Derbyshire Museums Manager Ros Westwood reveals the connections between Buxton and Sutton Hoo:
Have you had a chance to catch the recent film The Dig, which tells the story of the discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasure? Catch the film on Netflix https://www.netflix.com/title/81167887 – you’ll enjoy it, I am sure, and learn more at the British Museum www.britishmuseum.org/collection/galleries/sutton-hoo-and-europe – unless you actually go to see the material the museum. You could also plan to visit to site which is managed by the National Trust www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo.
What I love about films like this is how you make connections between the characters and things in your own life. Catching up with the museum’s volunteers, Brian suggested that I look in the Jackson archive. He was sure there was correspondence from C.W. Phillips, in charge of the excavations at Sutton Hoo, and Stuart Piggott, amongst all the letters that Jackson carefully filed.
Dr J. Wilfrid Jackson (1880 – 1978) was a curator at Manchester Museum and honorary curator at Buxton until his death at the age of 98. By the 1930s he was one of the leading archaeo-zoo-osteologists (in other words, a specialist in identifying bones of animals from long ago), and the letters I found in the archive both contain reference to his reputation in this area.
Let’s start with Charles Phillips (1901 – 1985), writing from Bristol in 1930. The two men had attended a meeting of the University of Bristol Speleological Society. Phillips writes to ask if Jackson can identify the bones from Merlin’s Cave at Symonds Yat in Gloucestershire as he had offered to do at the meeting, and that Phillips needed for the publication of his excavations.
This first letter is handwritten in fountain pen in an upright, compact style and not very easy to read. He describes the excavation in Merlin’s Cave where there was so much disturbance of the evidence and lack of it, that the stratigraphy was negligible. The next letter, typewritten (one slight error corrected) is a reminder for the report, which Jackson annotates as urgent and notes the date of his reply. Phillips writes in some detail of the death of their mutual acquaintance, John Davies, a stalwart of the Speleological Society. The final letter in the sequence acknowledges receipt of the report. Phillips is relieved that the work was not all a waste of everyone’s effort, as he initially feared. He was disappointed that the cave had little evidence remaining in it but he is interested by two large tools made from ox bones similar to tools found at Skara Brae. Phillips had recently discovered that there had been an excavation at Merlin’s Cave in the previous century which had fairly cleared the site. His report published by the Bristol Caving Society, does not merit even a footnote in his Wikipedia page.
Phillips writes again from Cambridge in 1932, a chatty catch-up about excavations he is involved in in Wales (would Jackson looks at the bones, please), and announcing that he and his cronies at Cambridge were setting up an informal Fenland Exploration Committee (would it be too much trouble for Jackson to look over the bones?). His colleague the botanist Harry Godwin (who grew up in Long Eaton) was doing pollen analysis on the finds; Godwin would go on to lead scientific developments of radiocarbon dating.
Piggott’s handwritten letters on the headed paper of his employer, are about some potsherds of Peterborough ware that Jackson had found near Settle and had sent to Piggott. Piggott agreed they were similar to material found at High Wheeldon in Derbyshire, now on display at Buxton Museum. This coarse pottery which looks like burnt flapjack, dates from about 4,500 years ago. Piggott’s writing is stylish with additional flourishes and something of his character may be discerned in it? I do like his post script question about the size of bos primogenius – this should be spelled primogenus, but even Google questions your spelling here!
The excavations at Sutton Hoo took place more than 10 years after these letters were written. With Jackson’s expertise for identifying much earlier material, Sutton Hoo does not appear in his archive. That’s fine. What it interesting is how Jackson links this network of colleagues ever so lightly, and that through his retention of any correspondence, even the envelopes, their thoughts and elements of their characters, even perhaps their DNA from licking the stamps, are here 90 years on.