The Strange Case of the Chianti Bottle

26 August 2014

SIG: Archaeology and Heritage


By Eric Houlder LRPS, MIfL, PGCE

Reproduced by kind permission of Nigel Maslin, Editor SAXON, journal of the Sutton Hoo Society.


One of the defining images of Sutton Hoo (fig.1) shows a scene with a group of archaeologists wearing jackets and ties busily concentrating upon something in front of them. Behind, up on the baulk sits Mrs Pretty between two of her friends. One cannot help wondering if the presence of the landowner and sponsor of the dig prompted the dressing up. However, conversations with friends who worked in archaeology before the war confirmed that quite often archaeologists wore more formal attire than those of the ‘60s and certainly those of today. In spite of this proviso, perhaps the workers in figure two are more typical of the everyday attire at Sutton Hoo then.

Another very similar image shows the same scene (fig.2) with a group of archaeologists crowded around one point in the burial chamber of the Number One Ship. Behind them is Mrs Pretty’s basket chair – probably Lloyd Loom - but unoccupied. The diggers are dressed quite informally.

But look again. Although taken from similar viewpoints, the two images are separated by time. The earliest is clearly the more formal one (fig.1), as the steps re-enforced with planks in front of the ladies have been mostly cut away in the second Image (fig.2), to reveal more of the burial chamber. In fact the figure two diggers are actually working in an area that was still covered with sand in the previous image. They have at least one metal bucket, and three enamel bowls, one of which has something – perhaps a small find - in it. To the right of the bowls is a very obvious Chianti bottle still in its straw basket.

The Chianti bottle raises questions; who brought it? was it there for refreshment, or did it contain simply water? Having dug several summer seasons at Sutton Hoo, I remember the importance of keeping the sand damp whilst excavating fragile artefacts and deep sections, but there are many more efficient ways of doing this than with a wine bottle. Therefore, it is more likely that its purpose was refreshment. Finally, what happened to it when it was empty? As it happens, the latter question was answered in August 1968.

During that season, I was in charge of the excavation of the north eastern quadrant of the ship mound, under the overall direction of Dr Rupert Bruce-Mitford and the site direction of Dr Paul Ashbee. Following the re-excavation and moulding of the actual ship-impression in 1967, one of the most important tasks was to create and record both longitudinal (fig.3) and cross sections. The grid of squares superimposed upon the site made this a fairly simple task, though the softness and friability of the sand was a constant impediment.

After much frustration, it was found that the south-facing sections (which were in sunlight for most of the day) were best achieved by cutting the edges roughly as the square was trowelled down, and then cutting them accurately under a thin spray of water when the square reached the Anglian Ground Surface, as we termed it.

It was noticed, both by the ‘60s archaeologists and by those of the ‘30s, (as related to me by Charles Phillips himself) that as the sand dried out its colours disappeared. As colour differences are the raison d’être of sections, the spraying continued (fig.4) until just before each section was photographed, and often during the drawing too.

It was during the process of preparing a high section (figs.4 & 5) to the right of and just behind where Mrs Pretty and her friends are sitting, that I had a sudden urge to put my arm into one of the rabbit holes that disfigured the section. Considering that live mortar bombs and decaying ammunition were frequently found, it was a spontaneous and foolhardy act. At arm’s length something smooth and cold caused a sudden withdrawal, but as no explosion resulted, courage was plucked up and an unbroken Chianti bottle complete with the decomposing remnants of its straw basket was brought into view.

It would be pleasant to record that the bottle was treated as a small find and duly recorded, but sadly no. As primarily a site photographer (though working as a site supervisor then), I am ashamed to state that not even a quick snapshot recorded the discovery. After being viewed by those in the vicinity, it was deposited upon the spoil heap, where in due course it became once again part of the composition of the reconstructed Mound One.

Why was this unique reminder of the (clearly top-drawer) 1939 excavation team treated in such a cavalier fashion? Quite simply, though everyone involved in 1968 had seen excavation reports, academic papers and magazine articles about the site, there was not the sophisticated picture awareness that is common today, and if anyone recognised the bottle, they did not say so.

In mitigation, the 1939 dig was not such a long time before; several diggers could remember the original discovery, and the Copinger Hill twins (fig.6) had actually participated in it). Then again the concept of Historiography was still unknown to most historians and archaeologists. Indeed, I first came across it during my PGCE  in the academic year 1968-9. Even then the importance of the bottle as part of the historiography of Sutton Hoo only slowly dawned upon me in the following decades; hence this confession.

It is hoped that this short article alerts present day archaeologists to the ever-present possibility of unearthing reminders of previous archaeologists, and of recording them with the same rigour as the ancient traces. The discipline is now old enough to have a historiography of its own, and Sutton Hoo with its many ‘interventions’ is an ideal site to document previous work.