[BITList] The man Hoo

John Feltham wantok at me.com
Tue Jun 1 13:07:19 BST 2010

To read this Life of the Day complete with a picture of the subject,
visit http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/lotw/2010-06-01

Brown,  Basil John Wait  (1888-1977), archaeologist and astronomer, was born at Bucklesham, Suffolk, on 22 January 1888, the only child of George Brown (b. 1863), journeyman wheelwright and farmer, and his wife, Charlotte, daughter of John Wait of Great Barrington, Gloucestershire. The Brown family was settled in Suffolk as husbandmen or farmers for several generations. Basil's parents moved to a small farming tenancy, Church Farm, Rickinghall Superior, Suffolk, when he was a few months old, and Superior remained his home throughout his life. As a boy he followed the plough, but from the age of five he began to spend hours studying astronomical books and charts which had belonged to his grandfather. After attending the village school until the age of twelve, he gained a certificate in drawing in 1902 through evening classes, and was awarded the Harmsworth self-educator diploma by examination in geography, geology, and astronomy in 1907. He subsequently acquired knowledge of Latin, Greek, French, German, and Spanish from textbooks and radio broadcasts. Rejected in November 1915 as medically unfit for military service, he instead volunteered for the Royal Army Medical Corps. On 27 June 1923 Brown married (Dorothy) May Oldfield (1897-1983), a domestic servant; she was the daughter of Robert John Oldfield, head carpenter on the Wramplingham estate. They settled at Church Farm, where they worked together, May running the dairy. When George Brown died Basil and May Brown kept the farm going until Basil's mother died a year or two later. Unable to make the farm pay, Basil undertook odd jobs, and in August 1935, after a brief stay at the School House, he and May moved into a rented cottage named Cambria in Rickinghall, their home for the rest of their lives.

Brown had joined the British Astronomical Association in July 1918, and later assisted in the zodiacal light and aurorae, meteor, and history sections. He wrote articles on astronomy for English Mechanics magazine, and corresponded with numerous continental astronomers  ('Village handyman wins world fame', Daily Express, 15 Jan 1935). In 1928 he began writing his History of Astronomical Atlases, Maps and Charts, published in 1932 and reprinted in 1968. Brown studied borderline astro-archaeological works, and became interested in ancient alignments. Using these techniques, by compass and measurement, he located lost buildings at eight medieval moated sites, including one at Burgate, his father's birthplace. He identified Roman permanent settlements in north Suffolk, where they were not previously suspected, and traced ancient roads. Investigations of Roman industrial potteries led to the find of a kiln at Wattisfield in 1934. Its removal to Ipswich Corporation Museum in 1935 opened his formal contacts with Guy Maynard, its curator from 1920 to 1952, H. A. Harris, secretary of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, Ivan Moore, the Roman pottery specialist, and Rainbird Clarke.

In 1932 Maynard and Reid Moir, president of the Ipswich Museum, completed several years' work on the Ipswich Castle Hill villa. Moir was an early luminary of the Prehistoric Society of East Anglia, and Maynard its secretary and editor from 1921. Together they assembled important lithic collections at Ipswich and developed international contacts. In 1935 Grahame Clark and Charles Phillips gained control of the society and effectively re-formed it as the (national) Prehistoric Society, operating from Cambridge. Refocusing the museum's archaeological efforts, Maynard supported a formal application from Brown to work for it on a contractual basis. Late in 1935 the Ipswich Museum and the Suffolk Institute jointly employed him at £2 per week for thirteen weeks at Stuston and at Stanton Chair, where he located a villa (one of the largest in the county). He excavated at Stuston, and at Scole with C. H. Gale in the spring of 1936. The Stanton project conducted for Maynard occupied three seasons each of about thirty weeks in 1936-8, attracting many visitors, with young people and students assisting. At Scole and Stanton the flying ace Wing Commander G. E. Livock, Major Gilbert Kilner of the Ixworth Cyder Factory, and J. B. Watson of the Wattisfield potteries became Brown's independent friends, supporters, and correspondents. His wages settled to £1 10s. per week, as archaeological excavation became a source of livelihood for him, supplemented by insurance agency work. He also became a special constable (Eye division).

Brown is famous as the original finder and excavator of the Anglo-Saxon ship-burial at Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge in south-east Suffolk [see Sutton Hoo burial], which contained the spectacular regalia and other artefacts, symbolically placed, of an early seventh-century potentate. Its excavation ranks as one of the most significant archaeological discoveries made in the British Isles. Brown was appointed to excavate the site at the suggestion of Maynard when, in 1937, Mrs Edith May Pretty JP (d. 1942) of Sutton Hoo House wished to investigate some mounds on her estate. Brown agreed to take on the task, and Maynard persuaded the Ipswich Museum committee to release him into Mrs Pretty's employ for June-August 1938, interrupting the Stanton season. Lodging with her chauffeur, and assisted by two estate labourers, Brown trenched across the centre of three mounds. All had contained important burials but were disturbed or plundered. Brown recognized sand stains as organic traces and identified complex ritual deposits. The first contained a cremation laid on a rectangular wooden tray, with goods including an iron battle-axe. In the second (the largest in circumference) many scattered iron rivets suggested the former presence of a ship. By analogy with the ship-burial uncovered at Snape in 1861 he interpreted a deep central feature as a buried boat of moderate size, with fragments of high-quality metalwork, glass, and weaponry on its floor (derived from a plundered burial deposit). Modern re-excavation suggests that a large ship had actually been placed over a sunken rectangular burial chamber. In August Brown resumed his Stanton work. Brown and Maynard formed the opinion that the burials at Sutton Hoo were Anglo-Saxon, though the axe was pronounced viking by two experts. Maynard wrote to the Manx Museum concerning ship-burial before the parties reconvened at Sutton Hoo in May 1939 to investigate the highest mound. Brown's assistants were William Spooner (gamekeeper) and John Jacobs (gardener), and within three days of trenching from the east they found ship-rivets. Instantly aware of their significance, Brown left them in position and began to expose sand stains representing the rising stem of an enormous buried ship. It was soon necessary to widen the trench as the great hull, an unprecedented archaeological challenge, started to emerge. Over the first month Brown began to define and hollow the near 90 foot extent of the ship, leaving a protective layer and packed bracken over exposed surfaces. Hearing of the Manx inquiry, Charles Phillips visited Maynard and the site on 6 June 1939; after immediate notification, representatives of the British Museum, the Office of Works, Cambridge University, Ipswich Museum, and the Suffolk Institute convened there three days later. Phillips was to take control in July, informally uniting the interests of the landowner and other authorities. Deferring to Mrs Pretty's rights, they also approved Brown's continuing work on the ship. Iron remains announced his arrival at the burial chamber (June 14) and by late June he had located the stern. Phillips took charge on 10 July and relations with Maynard rapidly became strained. As his team of Stuart and Peggy Piggott, and soon O. G. S. Crawford and W. F. Grimes, began discovering the famous treasures (21 July), Phillips effectively excluded the Ipswich interest.

Brown as Mrs Pretty's employee continued to work on the ship, and stood independently from the conflicts which soon surrounded him. She recognized and admired Brown's personal sagacity, loyalty, perseverance, and discretion. He maintained steady correspondence with his wife. As the story reached the press (28-9 July), as the finds were packed and sent to London, as the ship's form was elucidated in all its details, and as the Sutton treasure trove inquest (14 August) received his expert witness, Brown was fully present throughout the excavation, though he did not work in the burial chamber. 'He was here at the beginning and he was here at the end', Mrs Pretty observed  (private information). After Phillips left (25 August) and through the declaration of war (3 September 1939) Brown and Spooner covered the ship-form with hessian and infilled with cut bracken. A week later Brown returned to Rickinghall and to work at Stanton Chair.

Briefly a NAAFI assistant in Bury St Edmunds, Brown then worked from 1940 to 1942 as a stoker at Culford School, making fortnightly visits home. From September 1942 he served with the Royal Observer Corps at Bury. Throughout the Second World War he found opportunities to excavate, often with children assisting. With Maynard's support, in 1947 he became regularly employed by Ipswich Museum, nominally as attendant, until his formal retirement in 1961. During those years he conducted many excavations and field-walked in various parts of Suffolk. They include notably the Roman pottery industries at Pakenham, West Stow, Wattisfield, and Calke Wood and their prehistoric environs, an Anglo-Saxon settlement at Grimstone End, a neolithic occupation with sherds and querns in Ipswich, and the last investigation of the Ipswich villa before a housing estate covered it. If the Sutton ship had demanded resourcefulness and delicacy, Brown could also apply the trowel vigorously when needed. While his techniques fell short of (best) modern standards they were none the less effective. He transferred his copious listings of Suffolk archaeological sites onto 6 inch maps, records which became the core of the county's sites and monuments record. His notebooks (with photographs and inscrutable crayon plans and drawings) and typed reports to the museum chronicle his many projects and investigations. These and his responses to all inquiries, often on his own account, led him far and wide, always by bicycle, so that his work set a pattern for a county archaeological field officer of later years. During the 1950s Basil and May were able to buy their house at Rickinghall. They had no children, but Brown liked to enthuse and instruct his teams of young helpers. He supported the unsuccessful British Schools Archaeological Guild in 1952-3. After his retirement members of the Suffolk Institute subscribed to a pension fund. He was still excavating at Rickinghall and Botesdale when in 1965 a heart attack or stroke ended his regular work. In 1966 and 1968 he took part in BBC programmes about Sutton Hoo. On the recommendation of the Sutton Hoo scholar Rupert Bruce-Mitford (who told Brown he would achieve immortality) he was awarded a civil-list pension in 1966.

Brown was a true countryman, shaped in the living bond between himself and the shire lands under the starry heavens which formed his first study. From those remote depths to the remote lives preserved in archaeology at his feet, historical astronomy became a bridge between ancient experience and his own identity. In worsted working-suit, tie and cap, smoking a pipe, and with a strong Suffolk accent and intonation, he arose from an old rural order of life. He also created large stamp collections and was adept at chess. He felt honoured by fortune (if at times neglected by science) to have been the finder of Sutton Hoo, and sometimes visited the British Museum, finally in a wheelchair, to see the treasure. His garden shed at Rickinghall was a glory-hole of horseshoes, bottles, sundry finds, and memorabilia. He and May maintained lively conversation with their visitors, occasions coloured by Basil's whistling hearing-aid and chattering false teeth. He died at home on 12 March 1977, and was cremated at Ipswich crematorium on 17 March.

Steven J. Plunkett 

Sources  R. L. S. Bruce-Mitford, 'Basil Brown', Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 34 (1977-80), 71 + The Times (23 March 1977), 18 + C. Durrant, Basil Brown: astronomer, archaeologist, enigma (2004) + b. cert. + d. cert. + R. Bruce-Mitford and others, The Sutton Hoo ship burial, 3 vols. in 4 (1975-83), vol. 1 + A. C. Evans, The Sutton Hoo ship burial, rev edn (1994) + M. Carver, Sutton Hoo: burial ground of kings? (1998) + R. Markham, Sutton Hoo: through the rear view mirror, 1937-1942 (2002) + Sutton Hoo ship burial specimens and archives, BM + Maynard correspondence, Ipswich Museum + excavated specimens, ledgers, notebooks, photographs, plans, typed reports, and maps, Ipswich Museum [incl. loan deposits at Suffolk RO] + records, specimens, notebooks, photographs, letters, early personalia, and typed transcripts, Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service, Bury St Edmunds + correspondence, records, and photographs, National Trust, Sutton Hoo + private information (2005)
Archives English Heritage, Swindon, National Monuments Record, field notebooks, diaries, maps, and photographs + Ipswich Museum, corresp. and archaeological notebooks FILM BFI NFTVA, documentary footage
Likenesses  group portrait, photograph, 1939, BM; repro. in D. M. Wilson, The British Museum: a history (2003), pl. 17 · photographs, Ipswich Museum · photographs, Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service, Bury St Edmunds · photographs, Sutton Hoo [NT] · photographs, repro. in Bruce-Mitford, Sutton Hoo ship burial
Wealth at death  £3915: probate, 14 April 1977, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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