The Other ‘Dig’: Anglo-Saxons Up the Creek
By Sean Kingsley, Editor-in-Chief, Wreckwatch Magazine
Click here to read Wreckwatch mag - its completely free to escape the lockdown blues.
“In the harbour stood a ring-prowed ship, icy, outbound, a nobleman’s vessel;
there they laid down their dear lord, dispenser of rings, in the bosom of the ship,
glorious, by the mast. There were many treasures loaded there, adornments from
distant lands; I have never heard of a more lovely ship bedecked with battle-weapons
and war-gear, blades and byrnies; in its bosom lay many treasures,
which were to travel far with him into the keeping of the flood.”
Beowulf, prologue, burial of a king, c. AD 975-1025.
Wreckwatch gives The Dig a 5 star turtle rating. "Dark Age dirt turned triumphant dreamscape. A cinematographic shot in the arm."
The past is a powerful place. The nostalgia of forgotten time transports us far from the weighty present. Its romance can make the soul fly. In days gone by, decades and centuries before we were born, the sun shines perpetually in the mind’s eye. It’s a world to aspire to, to dream about.
The Dig, Netflix’s latest epic film, captures precisely such space to hit the bullseye. In the midst of our seemingly endless winter of discontent, the story of how the landowning Edith May Pretty – riches earned from the corset-making and drapery trade – hired the lower-class Basil Brown to dig an old mound in her backyard is the stuff of archaeological legend.
Pretty is, well, sitting pretty on a landed fortune, yet is miserable – the ancients would perhaps say cursed – and not long for this world. Cancer took her husband, Frank, aged 56. Edith died of a stroke at 59. Her son Robert was also lost to cancer aged 57. Brown is dirt poor but never happier smoking his pipe lost in the rich mystery of excavation, even after collapsing trenches threaten to turn him into the Tutankhamun Edith reads about at night. A spiritualist who hears the ghosts whispering over the ancient mounds half a kilometre from her front door, Pretty decides to re-enact her own Howard Carter moment on Suffolk soil.
This is an easy story to ruin by turning into a high-octane treasure hunt. Instead of the tired pseudo-porn beat of Indiana Jones style archaeology, a dulcet piano score filters across the hazy riverside fields. Even when the rain buckets down, it’s always sunny on The Dig. The tone takes you back to the best Merchant Ivory productions of the 1980s and 1990s. Carey Mulligan playing well beyond her tender years and (surely by now Sir) Ralph Fiennes mumbling perfectly into his chin, are sublime. This is spot-on fare to forget your worries and dream of innocent perfection frozen in time, even as World War II makes the digging of Sutton Hoo in 1939 a race against the clock.
Millions of people have gawped at the astonishing treasures of the Sutton Hoo ship burial that Edith Pretty donated to the British Museum and mainly to the people of Britain to share the story of how one dig turned history on its head. By the 7th century the glory of Rome had faded – or declined and fallen to some – under a tidal wave of menacing Goths and Vandals who savagely hammered down the gates of the Eternal City. All roads no longer led to Rome. The lights of civilisation flickered and went out across the West.
Shipwrecks, whether on land or under wave, are astonishing thin-slices of antiquity. On terra firma the coming and going of the generations are almost always calculated. Garbage is swept away or burnt, precious metals melted down time after time into regenerated wonders. The sunken past does the opposite. When a ship is lost or buried and left unplundered, it stays frozen in time.
So few wrecks are known for each century of history that single discoveries can revolutionize everything we think we know about the ancients. Sutton Hoo proved the lights didn’t go out with the rape of Rome. In the Byzantine Empire, Umayyad caliphate, Viking and Merovingian traders, art and commerce reached for the skies, only in a different pace and places. In one dig in sleepy Suffolk, Europe realised the Dark Ages were dark no more. “They had culture, they had art, they had money,” the pompous CW directing the dig for the British Museum splutters.
The big downer about Sutton Hoo is that the big cheese who the burial was supposed to celebrate, and bury with enough bling to dine at the high table in the afterlife, had gone missing in action. To many that VIP was Raedwald, ruler of the kingdom of East Anglia in the early 7th century before England was born. The destructive acidic soils of Suffolk turned his mortal remains into mush and then dust. In the myriad burials scattered across the fields of Sutton Hoo, all that archaeologists found in recent years are ‘sand bodies’, shadowy silhouettes of Anglo-Saxon society crumbled into oblivion. Needless to say, the star attraction of The Dig, the king’s ship itself, decayed centuries ago, leaving behind a negative crust and just the rusty iron bolts that once pinned the hull together.
If you want to get up close and personal with the surviving sculpted wood of an Anglo-Saxon ship, you need just peer a little further south in Suffolk near Southwold. But you won’t find this story in any history book. Buss Creek has since Roman times been a crossing point for watercraft. All paths led to the ancient fjord. A jetty and warehouses fronted the creek 2,000 years ago. A drawbridge was only added in the early 16th century followed by a bridge built in 1783 by Samuel King for £157.
Buss Creek, between the boroughs of Aldeburgh and Lowestoft, used to encircle Southwold or Sudwolda, meaning “south forest or wood”, in the 11th-century Domesday Book. This crossroads between land, sea and river had tidal fish weirs in the Anglo-Saxon period and a small fishing fleet. Villagers were later obliged to hand over 25,000 herrings a year in tithes to their lord, the Abbott of Bury St Edmunds. Even when Daniel Defoe passed through Southwold in the 1720s he found “no business the people here were employ’d in, but the fishery... for herrings and sprats; which they cure by the help of smoak.” Fishing even lent its name to the creek: into the mid-18th century a fleet of over 60 fishing ‘Busses’ sailed these waters between the Fishing Buss Inn and River Blyth.
Ships have gone down here since the dawn of time with cargoes of everything from oil to coal. James Maggs of Southwold’s diary was full of entries of finding and selling wrecked goods, such as wine flogged by John Bamford in 1761 for a whopping £777. The salvage brought so much joy that cash was doled out in coppers to boys and women in the town marketplace.
Buss Creek has something that Sutton Hoo can only dream of. Oozing mud. And mud is the perfect environment to preserve old wooden boats. A short hop away from the bridge crossing Buss Creek, dredging operations deepening the riverbed in 1990 chewed into wooden remains. By sheer luck word got back to the local marine archaeological expert, Stuart Bacon, director of the Suffolk Underwater Studies unit, who managed to save part of the old boat in one of Suffolk’s other crucial digs. In Christmas 1990, October 1991 and November 1992, burly North Sea divers explored this zero-visibility stretch of water. Using trowels to peel back the compact silt, animal bones and oyster shells appeared, followed by more and more wooden planks and frames.
Unlike the untouched Sutton Hoo ship, it was a miracle that anything survived at Buss Creek. The dredger had played havoc with the wreck, strewing timbers across the mud like matchsticks. The boat lay at right-angles to the shore, a metre under gravel, and continued under the southern riverbank. Eventually the red flag had to be waved over this ‘other dig’. A cave cut under the bank to explore the course of the timbers ran the risk of collapsing and entombing the divers below.
Stuart Bacon believes the Buss Creek boat could have been up to 12.2 metres long. No doubt at the time of the underwater dig the team imagined the boat was a curious early modern casualty of the Southwold fishing industry and nothing more. Then the radiocarbon date came back from Sizewell Nuclear Power Station: AD 890-1155 with a 95% probability. The Buss Creek boat was another Anglo-Saxon wonder and another blow to historians' dismissal of these times as a Dark Age.
Unlike the Sutton Hoo dig of 1939, the Buss Creek excavation had all the benefits of the modern day. Yet it is the former treasure that made it to a museum and into the top list of England’s finest archaeological treasures. And the fate of the preciously saved Buss Creek boat?
Who knows. Its rare timbers were last seen in the hands of a leading British maritime archaeology society. They have never been published. And so it’s an irony that while the Sutton Hoo ship had no ship, the remnant of England’s only surviving Anglo-Saxon wooden boat has disappeared up the creek of academia.
Photos: © The British Museum, Stuart Bacon (Suffolk Underwater Studies: all Buss Creek wreck images), Netflix.
Further reading: Southwold Suffolk by Stuart R. Bacon.