Basil Brown: Beyond Sutton Hoo – “The Brown School of Archaeology”

close up black and white photo of basil excavating

In this fourth and final article in a series by guest writer, Sarah Doig, we learn about Basil’s passion for enthusing others, especially the younger generation, who wanted to help with the excavations and learn about archaeology. 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.

Basil Brown is remembered fondly by all who knew him, above all for his constant willingness to make time for children and to enthuse these youngsters about history and archaeology. Indeed, one of Basil’s many correspondents noted in a letter in 1964 after a visit to see Basil Brown’s last dig: “I was glad to note that you had a good complement of young helpers to assist you. The Brown School of Archaeology is already in being”.

black and white photo of two children excavating
Two of Basil Brown’s many young helpers on his last dig at Broom Hills (reproduced by kind permission of Peter Christie)

In fact, Basil had offered local schoolchildren the opportunity to dig alongside him throughout his archaeological career. He was also ready to help them with school projects. One lady who lived in Rickinghall as a girl asked Basil Brown for help. He obliged by putting a collection of archaeological finds together for her. This is what she remembers of the occasion:

I was thrilled to bits but also a little apprehensive to fetch the collection by myself. I need not have worried, Mrs Brown said hello and showed me into the room on the right of the front door. It was stuffed with papers and boxes and tins, and it smelt of sweet tobacco. Basil Brown sat in a chair to the right of the fireplace and carefully took the lid off the biscuit tin. The tin was full of pieces of pot and bone and metal. Basil Brown told me about each item. I have no idea how long I was there that evening, but the memory is pleasant and unhurried. The next day my classmates at school had the whole collection out during the history lesson. I just remember being very proud of this loaned collection and took it back to Basil Brown with a big ‘thank you’.

After nearly thirty years of employment with the Ipswich Museum, Basil Brown retired in 1961 at the age of seventy-three. But his retirement did not mean that Basil stopped digging. He first turned his attention to a site of the medieval manor house at Falcon’s (formerly Facon’s) Hall. Then, in the spring of 1964, Basil started excavating at Broom Hills in Rickinghall.

black and white photo of Basil kneeling next to a trench.
Basil excavating at Falcon’s Hall, Rickinghall (reproduced by kind permission of Peter Christie)

The Broom Hills dig was prompted by a report from the farmer of the land whose ploughman had found a large, dark patch in the corner of one of his fields in 1960. Some Iron Age terrets (rings from a horse harness) had been found on the site some thirty years earlier. Brown oversaw excavations at Broom Hills between 1964 and 1968, aided by an army of volunteer schoolchildren. He found evidence there of Neolithic, Roman and Saxon occupation. Soil samples revealed evidence of a cremation cemetery. When Basil started out, he had been expecting to reveal an Anglo-Saxon village, but it soon became evident that he had discovered an Anglo-Saxon manor house.

notes and illustrations of a pot, knife and box
A page from Basil Brown’s notebook recording some of the Broom Hills finds

Although a suspected heart attack or stroke in 1965 meant that Basil Brown was no longer able to take an active part in the digging, he continued to direct operations at Broom Hills. He visited regularly to supervise his helpers, many of whom were schoolchildren. Among the many collected memories from those young assistants is this one from a boy who assisted Basil at Broom Hills:

“We were thrilled to be allowed to ‘lend a hand’. As young boys, we found the initial stage hard work, for this required the removal of the top layer of soil with heavy spades. Once this had been done, the work became more interesting because we were given small trowels and brushes to scrape and brush away the earth. If we found anything, we would take it to Mr Brown and he would say whether it should be kept or discarded. As we worked, Basil would explain the significance of the different coloured earth and the fragments of pot. We could see how heat had changed the colour of the pots used for cooking and the earth too, where there had been a fire. Mr Brown knew where the walls had been from the earth’s colour; we were able to see it too when he pointed it out.”

notebook with hand written names
Other pages of Basil’s Broom Hills notebook showing the names and signatures of some of his school-age helpers

Sarah Doig is an independent historical researcher, author and speaker (www.ancestral-heritage.co.uk). She is also Chair of Quatrefoil (www.quatrefoil.org.uk), 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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