The story of Sutton Hoo and Basil Brown portrayed in Netflix film 'The Dig' starring Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan and Lily James
He was a self-taught archaeologist with an almost spiritual connection to the ancient civilisations whose remains lay beneath the earth.
She was a wealthy widow intrigued by the mysterious mounds on her Suffolk estate. Together, they made one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time.
The Sutton Hoo ship burial with its stunning hoard of treasures is the most spectacular find ever made on British soil.
It was unearthed thanks to archaeologist Basil Brown and landowner Edith Pretty, who employed him to investigate the site.
The traces of the huge Anglo Saxon longship - thought to be the last resting place of Raedwald, 7th century King of East Anglia - had lain hidden with its precious cargo for more than 1,300 years.
Its hoard of superbly crafted gold, silver and jewellery, together with the helmet which has become its most iconic image, changed historians’ view of the so-called Dark Ages.
Now the amazing story of Sutton Hoo is being brought to the screen in a new film.
‘The Dig’ stars Ralph Fiennes as Basil, Carey Mulligan as Edith, and Lily James as Peggy Preston who joined the excavation as part of a Cambridge-led archaeology team.
Cast and crew visited Sutton Hoo, now cared for by the National Trust, to absorb its atmosphere as part of their research.
“A few of our lucky staff also had a brilliant yet surreal experience getting to visit the film set,” said Trust spokesman Jemma Finch. “It was like we had stumbled into one of the photos in our collection, with many of the characters instantly recognisable.”
Ralph Fiennes was so determined to get Basil’s Suffolk accent right he took advice from dialect expert Charlie Haylock who lives in Sudbury.
Basil Brown and Edith Pretty were from vastly different backgrounds. She came from a family of wealthy industrialists, and was educated at Roedean School. Her family took her on numerous foreign trips including to major archaeological sites.
Suffolk-born Basil was a farmer’s son who had to leave school at 12 to help his father scratch a living from their smallholding.
By the time they met in 1938 she was a widow in her mid-50s. He was five years younger.
Edith had served with the Red Cross during the First World War and after her mother died returned home to Cheshire to care for her father until his death in 1925.
She married Frank Pretty - whose family owned an Ipswich corset-making and drapery business - in 1926. They had known each other since she was 18 and he is said to have proposed to her every year until she finally accepted.
After their marriage she bought the Sutton Hoo estate on the banks of the River Deben near Woodbridge.
The birth of their son Robert, when she was 47, was an unexpected joy, but heartbreak followed when Frank died from cancer in 1934.
She took an interest in spiritualism, and was said to have received messages that there was something special about the mounds on her estate.
What Basil Brown lacked in formal education he made up for with a powerful intellect, determination, and an intuitive feel for archaeology.
By the age of 16, he had taught himself four languages. He studied astronomy and later wrote a much-respected book on the subject despite relying solely on a two-inch self-made telescope.
All the time, he was pursuing his passion for digging up the past. His unconventional methods included tasting the soil and sleeping in the open air near historic sites.
With his flat cap, working trousers held up by string, Suffolk accent and lack of a university education, Basil did not fit the image of a professional archaeologist.
Biographer Richard Morris has read his diaries – kept in the British Museum and Suffolk Archaeological Archive – and tracked down his letters.
His book ‘Basil Brown: the man who discovered Sutton Hoo’ was due to be published last year but has been delayed due to Covid restrictions.
“He was an extremely bright man, and had an extraordinary zest and zeal for life. If he’d had a full education, goodness knows where he might have ended up,” said Richard.
Basil’s fascination with the past began at a very early age. At five or six, he was already digging holes around his father’s farm.
He was medically unfit to serve in the First World War and volunteered as an ambulance driver at the front.
The horrors he saw triggered a near-breakdown, and he returned to the farm in Rickinghall, which he later inherited.
“Suffolk and archaeology provided a healing balm,” said Richard. “He had poor vision, so he taught himself to smell the changes in soil structure by burying his nose in samples of earth.
“Eating soil allowed him to identify anything metallic, and he also took it to bed with him in the hope of dreaming about the past.
“He would watch, soaked to the skin, the way a rainstorm shifted earth, how soils acted in different ways to wet and dry conditions.
“Basil was a very spiritual man and believed he could divine where lost communities had been.
“He was an instinctive archaeologist, not an academic, but had this unerring ability to discover sites that others hadn’t.”
Basil married his wife, May, in 1923. They gave up the farm soon after his father’s death, realising it was too small to be profitable, and he took on a succession of jobs.
May supplemented their income by working as a village news reporter for local papers, including the Bury Free Press.
In 1934, Basil met Guy Maynard, curator at Ipswich Museum, and was employed by the museum to investigate the site of a Roman villa near Stanton.
When Edith Pretty approached Guy in 1938 about excavating the mounds on her land, he recommended Basil for the job.
The first two he explored had been targeted by robbers – probably hundreds of years before. But it was still obvious they had been high status burials.
When he returned in 1939 and started to excavate the largest mound on the site, he began to find ship’s rivets.
“Basil was sleeping in hedgerows and fields nearby to visualise who might have been there in the past,” said Richard.
“He would cycle to Sutton Hoo from Rickinghall, and then back at weekends. Edith paid him 25 shillings a week.
“He excavated very carefully, keeping every single rivet in place, while taking away goodness knows how many tons of soil. He said the best things for an archaeologist were a sieve and a spade.”
His work is all the more incredible because the only helpers he had were Edith’s gardener and gamekeeper.
Below the mound lay the richest ship burial ever found in northern Europe – the imprint of a 27 metre-long craft, and the now-familiar treasures in a chamber that escaped robbers only because they had dug in the wrong place.
The ship’s timbers had long since rotted away. No body was found in the burial chamber, but later analysis showed traces of phosphate suggesting it had decayed and been absorbed by the acidic soil.
Once the enormity of the find became apparent, experts from Cambridge University took over the excavation. Basil was sidelined - the unassuming hero of Sutton Hoo relegated to carting soil in wheelbarrows.
“He found the burial chamber, that’s in his diaries. But his humility comes through. He didn’t want a great fuss made of him,” says Richard.
“He was very erudite, a much better writer than a speaker. If he’d published his diaries, he could have made a lot of money, but he never did.
“He was offered an OBE, which he turned down. I think that was also due to his humility and a feeling of ‘knowing his station in life’.
Basil finished up working as caretaker at Culford School, near Bury St Edmunds, where he encouraged pupils to take an interest in archaeology. He continued to live in a cottage at Rickinghall until his death, aged 89, in 1977.
“Basil Brown was an extraordinary man, but he was an awkward celebrity,” Richard adds.
A treasure trove inquest ruled that Edith Pretty, as landowner, was the owner of the Sutton Hoo hoard. She donated it to the nation and it is now in the British Museum.
Edith, who had suffered long-term ill health, died from a stroke in 1942. She was buried in All Saints Churchyard at Sutton.
The Dig released on Netflix today.