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Step back in time with photos of the Sutton Hoo dig, near Woodbridge, taken by Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff on the eve of Second World War as hundreds of images have been preserved for future generations



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A huge collection of photographs capturing the excavation of Sutton Hoo, which is considered to be one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time, has been preserved for future generations.

School mistresses Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff took hundreds of photos of the ship burial during the 1939 dig which have now been digitised, allowing countless people to see them for the first time.

The photos have been catalogued and are now available for visitors to see on digital albums at the Sutton Hoo site, near Woodbridge, while the full collection is also available to view online.

A colour photograph of the prow of the ship, with Lieutenant Commander Hutchison (left) and Charles Phillips (right) seated just beyond the burial chamber region and Basil Brown standing.Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust
A colour photograph of the prow of the ship, with Lieutenant Commander Hutchison (left) and Charles Phillips (right) seated just beyond the burial chamber region and Basil Brown standing.Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust

A total of 11 albums containing black and white images as well as one colour album, loose black and white prints and contact prints were gifted to the National Trust by Mercie’s great-nephew, Andrew Lack.

Also included were loose black and white prints and contact prints Barbara took of the excavation, which inspired hit Netflix film The Dig, starring Ralph Fiennes as archaeologist Basil Brown and Carey Mulligan as landowner Edith Pretty, which was released at the start of this year.

Over the last three years, every image has been catalogued and digitised and remedial conservation work has been carried out to repair any damage.

Local archaeologist Basil Brown. Original photograph by Barbara Wagstaff ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust
Local archaeologist Basil Brown. Original photograph by Barbara Wagstaff ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust

As part of the conservation process, each page of the albums was photographed as well as pictures taken of the individual prints and the many annotations by Mercie, resulting in over 4,000 images capturing every detail.

Close friends Mercie and Barbara were serious amateur photographers with an interest in archaeology when they visited Sutton Hoo in the summer of 1939, on the eve of the Second World War.

They went on to create an extraordinary photographic record of the world-famous discovery of the Anglo-Saxon ship burial.

Laura Howarth, archaeology and engagement manager at Sutton Hoo, said: “Mercie Lack was staying with her aunt when she heard the exciting news of the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon ship burial nearby.

Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack either side of the ship. Picture: Trustees of the British Museum
Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack either side of the ship. Picture: Trustees of the British Museum

"She visited the site and obtained permission from lead archaeologist Charles Phillips to return with Barbara Wagstaff in order to photograph the excavation.

"Both had a keen interest in history and archaeology and during previous holidays, had travelled across the country photographing Anglo-Saxon stone sculptural details for the British Museum such as at Lindisfarne."

The official photos were given to the British Museum, but Sutton Hoo's collection seems to be the personal set which the two photographers kept as their individual mementoes.

Digitising a page from one of Mercie Lack’s photograph albums. Picture: National Trust/Josh Ward
Digitising a page from one of Mercie Lack’s photograph albums. Picture: National Trust/Josh Ward

Laura added: "Mercie Lack’s photographic albums are meticulously annotated with not only who and what we are looking at in the photographs, but often the technical details of how the photographs were taken, such as the type of film and aperture.

"A real labour of love, this information provides an invaluable additional layer of detail to each photograph."

The pair were on site between August 8 and 25, 1939, and took around 60 per cent of the total number of contemporary negatives from the excavation.

Barbara Wagstaff holding a corroded ship’s rivet from the excavation. Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust
Barbara Wagstaff holding a corroded ship’s rivet from the excavation. Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust

"Whilst the treasure had been removed from site by this point, their contribution to the archaeological record remains hugely significant, particularly recording details of the fossil of the ship," Laura said.

"This ‘ghost ship’, as Mercie Lack referred to it, is something that no longer exists today but we can experience it through their photographs.

“Amongst the collection gifted to the National Trust were drafts of the beginnings of an unpublished book that Mercie Lack was writing on her Sutton Hoo experience.

An annotated page from Mercie Lack’s colour album showing a photograph of Basil Brown (top left),Lieutenant Commander Hutchison (bottom left) and Barbara Wagstaff (bottom right) at work. Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust
An annotated page from Mercie Lack’s colour album showing a photograph of Basil Brown (top left),Lieutenant Commander Hutchison (bottom left) and Barbara Wagstaff (bottom right) at work. Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust

"With her photographs and writing, we are able to see through her eyes and hear in her own words the events of this thrilling summer of discovery.”

Visitors to Sutton Hoo can now access and enjoy digital flickable versions of Mercie’s photographic albums, before walking down to the site where they were taken, and the full Lack and Wagstaff collection will be available to access online from today.

Charles Phillips starting to uncover the scarf bolts at the stern of the ship between frames 21 and 22on 22 August 1939. Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust
Charles Phillips starting to uncover the scarf bolts at the stern of the ship between frames 21 and 22on 22 August 1939. Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust

In addition to the black and white photographs, Mercie and Barbara each managed to obtain a roll of 35mm German Agfa colour slide film, which went briefly on sale in Britain before the outbreak of the war.

They are among the earliest surviving original colour photographs of any major archaeological excavation and provide a completely different dimension to the collection.

What makes the collection unique is not just the pictures themselves, but the annotations Mercie added to her albums which provide a remarkable insight into the people and process behind the excavation.

View of the excavation with Mr Crosley measuring, a work man removing sand, Lieutenant Commander Hutchison and Basil Brown excavating and Barbara Wagstaff observing. Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust
View of the excavation with Mr Crosley measuring, a work man removing sand, Lieutenant Commander Hutchison and Basil Brown excavating and Barbara Wagstaff observing. Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust

Both Mercie and Barbara went on to become Associates of the Royal Photographic Society.

The original photographs are in a fragile condition and need to be kept in a closely controlled environment to prevent deterioration.

By digitising the collection, the images have been preserved and can be easily accessed and enjoyed by many more people without fear of damaging the originals.

Photograph taken in the centre of the boat to show the tools used in the excavation. Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust
Photograph taken in the centre of the boat to show the tools used in the excavation. Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust

Anita Bools, senior national conservator, paper and photography for the National Trust, said: “Staff and volunteers from Sutton Hoo, photographic materials conservators and professional digitisation specialists collaborated to help conserve and digitise the collection.

"It was very appropriate – and rather moving – this took place entirely on site, in the same location where Lack and Wagstaff took the photographs, meticulously recording the excavation of the Anglo-Saxon ship burial.

“The conservation and digitisation of the photographs – particularly Mercie Lack’s albums – had to be undertaken with great care.

A typewritten page to accompany photograph S.152 in one of Mercie Lack’s albums. The photograph was taken in the centre of the boat to show the tools used in the excavation. Picture: National Trust
A typewritten page to accompany photograph S.152 in one of Mercie Lack’s albums. The photograph was taken in the centre of the boat to show the tools used in the excavation. Picture: National Trust

"Although her annotations appear fresh and the images are unfaded, the paper pages are very thin and could easily be torn.

"It is perhaps an indication of how important the photographs were to her: they were clearly looked after and handled carefully.

"I feel that these two brilliant women would be pleased to know that through this conservation and digitisation project, people today can explore scenes recorded over 80 years ago, and sense something of the thrill Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff experienced as the ship burial was revealed.”

Mercie Lack showing members of the excavation team a selection of contact prints, with the excavation in the background. Original photograph by Barbara Wagstaff ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust
Mercie Lack showing members of the excavation team a selection of contact prints, with the excavation in the background. Original photograph by Barbara Wagstaff ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust

Visitors to Sutton Hoo can see where the photos were taken from the newly opened 17-metre-high viewing tower, which provides a view down onto the Royal Burial Ground.

The viewing tower has a galvanised steel core and is clad using burnt larch wood to reflect the woodland that it sits in. Picture: National Trust/Phil Morley
The viewing tower has a galvanised steel core and is clad using burnt larch wood to reflect the woodland that it sits in. Picture: National Trust/Phil Morley

The tower is part of a £4 million project to transform the site and visitor experience, which included the refurbishment of Tranmer House, which now tells the story of Edith Pretty who instigated the dig and archaeologist Basil Brown.

Hilary McGrady, National Trust director-general said: “It is over eight decades since the thrilling discovery at Sutton Hoo but the story and those involved continue to fascinate people who visit the site.

Artist William Palmer Robins, who sketched the ship excavation, off to lunch at 1o’clock on 15August 1939. Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust
Artist William Palmer Robins, who sketched the ship excavation, off to lunch at 1o’clock on 15August 1939. Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust

"I am delighted that we can now share even more of that story and particularly the achievements of two women who recorded history unfolding before their eyes.

"It is one of many special places in our care where we are exploring collections in more depth and providing new ways to enjoy them.”

A group of naval cadets visit the site and view the excavation. Original photograph by Barbara Wagstaff ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum. Picture: National Trust
A group of naval cadets visit the site and view the excavation. Original photograph by Barbara Wagstaff ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum. Picture: National Trust

And Andrew Lack, who gifted the images to the National Trust, said: “I am delighted to be able to share my great-aunt’s collection, she would have been thrilled. Sutton Hoo remained one of her great passions.”

The new digital flickable albums are on display in Tranmer House, alongside rotating projections of photographs taken by Basil Brown and others during the time the treasures were being unearthed.

A visit from Princess Marie Louise on 22 August 1939. Left to right: Charles Phillips, unknown,unknown, Edith Pretty, Princess Marie Louise and Lieutenant Commander Hutchison.Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust
A visit from Princess Marie Louise on 22 August 1939. Left to right: Charles Phillips, unknown,unknown, Edith Pretty, Princess Marie Louise and Lieutenant Commander Hutchison.Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust

Other items from the Lack and Wagstaff collection such as the sweet box in which some of the photographs were originally kept, correspondence and a copy of a book in which one of Mercie's images was published, are part of an autumn display at the property.

For further information, opening times to Sutton Hoo and to view the photographs online visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo.

Edith Pretty, Charles Phillips and friends standing on top of the burial mound and watching the excavation on 10 August 1939. Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust
Edith Pretty, Charles Phillips and friends standing on top of the burial mound and watching the excavation on 10 August 1939. Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image. Picture: National Trust
View of the Tower with the Royal Burial Ground in the foreground. Picture: National Trust/Phil Morley
View of the Tower with the Royal Burial Ground in the foreground. Picture: National Trust/Phil Morley
As you ascend the tower, the views open up and connect you to the landscape below. Picture: National Trust/Phil Morley
As you ascend the tower, the views open up and connect you to the landscape below. Picture: National Trust/Phil Morley

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