A Warrior Buried in Time | Sunday Observer

A Warrior Buried in Time

14 February, 2021

Burials  take a special place in some cultures. They consider that sending their loved ones to afterlife should be done in a spectacular way. The best example is the Egyptian culture where they dedicate decades and thousands of man power to create the Tombs, elaborate offerings, and sophisticated mummification.

Along with famed Egyptian culture come many other cultures that are unknown to many, who also consider that burials should be done in a memorable way. Many years ago, I watched a documentary about a special archaeological find in England which was married with fascinating tales of ancient warfare, leadership, love and honour, voyages as well as mystery and when later I read more into it, found more intriguing  details about this unique discovery.

Recently there was renewed interest all around the world on this find, with a new Hollywood movie ‘The Dig’ starring Academy award nominee, BAFTA and Tony winner  Ralph Fiennes, made on a famous novel by journalist and author John Preston and it renewed my own interest in this truly fascinating story. Based entirely on a rich and remarkable grave, dredging up what has been emotionally buried in one’s heart dominates the entire film.

The love story

To begin with, the whole story is connected to many lives, and revolves around something profound about a sleepy hamlet and a mournful household being awakened by a magnificent burial. According to her biographies, Edith Dempster was from such a wealthy family, that she had grown up with an indoor staff of 25 in addition to 18 gardeners. It is also said by many sources that she was proposed to, by Frank Pretty seven times, first on her 18th birthday.

He was also from a wealthy family and had been a Major in the Suffolk’s Regiment’s 4th Battalion and had been wounded twice during the War. Later he was promoted to the rank of Lt Colonel, After her marriage she bought the 526-acre Sutton Hoo estate, including the Sutton Hoo house along the River Diben, in Suffolk, England. At the age of 47, Edith Pretty gave birth to a son, Robert Dempster Pretty.

Tragically, her brave and loving husband Frank Pretty died just four years later from stomach cancer.  As Edith’s father had an Engineering firm, R. & J. Dempster with his brother, John, when she was young Edith and her family had travelled to many countries such as Egypt and Greece.

This has fathomed a deep interest in her, in archaeological digs which progressed later into action after seeing 18 ancient burial mounds in her new estate.

At that time she was a widow, raising her son, and profoundly grieving her beloved husband’s death. From her actions thereon, it is evident why a lonely, wealthy woman wanted to open something that laid untouched for centuries.

After contacting the Ipswich museum, she was sent a self-taught working-class archaeologist Basil Brown. A BBC documentary states that she even had dreams or visions of warriors with swords on horseback on these mounds that she could clearly see from her bedroom windows.

His instincts

Although the estate boasted of 18 known ancient burial mounds, the shabby villager without any University degrees- Basil Brown’s instincts made him start excavating the mound that he thought was untouched by grave robbers.

The real dig started in June 1938, and over the next two months Brown and his supporters, the gardener and the game keeper, supplied by landowner Edith explored three mounds and found some interesting bits and pieces; an axe, and what seemed to be iron rivets. In 1939, he unearthed what is now considered the richest archaeological find of England, a large ship burial.

According to the novel and many accounts Basil Brown had later recalled, “felt rather like digging into a small mountain” and with limited resources, using a coal shovel, pastry brushes and a penknife, his assistant John Jacobs had found a rivet, and eventually the men uncovered the ship’s outline. After the news of the discovery spread across the nation, the site was taken over by experienced archaeologists at the British Museum, led by a Cambridge academic called Charles Phillips,  and Basil Brown’s historic discovery the academic establishment instantly tried to appropriate, without credit.

Although he was recommended by the Ipswich museum, it was the landowner Edith’s personal belief in his abilities and instincts that had made him start this historic excavation. At many instances, the historical accounts states that the newly arrived State archaeologists tried to dismiss the man who made this discovery but it was the landowner and financier of the project, Edith Pretty who had made sure he was there till the end of the excavations later even to protect the site from being damaged during the World War. 

Against the protests of the authorities she had even allowed interested parties to come and see the site, before it was temporarily closed during the War. Edith Pretty, a remarkable woman with curiosity and dedication to her convictions who was determined to unearth the dead and show their magnificence to the world, later died of a stroke in 1942, at the age of 59, leaving her young son to be cared for by her sister. When the whole world became interested and many museums offered her handsome amounts of money to hand over the ancient artifacts, she had generously donated the entire treasure trove to the British Museum to be owned and viewed by the public.

It is also documented that it is the biggest treasure that anyone had ever donated to the nation, and in recognition of this then Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill later offered Pretty the honour of a CBE, but she had declined. 

The 27 metre long amazing ship burial contained no crown, but something more spectacular to hint who was buried there more than 1,000 years ago. The burial chamber had collapsed with time, and the seemingly large body has been claimed by the acidic soil. The regalia found around the decayed body was mostly of armour, fit for someone more than a king, a warrior king.

Instead of a crown, it contained a metal helmet which was decorated with intriguing details of battles, dragons and dances, as well as features of a man. Buried with him was gold jewellery, Byzantine silverware, a sword with a gold and garnet-inlaid hilt, coins, shield fittings, with 263 relics in the hoard, with some precious jewels from as far abroad as South Asia, possibly from his sea conquests. Some historians believe some of the garnets used in the eyebrows in the helmet may have come from as far as India or Sri Lanka.

By the time it was rediscovered the oak ship had decomposed and the outline of the ship was just compacted sand, the ghost of its frame having stained the soil. But, as gold doesn’t tarnish or corrode in the same way as the iron remains of the ship’s bolts and other features the gold artifacts had come out of the ground looking as it does in the film. Brown had written in his journal that “all the objects shone in the sunshine as on the day they were buried”.

According to academics, this very sophisticated burial belonged to the ‘Dark Ages’, the final resting place of someone who had died in the early seventh century, during the Anglo-Saxon period, a time before ‘England’ existed. Most historians believe it is the final resting place of King Raedwald, the seventh century Anglo-Saxon ruler of East Anglia. This amazing burial with memorabilia of such breathtaking artistry, beautifully crafted gold and metal armour, a strong built huge ship that was dragged by hundreds of men into the grounds, and a carefully planned underground grave forever echoes of the love and honour his people gave him as a send off to afterlife befitting his bravery and leadership.