Basil Brown: Beyond Sutton Hoo – An Archaeologist Emerges

In this first article in a series of four by guest writer, Sarah Doig, we learn about Basil Brown’s early life, his interests and motivations. We also look at Basil’s first major archaeological dig, in Calke Wood. In each blog, Sarah draws on Basil Brown’s notebooks and other papers, the majority of which are held by the Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service and Suffolk Archives.

Many people will be familiar with the story of the discovery of the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo on the eve of the Second World War. However, the life and achievements of Basil Brown, the man behind one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time, are less well known.

Basil Brown (1888-1977) was a farmer’s boy who lived almost his entire life in the north Suffolk village of Rickinghall. When not attending the local elementary school or helping his family on the farm, the young Basil spent every waking moment either digging or watching the stars. His desire to unearth treasures from the earth was ignited by his grandmother’s stories of discoveries of hoards of gold coins. He was also encouraged to pursue astronomy by one of his teachers.

black and white photo of basil brown outside holding his bike
Basil Brown as a young man

On leaving school at the age of twelve or thirteen to work on his father’s farm, Basil was determined to continue his education. He enrolled in evening classes at the school studying geography, geology and astronomy after which he was awarded a diploma.

Basil Brown had a thirst for knowledge. There is an interesting, surviving set of scrapbooks kept by him, two of which date from the first few decades of the twentieth century. Basil collected a range of newspaper and magazine cuttings in these scrapbooks, including countermarks on ancient coins, new astronomical discoveries, archaeological explorations (including the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun), postage stamps, flora and fauna, weather phenomena and rare books.

Basil Brown first found a degree of fame in the world of astronomy. His only published full-length work, printed in 1932 and reprinted in 1968, is entitled “Astronomical Atlases, Maps and Charts”. However, soon after the publication of his astronomy book, Basil started to spend more time on archaeology. One of his early interests was in medieval moated sites and one such site excavated by Basil was Stubbings Entry in Burgate, where his father grew up and his grandfather farmed. Basil Brown also gained a reputation, spending days field walking in Rickinghall and the surrounding area, often reacting to finds by local residents that piqued his interest.

page of a notebook with drawings of the moat earthworks at burgate
Basil Brown’s sketches of the Stubbings Entry site

Basil’s first major dig was in Calke Wood on the border of Rickinghall and Wattisfield. In 1934, the discovery of pottery fragments on fields in the vicinity led Basil Brown to begin a systematic investigation of the area. The first major find was a Romano-British urn dating from the 2nd century. This led to the discovery of several Roman-British kilns. He also found evidence of pottery-making in Beaker, Iron Age and Medieval times.

sepia photo of basil brown standing in an excavated pit holding a meter stick
Basil Brown at Calke Wood

In later life, Basil Brown recorded the first phase of the Calke Wood excavations in an unpublished (and incomplete) typescript account:

On Christmas Day 1934 our reward came. We had been doing some exploration in the wood for a likely spot for a kiln site without any success. Some nicely worked Neolithic flints turned up but no satisfactory signs that the scent was hot and as time was getting on, we left off digging and walked across the field opposite and then I noticed some small fragments of pottery close together in association with stones coloured red & blue. A trial hole revealed the characteristic sooty black earth and large pieces of Roman pottery.

Next day came the discovery of the first Wattisfield pot kiln. This was followed by a second and a third kiln about equidistant either side of the first. All three kilns had been smashed but it was possible to define both shapes and position of the furnaces from the brilliant red clay.  The field was then ploughed and in doing this, indications of a fourth kiln were found, this I examined and recorded. Subsequent explorations revealed sites five and six with similar evidence. Specimens were taken of pottery at each and sites covered down.

It was now evident from the relative positions of these six kiln sites that the kiln sites had been arranged to a definite plan, which appeared to be a large rectangular enclosure kilns forming the line of this enclosure, the interior being taken up with clay pits and probably some timber-built sheds. Through the centre ran a raised track, while the potters’ huts seem to have been outside the enclosure to the west.

Calke Wood was a site he returned to a number of times over the following couple of decades, uncovering further kilns and numerous finds.

black and white sketches of the plans of excavated kilns with notes
Basil Brown’s drawing of one of the Calke Wood kilns

It was also at this time that Basil Brown’s archaeological skills came to the attention of the Ipswich Museum who became his employer through until his retirement in 1961. Basil’s next major archaeological project was funded jointly by the Ipswich Museum and the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology. This was at Stanton Chare (or Chair) where Basil co-led a team to excavate and record the site of a Roman Villa, a project which ran from 1934 to 1939. It was during this dig in Stanton that Basil Brown was asked by Guy Maynard, curator of the Ipswich Museum, to report to Mrs Edith Pretty at the Sutton Hoo estate, with a view to excavating mounds on her land. The rest of that story, however, has been told many times over!

In Sarah’s next article, she will look at what Basil Brown did during the Second World War, after the Sutton Hoo treasures had been uncovered.

Sarah Doig is an independent historical researcher, author and speaker ( She is also Chair of Quatrefoil (, a small group of local historians who research, write and publish on all aspects of the history of the Suffolk villages of Botesdale, Redgrave and Rickinghall. Sarah Doig is currently writing a book for Quatrefoil on Basil Brown which will hopefully be published in late 2021.

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