The Road to Sutton Hoo

06 March 2017

SIG: Archaeology and Heritage


By Eric Houlder LRPS

July 2017 will mark fifty years since I began my ongoing involvement with the Saxon royal burial ground of Sutton Hoo. For the past fifty years or so, I have given illustrated talks about it, and the question, ‘How did you become involved at Sutton Hoo?’ often crops up. This has caused a great deal of introspection, so I determined to put it all down on paper, as much for the benefit of my grandchildren as for posterity.

I suppose it all began when my father came home from the war, with a thin paperback entitled Digging up the Past, by Leonard Woolley. He had acquired this on the troopship, and of course I did not dip into it until the early ‘50s, but it aroused a great deal of excitement in a callow youth, and pointed to a world far removed from the mundane West Riding town in which I lived.

Other books were gradually acquired, and I still remember Margaret Wheeler’s Walls of Jericho. Around this time I became a founder member of PontArc, and joined the excavation of a medieval priory near my home. The desire to record my adventures there led to photography, firstly with my father’s Vest Pocket Kodak, also acquired during the war, but this time in an Egyptian bazaar. The realisation that the excitement of archaeology was available in Britain aroused a feeling to become more deeply involved, particularly in site photography. This led to the writings of Maurice Cookson, whom I uncritically accepted, initially.  Gradually, it dawned upon me that Cookson had been a bit of a dinosaur, though his preparation was outstandingly good, and still relevant to modern archaeology. Sadly, Cookson died whilst I was still learning his craft.

Peggy Wilson, pictured on a medieval priory dig in 1960. Original on E2 Ektachrome. has more details of Peggy, and other important women archaeologists.


Another major influence was friendship with Ken and Peggy Wilson. Peggy had been an actress before the war and later a supervisor with Rik Wheeler. She, above all, taught a small group of receptive people, me included, precision trowelling and proper preparation for photography. It is still my belief that archaeological photography is almost impossible without a background – nay, a high level of skill – in the actual mechanics of excavation. Secondly come camera skills and a mastery of lighting.

Roman road dig at Ilkley, 1966. It was whilst we were digging here that we learned about the forthcoming work at Sutton Hoo.


To begin with, I photographed everything except people, the latter omission a big mistake as it turned out. As well as archaeology, I loved picturing ruins, and landscapes. By the mid 1960s, now married to Joan, I had a Saturday job photographing weddings for a local professional, who taught me much about electronic flash, exposure, people management, and how to rescue a jammed Rolleiflex using a jacket as a changing bag. I gradually acquired a proper flash - a Sunpak 7S -  to replace my home-made instrument, and a Weston Master V, the best exposure meter then available. I dropped the latter on my concrete drive on the way to a Lake District walk during which we met Walter Poucher FRPS, though had the meter been working, I doubt whether I would have had the courage to point a camera at so august and eccentric –he wore full make-up – a figure. Wearing my wedding photography hat, Weston instruments’ depot in Leeds exchanged the meter for a fully reconditioned one for a token ten shillings, a service for professionals only.

The writer and Joan at the Wood Hall campsite.


I took full advantage of my CBA and PontArc membership to attend conferences and lectures, particularly our monthly Saturday evening lectures by various experts, and the follow-up sessions in the New Inn. It was during one of the latter that a small group of we younger, more progressive members were sworn to secrecy! Apparently the dig at Sutton Hoo was being re-started, and experienced diggers were required. Shortly afterwards, a letter on British Museum notepaper arrived, requesting our participation. It gave details of the campsite behind the Wood Hall Hotel and Country Club in Shottisham, as well as of a local primary school where diggers could ‘camp.’ Much excitement followed, rather spoiled by the fact that we chosen ones could not boast about the invitation.

July soon arrived, and we piled everything into our Morris Oxford Estate and drove down to Suffolk. It was a five hour journey in 1967, broken by a halt for food at Norman Cross on the A1. We arrived at Wood Hall very late indeed, far too late to erect our tent. The Wilsons had their caravan there, so we piled our stuff underneath, lowered the rear seats of our car, and slept inside it, intending to erect the tent the following day, a Saturday.

Instead, Peggy suggested that we use the morning to familiarise ourselves with the site, and erect the tent during the afternoon.

To be continued....


Feature image: Sutton Hoo Helmet, CC

All other  images © Eric Houlder LRPS.