The display contains objects from the final piece of the Lack and Wagstaff collection, which was completed last year, when 26 new items were conserved in front of the public at Sutton Hoo.

View of Tranmer House former home of Edith Pretty at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. Picture: James Dobson
View of Tranmer House former home of Edith Pretty at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. Picture: James Dobson

Historic photographs are amongst the most fragile objects in the care of the National Trust and vulnerable to damage from light exposure, air pollutants, fluctuating temperatures and humidity. As a result, the display will only be temporary, running from now until Friday, 3 June 2024.

“At Sutton Hoo we only display original photographs for short periods of time, and only then after advice from expert conservators,” explained Jack.

“Though the drawing room in Tranmer House is free from UV light, photographs can still be damaged by visible light (LUX), but the biggest consideration for this display was temperature, as high temperatures can be particularly damaging.

A close up of the excavations of the Great Ship Burial taking place at Sutton Hoo. Picyure by Barbara Wagstaff, ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image © National Trust
A close up of the excavations of the Great Ship Burial taking place at Sutton Hoo. Picyure by Barbara Wagstaff, ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image © National Trust
Original photograph of the Great Ship Burial, which is featured in a new temporary exhibition at Sutton Hoo. Picture: Mercie Keer Lack ARPS, ©Trustees of the British Museum, digital images ©National Trust
Original photograph of the Great Ship Burial, which is featured in a new temporary exhibition at Sutton Hoo. Picture: Mercie Keer Lack ARPS, ©Trustees of the British Museum, digital images ©National Trust

“While we can manage light exposure and relative humidity, temperature can’t be managed as effectively, which means we need to take extra precautions.

“With longer, hotter summers, we knew we couldn’t have these original items on display beyond spring, and we may even have to limit this as the climate grows warmer and wetter in the coming decades.”

A collage showing the excavation, taken by Mercie Lack, is featured in the new temporary exhibition inside Tranmer House. Picture: Mercie Keer Lack ARPS, © Trustees of the British Museum, digital images © National Trust
A collage showing the excavation, taken by Mercie Lack, is featured in the new temporary exhibition inside Tranmer House. Picture: Mercie Keer Lack ARPS, © Trustees of the British Museum, digital images © National Trust

In June, the display will be replaced with replicas and digital versions so that those wanting to see more of the Lack and Wagstaff collection can still do so.

The black and white contact print by Barbara Wagstaff. Picture: Barbara Wagstaff ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital images © National Trust.
The black and white contact print by Barbara Wagstaff. Picture: Barbara Wagstaff ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital images © National Trust.

Between 2018 and 2023, the collection was conserved, catalogued and digitised to preserve it for the future and enable access for all.

Visitors can now explore the digitised collection in the dining room of Tranmer House, or view it online here.

Sutton Hoo, is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world and the 7th-century burial mounds, excavated from the late 1930s onwards, have revealed items including the iconic Sutton Hoo helmet that have helped shape our understanding of the origins of English history. Mrs Edith Pretty, the landowner, donated the finds to the British Museum in 1939.

The landscape has been cared for by the National Trust since 1998.