Conservation in Action at Sutton Hoo

Photo Albums from the Lack and Wagstaff Collection

As part of our conservation work, we have taken steps to help conserve the Lack and Wagstaff photographic archive for the future, bringing in specialist photographic material conservators and developing a dedicated volunteer support team.

Who were the photographers?

Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff, two amateur but very keen photographers, were on holiday to Suffolk in 1939 when, tipped off about the discovery, they visited Sutton Hoo as the excavations were taking place.

Although the helmet, gold treasures and other now famous burial items had already been removed and transported down to the British Musuem, work was still taking place and Mound One was still uncovered. Mercie and Barbara were able to capture images of the imprint of the ship that had been left in the acidic soil – an area of history that may have otherwise been missed.

The photographs document the excavation as it happened, from the people involved such as Basil Brown, the methods used and the now covered Anglo-Saxon ship. The collection also includes colour photography, becoming some of the earliest colour images of an archaeological site available.

The collection is shared between Sutton Hoo and the British Museum for storage and conservation. Sutton Hoo’s collection includes ten photograph albums meticulously annotated by Mercie Lack, and around 330 loose prints taken by Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff.

Volunteers being trained in image conservation
Volunteers being trained in image conservation
Volunteers being trained in image conservation

Conservation in Action

In September 2018, conservation work began on the collection stored at Sutton Hoo.

Our volunteers attended a training session with photographic materials conservator, Sarah Allen, learning how to care for this special collection. Sarah also joined us in Tranmer House for a Conservation in Action session where the group of volunteers worked on the loose images in front of visitors, answering questions about the collection and what they were doing.

Before the images can be rehoused in their bespoke new boxes, all of the images also have to be surface cleaned to remove all dust and dirt which could damage them over time. Soft bristled brushes were used to clean off the dust so not to scratch them as the images have a very fragile surface.

Care is also taken in the handling the photographs, with gloves always used to prevent the natural oils from your fingers transferring over. The oils can react with photos and damage them.

Sutton Hoo conservation volunteers help with the Lack and Wagstaff collection
Sutton Hoo conservation volunteers help with the Lack and Wagstaff collection
Sutton Hoo conservation volunteers help with the Lack and Wagstaff collection

Our volunteers also cut supports out for the photos using acid-free conservation grade card. These go in the polyester sleeves around the images to ensure they aren’t bent or creased.

The priority over the weekend for the conservators, Sarah Allen and Emma Bonson, was the full remedial work, repairing small tears to the edges of albums and creating bespoke boxes to store them in.

Using Japanese paper, which is incredibly thin so it doesn’t create raised areas on the surface, small tears on album covers were fixed. Every detail is important, so even conservation-grade adhesive had to be used to apply the fixes before weights were added to keep everything flat whilst it sticks.

With a mind to the future, all of these repairs are reversible. This process is currently the best way to ensure the albums’ stability and longevity, however, conservation scientists may discover new and better ways of conservation methods which would be better suited, or future generations may wish to reverse these repairs.

Photo Albums from the Lack and Wagstaff Collection under conservation
Photo Albums from the Lack and Wagstaff Collection under conservation
Photo Albums from the Lack and Wagstaff Collection under conservation

Moving forward, there is still lots of work to be done, which our volunteers will continue with over the coming months. The rest of the 330 loose prints all still need to be surface cleaned and rehoused, keeping them safe in these greatly improved conservation conditions.

Without these images from Lack and Wagstaff, our knowledge and understanding of the excavations would be highly diminished and this work is vital in ensuring they remain in good condition and accessible for the future.