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 entire collection is now available to view online and at Sutton Hoo.

About the collection

The image collection consists of 11 photograph albums, loose black and white images, contact prints and negatives. The collection includes one album of 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 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.

The official photographs of the excavation were given to the British Museum, but the Sutton Hoo collection seems to be the personal set which these two photographers kept as their individual mementoes. Mercie Lack’s photographic albums are meticulously annotated with not only who and what is visible in the photographs, but often the technical details of how the photographs were taken, such as the type of film and aperture providing an invaluable additional layer of detail to each photograph.

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

Whilst the treasure had been removed from site by this point, their contribution to the archaeological record remains hugely significant, particularly recording details of the fossil of the ship. This ‘ghost ship’, as Mercie Lack referred to it, is something that no longer exists today but it can experienced through their photographs. The collection is also a slice of social history in documenting an excavation taking place on the eve of the Second World War, and photographs capture notable visitors to the site such as the artist W.P. Robins, a group of naval cadets and Princess Marie Louise, granddaughter of Queen Victoria.

Charles Phillips excavating the Sutton Hoo ship
Charles Phillips excavating the Sutton Hoo ship
Charles Phillips excavating the Sutton Hoo ship
Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff either side of the Great Ship Burial

Who were Lack and Wagstaff?

Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff, both teachers, were close friends and serious amateur photographers. They had a keen interest in archaeology and were on holiday in the area at the time of the excavation. Between the 8 and 25 August they captured 400 images (including some very early colour images) and an 8mm cine film. Both went on to become Associates of the Royal Photographic Society. Their original images were generously given to the National Trust by Mercie Lack’s great nephew, Andrew Lack.

Digitising the collection

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

Why digitise?

The original photographs are in a very delicate state and great care must be taken 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.

" 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.

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

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.

Exploring the collection today

The collection is now available to view at Sutton Hoo for the first time since the images were captured over 80 years ago. Two tablet computers in Tranmer House feature digital 'flickable' versions of the photographic albums and prints, giving the chance to explore this fascinating collection.