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Historic image collection at Sutton Hoo

Mercie Lack at Sutton Hoo showing the excavation team at Sutton Hoo some early prints
Mercie Lack at Sutton Hoo showing the excavation team some early prints | © Original photograph by Barbara Wagstaff ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum; digital image © National Trust

Over the winter of 2019/2020, photographs from the archive at Sutton Hoo were digitised 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.

A collection of significance

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 prints, as far as research has shown, appear to be the earliest surviving original colour photographs of a major archaeological excavation. The collection consists of photograph albums, loose black and white images and negatives.

View of the prow of the ship and part of the burial chamber featuring Basil Brown and Charles Phillips.
Excavating the ship. Basil Brown is pictured standing. Charles Phillips is seated on the right. | © Original photograph by Mercie Lack ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum; digital image © National Trust

A labour of love

The digitisation process is just the latest part of the process in caring for the image archive. The Lack and Wagstaff photographs have been carefully catalogued over a two year period by volunteers and staff under expert guidance.

Any remedial conservation work required, such as repairing small tears, was also undertaken at the same time and each album was housed in a bespoke portfolio folder.

Photo albums from the Lack and Wagstaff collection
Photo albums from the Lack and Wagstaff collection | © Rosie Leithall

Who were Lack and Wagstaff?

The photographers of the excavation were Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff. Lack and Wagstaff, both teachers, were close friends and amateur photographers. They had a keen interest in archaeology and were on holiday in the area at the time.

Between 8 and 25 August 1939, they captured 400 images (including some very early colour images) and an 8mm cine film. Their original images were generously given to the National Trust by Mercie Lack’s great nephew, Andrew Lack.

Why digitise?

The original photographs were in a very delicate state and they needed careful preservation to ensure their future. Colour photographs from this period need to 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 and thin paper and each time they are handled there is the risk of irreparable damage. By digitising the collection, the images can be easily accessed and shared without fear of damaging the originals.

'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, photographer

How were the images digitised?

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

Each album page had 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 made by Lack and Wagstaff. This was followed by individual high-resolution photographs of the original images. In total over 4,000 images were taken during the digitisation process.

Documentation recorded alongside this process ensured that the original order and context of the images in the albums was retained. Each image captured was then inspected to make sure it is up to the required standard.

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