Basil Brown

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Basil John Wait Brown
Original Sutton Hoo Helmet.jpg
The iconic helmet discovered by Brown's excavations in East Anglia
Born (1888-01-22)22 January 1888
Bucklesham, Suffolk
Died 12 March 1977(1977-03-12) (aged 89)
Rickinghall, Suffolk
Occupation Archaeologist
Years active 1932 to c.1960
Known for Excavations at Sutton Hoo

Basil John Wait Brown (22 January 1888 – 12 March 1977) was a farmer, archaeologist, amateur astronomer and author who most famously discovered the buried ship at Sutton Hoo and excavated its sandy outline on the eve of war in 1939.

Although he has been described as an 'amateur archaeologist', his work as such was frequently paid. He was, indeed, one of the first to make a career as a paid excavation employee for a provincial museum. Although this was his second career and was interrupted by the War, it spanned more than thirty years. After the failure of his smallholding in around 1932, at about the time when he published his work on Astronomical Atlases (a subject of interest since childhood), he began to investigate the countryside near his home in north Suffolk in search of Roman remains.

After the discovery, excavation and successful removal to Ipswich Museum of a Roman kiln at Wattisfield, Basil Brown worked for a short time with Mr Gale at Stuston, on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, before being taken on, on a near full-time basis, by Mr Guy Maynard, Curator of Ipswich Museum. He was paid weekly and worked for long seasons on the agreed payment arrangement from 1935–1939, his principal task being the excavation of a Roman villa he had discovered at Stanton Chair, Suffolk. These excavations were laid open each year and temporary museums were set up on the site for visitors. Many well-known archaeologists, while still students, worked for Mr Brown on seasonal visits to the site.

Excavations at Sutton Hoo[edit]

In 1938 Basil Brown was by agreement released from his employment by Ipswich Museum for a season during which he was paid by Mrs Edith May Pretty to excavate three of the mounds on her estate at Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge. In these months he excavated three disturbed burials or cremation burials of the sixth or early seventh centuries which had been plundered of most of their contents. One had apparently contained a wooden ship held together with iron rivets, though their positions did not permit a reconstruction of the ship. It was soon realised that the site was either of Anglo-Saxon or Viking age, but that question was not decided either by Mr Brown or the Ipswich Museum authorities (who maintained supervision of his work) during the first season. At the end of this work, Mr Brown returned immediately to his work for the Museum, at Stanton Chair.

In Spring 1939 Mr Brown returned to the employment of Mrs Pretty for a second season at Sutton Hoo, and made the wonderful discovery of the 27-meter-long ship impression in the sandy soil beneath the largest mound. In June the site was visited by Charles Phillips, who some weeks later began his campaign to clear the undisturbed but crushed burial chamber of an Anglo-Saxon potentate of the early seventh century AD (thought by many to be the grave of Raedwald of East Anglia). Charles Phillips was employed by the Office of Works, and led a team including W.F. Grimes, O.G.S. Crawford, Stuart and Peggy Piggot, and assisted by many other famous academics and archaeologists who were admitted to the site while the story was kept secret from the general public.

Basil Brown maintained a respectful relationship with Mrs Pretty, and completed his work for her by remaining until the very end, after the experts had finished with his discovery, and carrying out her instructions. He was obliged to steer a careful path among the scholars and other authorities, for there were differences between Phillips and the Ipswich Museum representatives. Mr Brown gave his witness at the treasure trove inquest in September 1939, when (after a newspaper leak) the astonishing treasures were first seen by the general public in attendance. He worked again at Stanton Chair for short periods late in 1939 and during 1940.

After Sutton Hoo[edit]

During World War II, Basil Brown performed a few archaeological tasks for the Museum, but was principally engaged in other forms of War work in Suffolk. Afterwards he was again employed by the Museum, nominally as an 'attendant', but with archaeological, external duties. Until the 1960s he steadily continued the systematic study of archaeological remains in Suffolk, cycling everywhere, and preparing an extremely copious (if sometimes indecipherable) record of information pertaining to it. Out of this was developed the County Sites and Monuments Record of Suffolk, the basis of the record as it exists today. He encouraged groups of children to work on his sites, and introduced a whole generation of youngsters to the processes of archaeology and the fascination of what lay under the ploughed fields of the county.

Much has been said or written of the collision of social classes which took place at Sutton Hoo in 1939, and their impact on the relationships of the excavators. Mr Brown was descended from a long line of yeoman farmers of Suffolk. The recipient of a country education, and self-taught in astronomy and in several European languages, although he possessed a broad East Anglian accent, his powers of observation and deduction, and his good sense and wise conduct, generally earned him the respect of discerning authorities.

Basil Brown made an immense contribution to the development of Suffolk archaeology, and was deservedly proud of the wonderful discovery of 1939 which he had been lucky enough to make.


The story of the Sutton Hoo excavation and Brown's part in it has been told in various ways:

  • Basil Brown's Diaries – reprinted in R.L.S. Bruce-Mitford, 1974, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology (Gollancz, London), 141–169.
  • Full descriptive and interpretative catalogue and monograph – R.L.S. Bruce-Mitford, 1975, 1978, 1983, The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial (London, British Museum), 3 Vols in 4.
  • Searching account of the excavation and discovery – A.C. Evans, 1986, The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial (London: British Museum).
  • C. Green, 1963, Sutton Hoo: The Excavation of a Royal Ship-Burial (London).
  • R.A.D. Markham, 2002, Sutton Hoo through the Rear View Mirror (Sutton Hoo Society) – a careful account of the discovery and controversy, drawing only upon reliably verified evidence from contemporary records and sources.
  • Peppy Barlow, 'The Sutton Hoo Mob' – a play with music, written for the Eastern Angles Theatre Company and toured in Suffolk in 1993 and again in 2005, based specifically on the central characters of the controversy.
  • C.W. Phillips, 1987, My Life in Archaeology, p70ff.
  • The National Trust Visitor Centre, Sutton Hoo, Exhibition Hall.(2001)
  • S.J. Plunkett, 'Basil John Wait Brown', article in Oxford DNB.
  • J. Preston, 2007, The Dig (Viking) – a novel dramatising the events.
  • C J Durrant, 2005 'Basil Brown, Astronomer, Archaeologist, Enigma' – a biography
  • Bruce-Mitford, Rupert (1977). "Obituary: Basil Brown" (PDF). Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology. Ipswich. XXXIV (1): 71.