1939 Sutton Hoo excavation photos available online for the first time

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29 September 2021
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A group of naval cadets visit the site and view the excavation Original photograph by Barbara Wagstaff ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum, digital image © National Trust.
The full personal collection of photographs taken by school mistresses Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff at the 1939 excavation at Sutton Hoo have been digitised and made available online for the first time.

Schoolmistresses and close friends, Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff, were serious amateur photographers with an interest in archaeology. In the summer of 1939, they visited Sutton Hoo in Suffolk and went on to create an extraordinary photographic record of one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time.

A total of eleven albums containing black and white images as well as one colour album, loose black and white prints and contact prints were gifted to the National Trust by Mercie Lack’s great-nephew, Andrew Lack. Also included were loose black & white prints and contact prints taken by Barbara Wagstaff of the excavation. Over the last three years, every image has been catalogued and digitised and remedial conservation work has been carried out to repair any damage.   

Every detail captured

As part of the conservation process, each page of the albums was photographed as well as pictures taken of the individual prints and the many annotations, resulting in over 4,000 images capturing every detail.

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Laura Howarth, Archaeology and Engagement Manager at Sutton Hoo, said: 'Present on site between the 8 and 25 August 1939, Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff took approximately 60% of the total number of recorded contemporary negatives from the excavation. Whilst the treasure had been removed from site by this point, their contribution to the archaeological record remains hugely significant, particularly recording details of the fossil of the ship. This ‘ghost ship’, as Mercie Lack referred to it, is something that no longer exists today but we can experience it through their photographs. 

'The collection is also a slice of social history in documenting an excavation taking place on the eve of the Second World War, and photographs capture notable visitors to the site such as the artist W.P. Robins, a group of naval cadets and Princess Marie Louise, granddaughter of Queen Victoria.'

For further information, opening times to Sutton Hoo and to view the photographs online visit the National Trust website.