You Can Now Explore a Trove of Behind-the-Scenes Photos From the Famed Sutton Hoo Dig

Schoolteachers Mercie Lacks and Barbara Wagstaff captured the snapshots in August 1939

Men and women in formal dress look at the 'fossil' of the ship
The photographs show the "fossil" imprint of a wooden ship that rotted away long before the dig. Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image © National Trust

Hundreds of photographs of the 1939 Sutton Hoo ship excavation are now freely available to view online for the first time. Taken by schoolteachers Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff during their summer vacation, the newly digitized images are also on (virtual) display at the Sutton Hoo site near Woodbridge, England, reports Rebekah Chilvers for Suffolk News.

Lack and Wagstaff were amateur photographers fascinated by the discovery of the famed early medieval ship burial. According to archaeologist Laura Howarth, Sutton Hoo’s engagement manager, Lack was staying nearby with her aunt when she heard about the find.

“She visited the site and obtained permission from lead archaeologist Charles Phillips to return with Barbara ... in order to photograph the excavation,” says Howarth in a statement from the National Trust, which oversees Sutton Hoo. “Both had a keen interest in history and archaeology and, during previous holidays, had traveled across the country photographing Anglo-Saxon stone sculptural details for the British Museum such as at Lindisfarne.”

Between August 8 and August 25, the pair took about 60 percent of the total number of contemporary negatives associated with the dig. The women donated a set of “official” photographs to the British Museum but kept the now-digitized images as part of their personal collections.

Charles Phillips excavating the Sutton Hoo ship
Charles Phillips excavating the Sutton Hoo ship Original photograph by Mercie Keer Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum; digital image © National Trust

Earlier this year, Netflix film The Dig drew renewed attention to the story of the Sutton Hoo excavation. But as Katy Sandalls notes for the East Anglian Daily Times, the movie did not feature Lack and Wagstaff, instead introducing a fictional male photographer. 

The discovery of the ship burial on an estate known as Sutton Hoo transformed archaeologists’ understanding of life during the so-called Dark Ages, wrote Jeanne Dorin McDowell for Smithsonian magazine in February. Researchers uncovered weapons and gold treasures, along with the remains of a long-decayed, 88-foot-long ship, in what appeared to be the grave of a king from the sixth or seventh century C.E.

“The discovery in 1939 changed our understanding of some of the first chapters of English history,” Sue Brunning, curator of the British Museum’s Sutton Hoo artifacts, told Smithsonian. “A time that had been seen as being backward was illuminated as cultured and sophisticated. The quality and quantity of the artifacts found inside the burial chamber were of such technical artistry that it changed our understanding of this period.”

Lack and Wagstaff arrived at the dig after the treasures were removed. Their photographs show the “fossil” imprint of the wooden ship, as well as archaeologists investigating the site.

A worker digitizes one of the photographs
Over the past three years, staff and volunteers at the Sutton Hoo site conserved, digitized and cataloged the images. National Trust

Lack’s grand-nephew, Andrew Lack, donated 12 albums of her photographs from the site—11 in black and white and 1 in color—to the National Trust. The collection also includes assorted black-and-white images by Wagstaff. 

National Trust conservator Anita Bools tells the Guardian’s Mark Brown that she first saw the images when they arrived at the Sutton Hoo site 12 years ago.

“It was one of those moments you get prickles down the back of your neck,” she says. “I thought, ‘My goodness … this is the genuine thing.’ It almost felt like the archaeological discovery itself.”

The color photographs are among the earliest taken at a major archaeological dig. Lack and Wagstaff used 35mm German Agfa color slide film, which was only briefly available in the United Kingdom before the start of World War II.

“Through their contacts, they somehow got hold of the film,” Bools tells the Guardian. “I don’t think we’ve quite worked out how they got hold of it.”

Staff and volunteers at the Sutton Hoo site conserved, digitized and cataloged the images over the past three years. They photographed each album page, as well as individual prints and annotations, creating more than 4,000 total images.

Lack’s albums in particular required careful handling.

“Although her annotations appear fresh and the images are unfaded, the paper pages are very thin and could easily be torn,” says Bools in the statement. “It is perhaps an indication of how important the photographs were to her: They were clearly looked after and handled carefully.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.