Historic image digitisation at Sutton Hoo

Photo Albums from the Lack and Wagstaff Collection

Over the winter of 2019/2020 images from the archive at Sutton Hoo were digitised in their entirety for the first time. The images, captured by Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff, were taken during the summer of 1939 and provide a remarkable insight into the people and processes behind the excavation of the Great Ship Burial.

The collection includes original colour prints, an incredible survival from the very earliest days of the use of colour reversal film, and original 35mm Agfa Isopan F negative film. The colour prints, as far as research has shown so far, appear to be the earliest surviving original colour photographs of a major archaeological excavation. The image collection consists of photograph albums, loose black and white images and negatives. The significance of this collection has been reflected in a successful bid for internal funding as part of the National Trust’s Collections Conservation Prioritisation (CCP) programme to both conserve and digitise the images to ensure they survive for future generations.

Mercie Lack at Sutton Hoo
Mercie Lack at Sutton Hoo
Mercie Lack at Sutton Hoo

The digitisation process is just the latest part of the process in caring for our image archive. The Lack and Wagstaff photographs have been carefully catalogued over the past two years by volunteers and staff under expert guidance as part of this CCP project. Any remedial conservation work required, such as repairing small tears, was also undertaken at the time and each album was housed in a bespoke portfolio folder.

Volunteers being trained in image conservation
Volunteers being trained in image conservation
Volunteers being trained in image conservation
Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff either side of the Great Ship Burial

Who were Lack and Wagstaff?

Friends and teachers Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff were serious amateur photographers with an interest in Anglo-Saxon archaeology. Present on site between the 8 and 25 August 1939 and armed with their Leica cameras, between them they captured over 400 images (and an 8mm cine film) of the excavation. A set of their photographs was generously given to the National Trust by Mercie Lack’s great nephew Andrew Lack.

" Each photograph seems to me like a great treasure"
- Mercie Lack

Why digitise?

The original photographs are in a very delicate state and we must be very careful to ensure their preservation long in to the future. Colour photographs from this period should be kept in a closely controlled environment to prevent them from deteriorating. A cool stable temperature and a low stable humidity are required to keep them in the best possible condition. 

The albums consist of very fragile thin paper and each time they are handled there is the risk of irreparable damage. By digitising the collection the images can be much more easily accessed without fear of damaging the originals. Ultimately this means the images can then be shared more easily and seen by more people whether that is through displays and exhibitions or publication.

" Thus it is hoped, that, by means of the photographic records taken on the site at the time, some idea of the process of uncovering the boat may be conveyed to later generations who cannot have the chance of seeing it emerge from its sandy grave"
- Mercie Lack

How has it been done?

The design of the original album bindings meant that the album pages could not be fully opened without causing further damage. To resolve this the albums have been unclipped meaning each page can be individually photographed without damaging the original pages or albums.

Images being captured of the Lack and Wagstaff albums
Historic image digitisation at Sutton Hoo
Images being captured of the Lack and Wagstaff albums

Each album page has undergone a thorough process of having several high-resolution digital photographs taken using an overhead camera, under studio lighting. Firstly an image was taken of the whole album page including the many detailed annotations of the images made by Lack and Wagstaff. This was then followed by individual high-resolution photographs of the original images. In total over 4000 images were taken during the digitisation process. Documentation recorded alongside this process has ensured that the original order and context of the images in the albums has been retained. Each image captured was then inspected to ensure it is up to the required standard.

Each image was carefully cleaned to ensure a perfect shot
Cleaning one of the images before photographing
Each image was carefully cleaned to ensure a perfect shot