Tuesday, 27 October 2020

The Body of a Mighty giant

by Matt Salusbury and Tim-Holt Wilson

This article first appeared in UKGE's Deposits magazine of June 2020 It was updated on 11 07 21 to include new images that do not appear in the article in Deposits.

The Wonder of Our Times: Being the True and Exactly Relation of the Body of a Mighty giant dig'd up at Brockford Bridge neer Ipswich in the county of Suffolk. That's the title of a printed pamphlet from 1651, now in the Thomason Collection of the British Library (Ref 1). It was written in the form of a letter from "I.G." to his brother in London, updating him on "the town of his nativity" (Ipswich).

It describes a skeleton found by workmen digging in the "gravelly way". Brockford is a hamlet in the parish of Wetheringsett, located on the A140 road (grid reference TM117669) about 15 miles north of Ipswich (Figs. 1 and 2). It is not exactly "neer" (near) the town in seventeenth century terms – in those days it would have been the best part of half a day's ride on horseback. It’s unlikely that "I.G." travelled all the way from Ipswich to Brockford to see what the pamphlet called "The Wonder of the Age" for himself; he probably relied on descriptions he received in letters. The pamphlet refers to a John Vice as having found the bones, so the account is second-hand, at least.

Fig. 1. The Brockford area shown on Hodskinson's map of Suffolk, 1783. It is crossed in a north-south direction by a turnpike (the modern A140) and diagonally by a lane between Mendlesham and Thorndon. (Image by kind permission of David Yaxley – Hodsksinson’s Map of Suffolk in 1783; Lark’s Press, East Dereham, 2003).

Fig. 2. Brockford Bridge as it is today. (Image: T Holt-Wilson.)

The pamphlet gives us a fairly detailed description of the bones of the "Mighty giant". Records of local palaeontological finds from the nineteenth century onwards point to similar remains being occasionally found in the area, and allow us to speculate about the likely identification of the "giant". Following a recent geological field trip to Brockford, we attempt to identify the likely geological context of the find, and we attempt to identify the "gravelly way" from which the "Mighty giant" was unearthed.

It's unclear from the text whether the "gravelly way" was an already existing road made from gravel or a feature from which people dug gravel, and there isn't any "Gravelly Way" marked on modern maps. But Brockford Bridge is sited in a shallow valley in the headwaters of the River Dove – a tributary of the River Waveney – and gravels are locally abundant (Fig. 3). They date from the Pleistocene epoch (2.5 million to 11,700 years ago), flooring the valleys and outcropping in patches within glacial deposits.

Climate during the Pleistocene oscillated between warm and cold periods. During warm interglacial periods, the local landscape would have been forested, with swampy valley bottoms. During cold glacial periods, the landscape would have lacked vegetation and bare ground would have gradually slumped into valley bottoms, due to periglacial freeze/thaw processes active in the subsoil. Mammal bones can be deposited in both environments, either stratified in valley muds or incorporated into valley gravels.

At Brockford, the British Geological Survey map represents much of the area's geology as an ocean of pale blue (Ref 2), representing the Lowestoft Formation, a cold-phase till (boulder clay) deposit of the Anglian glaciation, about 440,000 years ago. It forms the gently undulating plateau of High Suffolk, and borehole records show that it underlies the area to a depth of some 21m (70ft) at Brockford (Ref 3) and 11m (36ft) a short distance away down the valley at Wetheringsett (Ref 4).

Overlying this, the valley is floored with a shallow layer of alluvium (silt, sand, clay and patches of peat), dating from the last 11,000 years or so. Any gravels encountered in the "gravelly way" are likely to be scourings from the local clayland plateau, mobilised in periglacial conditions during the last cold period known as the Devensian, which ended some 11,700 years ago. The alluvium then formed a veneer on top and the seventeenth century diggers would have cut through this alluvial layer to reach the useful gravels beneath.

Fig. 3. The River Dove near Brockford, showing coarse gravel in the stream bed and clay-rich loam along its banks. (Image: T Holt-Wilson.)

Gigantic bones have played an important role in the cultural history of humankind. They provoke the imagination, and stretch the reason to provide an explanation for their unfamiliar shapes and uncouth dimensions. There’s even a whole area of study known as cultural palaeontology or ethnopaleontology, which looks at intangible palaeontological heritage, the non-scientific influences that certain fossils have exerted on culture.

The Classical Greek and Roman authors are a particularly rich source of information, allowing us plausibly to match stories of "monsters" and "prodigies" with the remains of known fossil animals. The folklorist Adrienne Mayor has taken an extensive look at stories of bones of monstrous and mythical dimensions recorded by Classical authors, particularly Greek (Ref 5). Several temples had tables displaying what, from their description, are clearly fragmentary fossil mammals, particularly elephants, mammoths and giraffids – smaller prehistoric relatives of the modern giraffe. (See Fig. 11 below.)

The Cyclopses (one-eyed giants) were thought to have been inspired by the skulls of the smaller species of prehistoric elephant that populated the Mediterranean islands in Pleistocene times: the nasal aperture in the centre of the frontal bone suggested a single eye socket (Fig. 4). Mayor notes that many of the animals encountered by Hercules in his twelve labours are identified by the name of the region they came from – the Nemean Lion and the Erymanthian Boar, for example. Mayor discovered that these locations in modern Greece turn out to have fossil-bearing strata, usually yielding Pleistocene megafauna.

Griffins, as described by Herodotus – the "father of history" – were said to live in what's now Central Asia. They were described as having a lion's body with the head and claws of an eagle, having nests where they laid eggs and guarded gold (Ref 6). Mayor believes this is a description of the ceratopsian beaked dinosaur, Protoceratops, whose nests with fossilised eggs have been found in modern times, in strata which are also gold-bearing. (We note – in passing – that there used to be an inn at Brockford named The Griffin.)

Fig. 4. The skull of an African forest elephant, Loxodonta africana cyclotis, in the UCL Grant Zoology Museum, London. (Image: M Salusbury.)

The Greek historian Solinus, writing 1,800 years ago, described how the hero demi-god Hercules – he of the twelve labours – had destroyed a tribe of rogue giants at now long- vanished Greek town of Pellene, now just a village. This was dismissed as credulous folklore until a heavy rainstorm on the site in 1994, after which a local villager found a gigantic tooth. Pellene became a palaeontological dig that uncovered the remains of several mastodons.

Devotees of the Egyptian god, Set (aka Sutekh and Satan), are recorded as bringing large quantities of blackened bone fragments to his shrines at Matmur and Qua, black being a colour associated with the dark, sometimes malevolent character of this god. These have been preserved and unearthed in the shrine – they turn out to be mostly fragments of horned giraffids and fossil relatives of horses. While most Egyptian gods are humanoid or depicted with the heads of known animals, Set's head is that of an unknown animal, with strange, squared-off ears. There is speculation that his head, as shown in Egyptian art, is inspired by the skull of a fossil or more recent, but now locally extinct, animal – possibly a prehistoric aardvark (Ref 7).

Mayor has also turned her attention to fossil finds recorded in the oral traditions of Native Americans, which she examines in Fossil Legends of the First Americans (Ref 8). These traditions include the "Thunder Horse", a legend that fossil hunter Edward Drinker Cope heard from the people of the Lakota Sioux Nation in South Dakota and Nebraska in the 1870s. They described how, after heavy thunderstorms, sometimes a Thunder Horse – an enormous horse, a magical being that lived in the clouds – would be killed during the storm (possibly by lightning, it wasn’t clear) and its bones would fall to the Earth.

While many Americans of European descent derided such Native American traditions as "superstition" at the time, Cope had a hunch there might be something to this legend. He asked the Lakota people to lead him to the remains of a Thunder Horse after a storm. There, he found the fossil bones of the odd-toed ungulate now known as Megacerops – looking like a rhinoceros, but actually more closely related to horses. The Lakota were right about the link between the Thunder Horse and storms – the heavy rains had washed away the banks of sediment that concealed the bones. Megacerops was originally known as Brontotherium, which translates as Thunder Horse, while the family to which the species belongs is still known as the Brontotheriidae. (See Fig. 12 below.)

The Siwalik Hills in India, setting for the epic battle of gods, heroes and monsters in the ancient Indian Sanskrit epic poem – the Mahabharata – are littered with evidence for Plio-Pleistocene fossil animals, including fossil bones, skulls, jaws, and tusks of hippopotamuses (Hexaprotodon), proboscideans (Stegodon, Archidiskodon), four-horned giraffes (Sivatherium, Giraffokeryx), giant tortoises (Geochelone), sabre toothed cats (Paramachairodus) and camels (Camelus). Their role in generating mythic inspiration for the writers of the poem has been explored in an interesting article (Ref 9).

As far as we are aware, there's been no systematic survey yet of "wonders" and "prodigies" from Britain whose identity points to fossil fauna. The chronicler, Ralph of Coggeshall, abbot of the monastery at Coggeshall in Essex, wrote Chronicon Anglicanum (Chronicle of the English) in the early thirteenth century. This has a chapter entitled "On Giant’s Teeth" (Ref 10). This records how Ralph himself had handled two enormous teeth that were found on the Essex seashore at Foulness and taken to his abbey. Ralph took these as evidence of giants, which he claims had been seen alive in Wales, with one such Welsh giant being "a young man of immense stature, whose height was five cubits [7ft 6 inches or 2.3m]". From his description, the teeth were almost certainly those of a proboscidean – a prehistoric elephant or mammoth.

To return to Brockford, the pamphlet describing the discovery of the "Mighty giant" recounted how some people thought the partial skeleton was that of a "Dane" or of "King Arthur", the locals imagining that the Vikings and the legendary Romano-British warlord had been literally larger-than-life heroes or anti-heroes, towering over most men. To illustrate the pamphlet, the publisher used stock woodcuts of Greek heroes and giants dressed in the romanticised costume of the Native Americans, as they were then imagined (Fig. 5). As explained by Adrienne Mayor, the ancient Greeks had a similar view: they believed too that the likes of Achilles and Ajax from Homer's Iliad were heroic giants among men from a bygone "golden age", since when men had "degenerated" in height.

Fig. 5. The frontispiece of the 1651 pamphlet, The Wonder of Our Times: Being a true and exact relation of a Mighty giant dig'd up at Brockford Bridge... R Austin for W. Ley, London, 1651. (Out of copyright, fair dealing under the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act 1986 – front cover image for the purposes of a critique or review.)

We think the story of the Mighty giant dig'd up is another instance of an historic palaeontological find, and the account is clear enough to allow us to make a tentative identification. There's quite a detailed description of the "giant" in the pamphlet. The body had a skull that was "half a bushel" in size – half a bushel is a measurement of grain, about four gallons (just over 18 litres). Eleven "huge teeth" were found. The leg bone (presumably a thigh) was "about the width of a middling woman's waist" and when the skeleton was laid out it was ten feet (3m) long.

From the description, it seems the workmen who found the skeleton had laid it out on the ground as you might a human skeleton. They assumed whatever they had found was a biped, and laid out the bones with the arms as if they were hanging from the shoulders in life position, with the legs descending from the pelvis and the skull rising from the neck. The enormous size of the bones and teeth suggests to us that they were dealing with proboscidean remains. If we accept this identification, what kind of beast might they have found.

The order Proboscidea includes elephants, mastodons and mammoths, and the remains of at least three different proboscidean genera have been found in Suffolk. Over two million years ago in the early Pleistocene, we find evidence of southern elephant, Mammuthus meridionalis, and mastodon, Anancus arvernensis. About half a million years ago, in the middle Pleistocene, we find the steppe mammoth, Mammuthus trogontherii, which later evolved into the woolly mammoth. The straight-tusked elephant, Elephas (Palaeoloxodon) antiquus, (Fig. 6), is typical of warm phases in the later Pleistocene, while the woolly mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius, is typical of cold phases.

Fossil evidence for Suffolk's Proboscidea typically turns up in gravel quarries, along the eroding coastline and sometimes in river beds. For example, in 1995, a woolly mammoth jawbone was found in the bed of the River Glem at Hawkedon, presumably derived from cold-phase sands and gravels exposed in the river bank (Ref 11).

Elephants and mammoths are well represented in the county of Suffolk's museum displays. Ipswich Museum has a life-size woolly mammoth reconstruction near the entrance and some impressive mammoth remains including a femur of the straight-tusked elephant on display in its excellent geology gallery. West Stow Museum's tiny palaeontology display includes a fragment of mammoth tusk and a piece of elephant's shoulder blade. Halesworth Museum likewise has a tusk fragment. Southwold Museum has a whole chest of drawers of proboscidean bits from local cliffs and beaches, many of them from the Crag strata at Easton Bavents. Another significant collection is housed at the UKGE headquarters at nearby Reydon.

A lucky dachshund dog named Daisy made the national newspapers a few years back after it found a mammoth femur on the beach at Dunwich Heath, and fragments of proboscidean teeth and bones are occasionally handed in at Dunwich Museum by holidaymakers. Suffolk's beachcombing community tell us that if you go to Felixstowe Beach after a heavy storm, you’ve a good chance of finding fragmentary mammoth teeth.

Brockford lies in the valley of the River Dove and there are several records of proboscidean remains found within its catchment. The most famous site is at Hoxne, some 7 miles (11.4km) away, where the brick-pits have yielded fossil mammal remains since the late eighteenth century, including straight-tusked elephant (Ref 12). This site is worth a whole article in itself, but the interesting thing from our point of view is that these finds have been dated to a warm interglacial period about 400,000 years ago, known as the Hoxnian. Other local sites of Hoxnian age have been identified in tributary valleys at Athelington and St Cross, in both cases, from borehole evidence taken from deposits several metres down.

Fig. 6. A straight-tusked elephant skeleton in the Natural History Museum, Rome. (Image courtesy Dr Georgios Lyras.)

Thorndon lies two and a half miles (4km) downstream from Brockford. There is an old record of a section of elephant tusk 27 inches (68cm) long recovered from river gravel at a depth of 8ft (2.4m) (Ref 13). Harold Spencer wrote that: "Incomplete bones and elephant and other large animals from an unrecorded site at Thorndon are, to judge from the elevation, and the position in the Dove valley system, in all probability of Hoxnian age"(Ref 14).

There is an unverified report of an elephant tooth found by a farmer in this parish, probably in the 1970s (Ref 15). A short distance away, Claud Ticehurst records a straight-tusked elephant tusk "from glacial gravel close to Braiseworth church" (Ref 16) – he is most likely referring to the old St Mary's church. Hoxnian sites in the Waveney catchment are typically developed in former lakes or hollows in the Lowestoft Till plateau. Down-cutting by river erosion over the past 430,000 years or so has since isolated them at heights of between 16ft and 33ft (5m to 10m) above valley floors (Ref 17).

We note that at Braiseworth, St Mary's is located on the valley side near the site of an old gravel pit, lying at about 118 ft (36m) above sea level. The adjacent valley floor lies at about 95ft (29m), so the difference in height between them is no more than 23ft (7m). Ticehurst's site is thus plausibly a Hoxnian one.

Remains of straight-tusked elephant are also known from a later interglacial period known as the Ipswichian, about 120,000 years ago. Bones have been recovered from Ipswichian deposits beneath the Waveney valley side at Wortwell (Ref 18), some 15 miles (24km) away. They were found at roughly the same height above sea level as the present river floodplain (Ref 17).

Remains of woolly mammoth have not so far been recorded from the River Dove catchment, but bones and teeth have been found in gravel pits in the Waveney valley at sites, such as Weybread and Homersfield. Here, they are typically found in the cold-phase river gravels of post-Hoxnian age that fill the valley floor or outcropin isolated terrace remnants along the valley sides (Ref 17).

Although we cannot determine whether the bones of the "Mighty giant" were those of a warm-period interglacial, straight-tusked elephant or a cold-period glacial woolly mammoth, the geology of the Brockford site suggests we are dealing with cold-phase valley gravels, most likely of Devensian age.

The landscape situation, on the valley floor in the shallow headwaters of a Waveney tributary rather than on the valley sides, suggests we are dealing with post-Hoxnian remains. The fact that a range of skeletal elements were found lying together provides some useful taphonomic detail – we may infer that the bones come from a carcass, which is unlikely to have been moved far from its place of first deposition, otherwise the bones would have been scattered. However, this scenario might fit either species: a straight-tusked elephant from the Ipswichian buried beneath Devensian gravels on the valley floor; or a woolly mammoth buried within Devensian gravels.

The gravel diggers evidently struggled to comprehend what they had found. We found a reference in the Ipswich Journal to a "stupendous elephant" in a menagerie of “foreign animals” visiting Ipswich in 1800, which claims to be first live elephant ever exhibited in the County Town. So, it's unlikely anyone locally would have actually seen an elephant or even recognised its skeleton, in 1651.

To the Brockford diggers, the skull with its big, domed cranium might have looked like a giant human's, particularly if it had its tusks detached and, while living elephants' feet are pillars of flesh designed to support several tonnes, the actual bones end in long, thin toes. The forearms could have been mistaken for a human arm ending in fingers, while the shoulder blades and ribs might have reminded them of a human's. (See Fig. 13 below.) The tusk sockets might resemble nostrils to someone with little knowledge of human anatomy.

Fig. 7. A plastic mammoth skeleton configured as a "biped". (Image: M Salusbury.)

Taking a scale model of a mammoth skeleton, we can arrange its elements as if it were a biped (Fig. 7). According to the seventeenth century pamphlet, the “shin bones” were partly damaged or missing, so they have been partly left out of our reconstruction. It also says the teeth in the upper jaw were missing, so the tusks presumably would have been too (the tusks being incisor teeth from the upper jaw). Minus its tusks, doesn’t it look a bit like a human skeleton? As to the fate of the Brockford bones, the pamphlet says the locals “broke up” the skeleton – everyone wanted a piece of it, it seems.

A final point. We can only speculate where the “Mighty giant” was dug up. It may have been from gravels in the valley floor near Brockford Bridge over which the busy A140 passes. Alternatively – and more attractively – we have discovered a nearby “gravelly way” in the form of footpath immediately to the northeast of Brockford Bridge. It is the ancient lane from Mendlesham to Thorndon (Fig. 8).

It is certainly very gravelly, no doubt made up with locally sourced material (Fig. 9), although we could find no evidence of a nearby gravel pit of any depth. It flanks the River Dove, which is a feeble trickle compared to what it would have been in late Devensian times, with seasonal snow-melt streaming off land in the headwaters of the river catchment, sweeping sand and gravel with it – and perhaps the carcass of a mammoth.

Update (11 07 21, from Matt Salusbury): Since this article appeared in Deposits, I discovered an account of a similar phenomenon 54 years later, from turn-of-the-18th-century America. Cotton Mather (1663-1728) was a Massachusetts Puritan preacher and a prolific author, influential in the Salem witch trials.

Mather was shown bones and teeth that had been found in Claverack near Albany, New York in 1705. He identified them as the bones of the Nephilim, the race of giants and "fallen angels" who interbred with humans and who were destroyed in Noah's flood, described in The Old Testament's Book of Genesis and in more detail in the Book of Enoch. Centuries later the bones examined by Mather were identified as the bones of a mastodon (elephant or mastodon in some accounts.

Fig. 8. The old road to Thorndon as it is today, northeast of Brockford Street. (Image: T Holt-Wilson.)

Fig. 9. Gravel in the floor of the old lane at Brockford. (Image: M Salusbury.)

Fig. 10. A leg bone of a local specimen of a straight-tusked elephant Elephas antiquus, aka Paleoloxodon antiquus, found in Ipswich, Suffolk, on display in Ipswich Museum. (Image: M Salusbury.)

Fig. 11. Skull of Samotherium, from the island of Samos in Greece, a Miocene giraffid at the Natural History Museum, London. Descriptions from Classical Greek sources indicate prehistoric giraffid remains were in the collections of "monsters" and "prodigies" in temples. Giraffid remains were also among the fossil fragments given as offerings to the god Set in ancient Egyptian shrines. (Image: M Salusbury.)

Fig. 12: Skull and front foot of a Brontothere, a family of prehistoric odd-toed ungulates that take their name from the "Thunder Horse" tradition of the Lakota Sioux Nation of the American West. This specimen's in the Natural History Museum, London. (Image: M Salusbury.)

Fig 13: These toes and front legs on the skeleton of a mammoth could be mistaken for the fingers and arms of a giant human, to an observer in 1651 with little knowledge of anatomy. This mammoth is in the Geological Museum of the Polish Geological Institute, Warsaw. (Image: M Salusbury.)

Fig 14: The more pointy-headed skull of a mammoth looks less like a giant human skull than the more domed skull of a prehistoric elephant, although it could still fool an observer from 1651 who didn't know their anatomy, especially with its tusks missing. This one's from the Geological Museum of the Polish Geological Institute, Warsaw. (Image: M Salusbury.)



Thanks to Richard Muirhead for his librarianship skills in pointing us in the direction of The Body of a Mighty giant pamphlet. This article is adapted from a chapter on Suffolk giants from Matt Salusbury's forthcoming book Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk (CFZ Press, in production).

Any other examples of accounts of prodigies, wonders, marvels and monsters from British or Irish chronicles, pamphlets or broadsheets that apparently describe fossils finds would be greatly appreciated, via mysteryanimalsofsuffolk@gn.apc.org.

About the authors

Matt Salusbury is a freelance journalist and editor, author of Pygmy Elephants (CFZ Press, Wolfardisworthy, 2013) and Chair of the National Union of Journalists London Freelance Branch. He is a regular contributor on zoology, archaeology and the history of science to Fortean Times magazine and chair of the trustees and volunteer of Dunwich Museum, Suffolk, as well as editor of its newsletter, Discover Dunwich

Tim Holt-Wilson is active in geoconservation in East Anglia: a member of the Geological Society of Norfolk (President, 2015) and Quaternary Research Association; and a founder member of the GeoSuffolk Group; a former Co-ordinator of Geo-East. He is author of Norfolk’s Earth Heritage (2010) and Tides of Change - Two million years on the Suffolk Coast (2014), and a past contributor to Deposits.



1.I.G. The Wonder of Our Times: Being a True and Exact Relation of the Body of a Mighty Giant dig’d up at Brockford Bridge near Ipswich in Suffolk, Printed by R. Austin for W. Ley at Paul's Chain, London, 1651. British Library digital resources catalogue: Thomason Collection E.646(3). Most of the text online on the Foxearth and District Historical Society blog. [Accessed April 2020]

2. British Geological Survey. Eye. England and Wales Sheet 190. Solid and drift Geology, 1:50,000 Provisional Series. Keyworth, Nottingham, 1995. Online here. [Accessed March 2020]

3. British Geological Survey, undated 1. BGS Borehole Report TM16NW23 — Brockford Engineering Co., Thwaite. Online here. [Accessed March 2020]

4. British Geological Survey, undated 2. BGS Borehole Report TM16NW2 — Wetheringsett (Anglian Water Authority), Online here. [Accessed March 2020]

5. Mayor, Adrienne. The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times. Princeton University Press, 2011.

6. Herodotus. The Histories. Penguin Books, 1972. Book 3.113.

7. Mayor, Adrienne, undated. Ancient Egyptians Collected Fossils. Online at Wonders and Marvels website – http://www.wondersandmarvels.com/2016/09/ancient-egyptians-collected-fossils.html. [Accessed March 2020]

8. Mayor, Adrienne, Fossil Legends of the First Americans, Princeton University Press, 2005.

9. Van der Geer, A., Dermitzakis, M., & De Vos, J., ”Fossil Folklore from India: The Siwalik Hills and the Mahabharata”. Folklore 119, April 2008, pp.71–92. [Accessed March 2020]

10. Ralph of Coggeshall, Chronicon Anglicorum, Folio 89, with English translation. [Accessed March 2020]

"In the time of King Richard there were found, at a village called Edolfuesnesse [Foulness], on the sea shore in Essex, two teeth of a certain giant, of such a size, that two hundred teeth which men now have might be cut out of them. These teeth we saw at Coggeshall, and we handled them with plenty of admiration. A rib of this giant was also discovered in the same place, of astonishing size and breadth."

11. Latham, J. Discovery of Mammoth remains from a river bed in Eastern Suffolk, Quaternary Research Association Newsletter No. 83, Oct. 1997. [NB the Hawkedon site is in West Suffolk.]

12. Singer, Ronald, Gladfelter, Bruce, and Wymer, John. The Lower Palaeolithic Site at Hoxne, England. University of Chicago Press, 1993.

13. [Harris, Rev. H.A.]. "Finds", Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, vol.18, part 3, 1924.

14. Spencer, Harold. A Contribution to the Geological History of Suffolk, Suffolk Naturalists’ Society, 1972, p.89.

15. Wymer, John. Palaeolithic Sites of East Anglia, Geobooks, Norwich, 1985.

16. Ticehurst, Claud. The Mammals of Suffolk, Transactions of the Suffolk Naturalists' Society, vol.2, 1932.

17. Coxon, P. Pleistocene Environmental History in Central East Anglia, PhD Thesis, University of Cambridge, 1979.

18. Sparks, B.W. and West, R.G. Interglacial Deposits at Wortwell, Norfolk, Geological Magazine, 105, 196

Thursday, 24 September 2020

The bells! The bells!

MATT SALUSBURY listens out for the sounds of underwater tintinnabulation as he goes in search of Britain's sunken bell legends...

Fragments of Dunwich churches - All Saints, St Peter's and (probably) the Templar Church, mostly hauled up from the North Sea in the Dunwich Dives, throughout the 1970s and 1980s

This article first appeared in Fortean Times, FT 396, September 2020

Is it true about the bells tolling beneath the waves? It's a question frequently asked by visitors to Dunwich Museum. The nocturnal phantom bells at Dunwich, though obvious nonsense, are actually among the more plausible of Britain’s ghost bell traditions. At least churches actually once stood in Dunwich - more than can be said for the locations of many phantom bell legends!

The city of Dunwich on the Suffolk coast, once medieval England's sixth biggest town, was a major port with its own royal shipyard, trading with the Hanseatic League before a millennia's worth of coastal erosion and three really big storms did for the town. It’s now a village of just over a hundred souls. Stonework from several of the sunken city’s dozen churches was hauled up from the bed of the North Sea in dives throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Late 18th century engraving of All Saint's Church, Dunwich, now lost to the sea. Out of copyright

Postcards from the Nicholson Collection in the Dunwich Museum archive, showing All Saints at the turn of the 20th century. The last section of the church fell of the cliff and into the sea in 1919.

Rowland Parker, author of the definitive history Men of Dunwich, said he'd "never heard any local talk of bells tolling out to sea" as of 1979. The oldest documentation for the legend dates from 1859, when Master Mariner John Day claimed to have known his position when sailing to Sizewell Bank to the south by the tolling of a submerged bell heard while passing Dunwich.

Perhaps Master Day heard a bell on a wreck or wreck buoy. Some of the churches could have been suddenly inundated, as in the Great Storm of 1286. The antiquarian John Stow visited Dunwich in 1573, describing "remnants of ramparts, downfallen edifices and tottering noble structures" at the water's edge. But could these church bells have still been intact underwater in their derelict belfries, rung by the action of the tides 300 years later? Unlikely. As Nigel Pennick points out in Lost Lands and Sunken Cities, "every church lost to the sea was destroyed by wave action."

Some Dunwich bells are accounted for. Medieval parish records include a receipt for the sale of the bells of Dunwich's St Nicholas Church to build a pier to protect another town church as the sea advanced. Other Dunwich churches were demolished as no longer viable, faced with an encroaching sea.

The last surviving butress of All Saint's Church now stands in the churchyard of the modern St James's Church, Dunwich

The last surviving tomb of All Saints burial ground, on the Dunwich Cliff Path. Human bones and teeth from the burial ground regularly fall out of the eroding cliff

This slab from a tomb hauled up in the Dunwich Dives is believed to be from the Templar Church.

The still standing 19th century church of St James's, Dunwich, has a single automated bell that only tolls the hour. But a recent anonymous entry to Dunwich Museum visitors' book, though, records a local man hearing twice "a peel of six chimes" at about 2am on the "very stormy" night of 29 December 2017.

Some other well-documented sunken churches off Britain's coasts have phantom bell legends attached. St-Annes-on-the-Sea, Lancashire has the sunken remains of a medieval church off the coast, its bells allegedly heard before storms. Also said to warn of storms are phantom bells at Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex, whose church - taken by the sea in the 1790s - is now three miles offshore. Shipden near Cromer in Norfolk once had a church, on the submerged remains of whose tower the tug Victoria was wrecked in 1888. And yes, its bells sometimes sound at night.

Not all verifiable lost churches succumbed to the waves. Between Southwell and Oxton in Nottinghamshire there once stood the settlement of Raleigh - flattened by the East Midlands Earthquake of 1185, although not "swallowed up" as legends tell. Local tradition has church bells heard on Christmas Day.

But evidence for an actual church behind phantom bell legends is usually scarce. Some more plausible phantom bell stories come from Cornwall, where bells on sunken ships rather than vanished churches are supposed to ring, such as the bell of the long lost ship Neptuneoff St Ives.

Welsh phantom bell legends include one from Llangorse Lake, Powys, in which bells of a cathedral that once stood there before it was flooded now sound on "holy days". Since the lake was formed by the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago, this is a credibility-stretcher. A similar legend is attached to Lake Bala, 86 miles due south in the Brecon Beacons.

Numerous Welsh legends feature the Devil or his disguised imps stealing bells then dumping them at sea. They then toll from their new location, warning fishermen as storms approach – as do the bells heard from Whitesand Bay near St David's, Pembrokeshire. The provenance of the phantom bells of Aberdovey, Gwynedd cannot be traced beyond the Victorian music hall song The Bells of Aberdovey.

Phantom bells said to have been stolen and lost in transit are a common motif. A tale from Bosham on the Sussex coast has a bell stolen by Viking raiders then loaded it on to a longship which sailed away. When locals rang the "all clear" from other churches, the stolen bell vibrated in unison, capsizing the vessel. The story's probably a 19th century explanation of why Bosham's church has no tenor bell.

In Llanwonno, Glamorgan, the bell was said to have be stolen by "big-eared men of Taff", who dragged it away on a sledge only to lose it in a river. The story may be an invention explaining odd local place names like Rhyd-y-gloch, ford of the bell.

Divine retribution swallowing up churches whose parishioners blaspheme or "mock God" is a recurring theme. Or bells are lost in transit when a "workman" leading oxen pulling the bells utters a profane oath. One such phantom church bell sounds on Christmas Eve from Bomere Pool in Shrewsbury, although there's no evidence there was ever a church there. Nor is there evidence of a church ever existing at Bell Hole, in marshes at Tunstall, Norfolk, whose phantom bells send up bubbles as the church sinks towards Hell. Bells transported by ship from Forrabury, Cornwall were allegedly sunk by the hand of God after a captain ridiculed a priest who crossed himself, they are now said to ring beneath the waves.

The mighty North Sea at Dunwich has claimed at least 11 of the town's churches and some satellite chapels as well.

An especially tenuous church-destroyed-by-God's-wrath tale comes from Coningsby, Lincolnshire, whose bells supposedly peal on the anniversary of its destruction. A natural rock formation there slightly resembles the rubble of a church.

Mermaids also appear in phantom bell traditions. Every Easter Sunday a mermaid rings a bell underwater at Rostherne Mere, Cheshire. A near-identical tale has a mermaid ringing a church bell beneath the River Lugg near Marden, Herefordshire.

Bells sound from an allegedly submerged village church at Kenfig Pool near Bridgend, South Wales. While the sea has claimed a nearby castle, there's no proof there was ever a village there. Nor is there any record of a church having stood at Nigg Bay in the Scottish Highlands, from whose waters a bell is said to gently peal.

Recent research into Very Long Period signals detected underwater with a resonance that can sound like "a large bell" suggests these tales may have something to do with underwater earthquakes, (FT391;17) so a rational explanation may yet be forthcoming.

Thanks to Darren Mann of Paranormal Database which has many excellent examples of British phantom bell legends

A similar article appeared in Discover Dunwich, newsletter of Dunwich Museum.


Dunwich, Suffolk, Jean and Stewart Bacon, Segment publications, Marks Tey, 1975, 1988

Lost Lands and Sunken Cities Nigel Pennick, Fortean Tomes, London 1987

The Search for Dunwich: City under the sea, Jan and Stuart Bacon, Segment, 1979, 2008

Shipden Shipden

Welsh Folklore and Legends, L.A. Simmonds, James Pike Ltd, St Ives 1975

Campanology Wales

The bells of Aberdovey

Sunken Bells – Legends of Christiansen Type 7070, ed. D L Ashliman, 2013

Dunwich Museum, Dunwich, Suffolk, was closed due to COVID-19 at the time of writing, but now reopen! Monday-Sunday 11.30-4.30 until the end of October, entry by donation, for opening hours www.dunwichmuseum.org.uk/ Twitter: @DiscoverDunwich

Matt Salusbury is a regular contributor to Fortean Times and a Trustee and volunteer of Dunwich Museum

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Phantom Dunwich bells in Fortean Times 386, on sale 13 August

My survey of phantom bell traditions and unlikely tales of the sound of tolling bells heard beneath the waves - from Dunwich and elsewhere - will feature in Fortean Times, issue FT386, on sale 13 August or hitting your doormat sooner if you are a subscriber.

A similar article appeared in issue 1 of Discover Dunwich, newsletter of Dunwich Museum.

My photos appear in the History Channel's Ancient Monster Quest special In Search of Woodwoses... I think!

Woodwose on a font in Barking church, near Wickham Market, Suffolk, one of three possibly used by The History Channel(?) - see below

Three of my photos of woodwoses (wildmen) appear - or will appear, probably(?) in a documentary by The History Channel, a special episode of their Ancient Monster Quest series, with the working title In Search of Woodwoses. Or at least I think they will - in any event I eventually got paid for a licence to use these, by a production company called First Row Films, that seems to be connected to this programme.

The whole affair is as mysterious as some of the mystery animals I have been investigating. Despite repeated requests for information on when Ancient Monster Quest - In Search of Woodwoses will be broadcast, I have no idea about when it goes out (or whether it already has), nor any other details of the programme. The whole somewhat puzzling saga is here.

Should you come across any information on In Search of Woodwoses, do let me know.

Monday, 27 July 2020

My virtual talk for Dunwich Museum - the Dunwich Bank Wreck Cannon - Tuesday 11 August 2020

Dunwich Museum presents a virtual Museum talk via Zoom
6pm, Tuesday 11 August, 2020
The Dunwich Bank Wreck Cannon, and its close relatives
By Matt Salusbury - Trustee and volunteer at Dunwich Museum, journalist, feature writer for BBC History and History Today magazines.

You are invited to virtually attend a talk with Q & A, with possible participation by staff from the Royal Armouries and other surprise guests.

The magnificent bronze Dunwich Bank Wreck Cannon, discovered and raised from a Spanish Armada warship by Stuart Bacon in the Dunwich Dives during the 1990s, is now on show in Dunwich Museum.

The talk will look at its origins, how it came to be lost with the failed invasion of England that was the Spanish Armada (1588) and how it found its way to Dunwich Museum – eventually!

We will also look at some very similar cannons – still in existence – made by the same Belgian gunfounder, Remigy de Halyut, for the armies and navies of the Hapsburg Empire. Some of these, like the Dunwich Bank Wreck Cannon, have quite a backstory too!

Email news@dunwichmuseum.org.uk for details of the login, password and meeting ID for this talk, and for news of possible future talks. Please consider making a small - donation to Dunwich Museum if you are attending the virtual talk. (To sign up to the Zoom meetings platform if you haven't already, do so here. It's free)

Museum Updates

Dunwich Museum is now open Wednesday-Sunday 11.30-16.30, social distancing measures apply. The Dunwich Bank Wreck Cannon is on display there, along with some of its cannonballs. Follow @DiscoverDunwich and Dunwichmuseum on Instagram for future updates

Friday, 26 June 2020

Protest for a fair election at Belarus embassy

Belarusians living in the UK protested outside their Embassy in London yesterday (25 June) at the start of the Presidential election campaign. With the three most likely opposition candidates still in jail, and reports of intimidation of supporters of opposition candidates attempting to sign their paperwork to stand in elections, few are expecting anything like a free and fair election. One demonstrator told me that most opposition leaders over the past 25 years have been jailed, gone into exile or disappeared.

Candidates need 100,000 signatures to stand in the presidential elections. Supporters were queuing in the streets to add their signatures to their candidacies. One candidate, Sergei Tikhanovski, was detained on 6 May after participating in protests at Belarus's strong ties with Russia. His candidacy was "banned".

The current president, Aleksander Lukashenko, has been in power for five terms, starting in 1994. He has been the subject of occasional sanctions by the EU and the US over free and fair elections.

A demonstrator told me that while Belarus has always been a "very patient country", the Covid-19 crisis, and the Lukashenko regime's attempt to downplay the impact of the virus, has brought people out on the streets. Doctors who became whistleblowers on the full extent of the Covid crisis have been arrested. There were chants (in English) of "Enough is enough" at the Embassy demo.

There were around 50 demonstrators when I turned up, I heard that after I left numbers went up to 200, with another demo planned for Sunday for those Belarusians living in the UK who couldn't make it into Central London on a workday. There were simultaneous demos at other embassies in Europe.

Some wore traditional white and red Belarus shirts with the traditional embroidered pattern, others had a printed T-shirt version of the same. Others wore "We are the 97 per cent" T-shirts, a reference to two online polls that put support by voting intention of Lukashenko at just 3 per cent.

Lukashenko has naturally been gathering signatures for his presidential candidacy, with civil servants reportedly intimidated into signing these. Opinion polls without permission from the Academy of Sciences are now banned in Belarus.

Some demonstrators had brought with the the white, red and white striped "independence" flag of Belarus, in use in 1918 and after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, until its replacement with the current flag in 1995. The current national flag is basically a modified flag of the old Belarusian Soviet Republic with the red star removed.

A protester told me there were embassy staff among the protesters, it wasn't clear whether they were there keeping an eye on protesters. The Embassy curtains were in any event drawn. A Mongolian diplomat from the Mongolian Embassy next door was watching from the roof.

The presidential election is on Sunday 9 August. Expect a strong opposition turn-out at the polling station at the Embassy in London.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Discover Dunwich 2

I edit Discover Dunwich, newsletter of Dunwich Museum, of which I am also a trustee and volunteer. Issue 2 is now out, it's a Covid-19 coming out of lockdown special.

The current issue features Stuart Bacon's recollection of discovering the Dunwich Bank Wreck and the remains of Dunwich churches in the Dunwich Dives all those years ago. There's also an archaeology update - a core sample shows that Dunwich was probably already an important port in Saxon times. There's a look at our newly acquired Board of Trade hydrometer and at the Dunwich Bank Wreck cannon's near identical (but better preserved) sibling.

You can download Issue 2 as a pdf here. Issue 1, from 2019, is here.

Dunwich Museum is still closed due to Covid-19. The trustees are developing a Risk Assessment aimed at some sort of social distancing re-opening soon (possibly allowing in only one party at a time). We can't give a date yet. Meanwhile, @DiscoverDunwich on Twitter showcases the treasures of the Museum online. Watch the @DiscoverDunwich account for updates on re-opening.

The Museum normally earns most of its income from donations from visitors, but there have been none this year. It is short of cash, please consider making a donation.

The Body of a Mighty Giant from Deposits magazine

My article - co-authored with Tim Holt Wilson – on "The Body of a Mighty Giant" is in the latest issue of Deposits magazine. It tells the story of the bones of a "giant" dug up in 1651 in Brockford Bridge, Suffolk and offers a possible palaeontological explanation. It surveys others palaeontological finds from the area. It's here. Deposits is produced by UKGE, the UK's largest geology equipment and fossils and minerals supplier in the UK, based in Reydon, Suffolk.

It's behind a paywall, but I will publish the article here when the First British Serial rights expire and the copyright reverts to Tim and I.

Skull of an African forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) in the Grant Zoology Museum, UCL, London

An attempt to get a COVID-19 test

I ACCOMPANIED a friend who went to get a COVID-19 test in London, or tried to.

My friend was a teaching assistant in a school in Enfield, who was teaching children for vulnerable families who still attended school during the lockdown. Except most of them didn't, their parents didn't want them to go to school. He ended up spending most of his workdays on the phone to parents at home, and devising activities for the kids to do at home. A couple of months before, he'd lost his sense of smell, it was only gradually coming back. This being the most obvious symptom of COVID, I persuaded him to get himself checked out before a return to school, just so he was covered if anything happened, he could say, "I told you so."

We had often gone for lockdown bike rides together along the Regent Canal and the River Lea (keeping 2m apart), and on this occasion my friend announced he'd booked a slot for a COVID test, that was going to be in Lea Valley Park, in Edmonton, not far from the IKEA. The Lea Valley Park is just off the River Lea towpath, so he thought he'd check in for his test after a nice bike ride. I said I'd go too, and wait outside.

When we got there we found it was - surprise, surprise - a bit of a shambles. Firstly, it was DRIVE-IN only. That's right, in a city where at the last estimate, 30 per cent of households owned a car. Most of these 30 per cent of our vast city are in the suburbs, car ownership (or access to a car, via a car club) is much less in the inner city. This is also a city that has been actively discouraging car ownership and car use for at least the last 20 years. The staff (typically untrained and unprepared) blamed "the company" - another example of government outsourcing to private companies clearly not up to the job. Staff suggested my friend should ring a cab and get the cab to drive them the very short distance through the drive-in. Did they have any numbers for local cab companies? No.

My friend gave up, and went back to teach not knowing whether he had Covid or not. Properly briefed staff could have told him that an antibody test, rather than a test for whether he still had COVID, was coming soon and would be more appropriate anyway.

A man on his bike turns up at the coronavirus testing centre at Lea Valley Park, London. Note that the member of staff (in reflective vest) is not wearing a mask.

Waiting for Cummings

IT TURNS out I live five minutes away from Ockenden Road, home of Dominic Cummings, controversial special adviser to the Prime Minister. I knew he had to live somewhere in Islington, because early on in the controversy around his eye-test road trip to Durham, news footage of him showed a street that had those distinctive Georgian houses you get round here that scream "Islington."

I stumbled across Cummings's street by accident. Walking to the shops on Essex Road one day, I came across this graffiti scrawled across Tesco's. My first thought was, ah, this must be where Dominic Cummings lives.

Sure enough, the right turn off Essex Road opposite the graffiti was Ockenden Road, and down the bottom of the street on the right was a house with outside it two of the most polite cops you could imagine. There was a car-load of photographers with their long lens cameras out on the street immediately outside. They were looking bored - it was early afternoon so no one was expecting Cummings for a while.

I came back in the evening in the forlorn hope I might catch a glimpse of Cummings and the circus around him. I wasn't actually that interested in Cummings himself, more in talking to my photographer colleagues to see how they were getting on. As Chair of NUJ London Freelance Branch I was aware that some of them had lost all their work, I wanted to find out from them as they stood around waiting what it like working during Covid for those who were still working.

There were a half dozen or so photographers around, talking to the very polite cops. They were from Camden nick, a police station whose beat is the boundary of Islington and Camden. They seemed quite media savvy, when I asked them whether there was Section 60 Public Order Act order in force in the street, they said they were "unaware" of any such order and directed me to the Met press website. They seemed used to checking Press Cards courteously. When their colleague strolled up to have a word with them, it was "Evening, gents!" to the press pack. (A colleague had heard a rumour that a Section 60 had been declared in Ockenden Road, which turned out to be baseless.)

There was a van full of Paddington Green cops that was parked round the corner in Southgate Road. (Ockenden Road is right on the edge of Canonbury, in the "bit of Islington that thinks it's Hackney" in the words of my Islingtonian brother.) A plainclothes cop with a rather obvious radio and a rather more obvious Met Police stab vest on appeared on the corner of Southgate Road. Later, a red Diplomatic Protection Squad van cruised very slowly around Ockenden Road and surrounding streets. It had tinted windows so I had no idea whether it was full of coppers or not.

Photographers I was with on the Cummings stake-out were mostly from agencies such as Associated Press, or outlets such as Sky News website. One of them said that their sports writers had all been furloughed, while the sports photographers had been transferred to news photography. With nothing coming out of sports or the cultural and showbusiness beat, there was a need for more straight "news" to fill pages. Photographers were getting calls from their sports photographer colleagues at railway stations, asking what the deal was about byelaws on filming or photographing people at stations. They'd never done this sort of work before. Their regular news colleague were happy to help.

There were a few protesters waiting over the road, some of whom were clearly Cummings's neighbours. From WhatsApp traffic on my local Mutual Aid Group (MAG), it seems that some of the MAG activists live in Ockenden Road. When the Black Lives Matter thing started, people from the MAG were prominent in organising a "die-in" in Ockenden Road around the disproportionate numbers of BAME Covid-19 deaths

Cummings seemed to be working late at the office that night, I gave up waiting for him to show and went home at about 8.30. Not long after that, from my garden I heard a wail of police sirens coming up Essex Road, and heard a police helicopter overhead. I realised that these were sounds I'd heard every evening for the past few days.

London freelances get together

I was briefly interviewed for an article for NUJ Branch, the NUJ's Covid-19 emergency newsletter, mentioned in dispatches for chairing union branch meetings of around 80 members on Zoom. Tools such as Zoom were developed for decision-making in corporate hierarchies, not for union democracy! I'm on page 02, "London Freelances get together", by Frances Rafferty. It takes me two full days to prepare a Zoom meeting of NUJ London Freelance Branch. I couldn't have chaired them without help co-hosting the meetings from my co-chair Nick Reynaud-Komiya, our Social Media Officer Nicci Talbot and my editor on the Freelance, Mike Holderness.

Appearance on Weird Tales podcast, talking about big cats in Suffolk, woodwoses and mummified cats

I recently appeared on the Weird Tales Radio Show podcast, hosted by my colleague Charles Christian, who I persuaded to rejoin the NUJ after a quarter of a century. (He refers to his NUJ membership in the intro.)

You can listen here. It's a couple of minutes short of a hour. I hope to later add links to my articles on the subjects covered, in the order in which they are discussed in the podcast.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Sutton Hoo: Fortean Traveller

This article first appeared in Fortean Times issue FT390, March 2020. For copyright reasons the photos are different to the ones supplied by National Trust in the article in print.

Panorama of the Sutton Hoo estate, in a gale in August!

HIGH ON the slopes of the River Deben, near the Suffolk town of Woodbridge, lies Sutton Hoo, an estate with woods and a house with spectacular estuary views. On this property lies a cluster of mounds, from which one of England’s greatest archaeological discoveries emerged. Here on the eve of World War Two was uncovered the spectacular ship burial of an Anglo-Saxon believed to be King Raedwald of the East Angles, who reigned from 599AD to his death around 624AD.

A recently installed skeleton showing the dimensions of the ship from the Sutton Hoo ship burial

The original Sutton Hoo treasures – including a stunning decorated helmet, as well as gold jewellery inlaid with garnets from India and Sri Lanka – are now on display in the less atmospheric surroundings of Room 41 of the British Museum in London. But you can see replicas at Sutton Hoo and take woodland walks to visit Sutton Hoo’s impressive Royal Burial Mounds and the house once owned by Edith Pretty, who called in the archaeologists back in 1939.

The Sutton Hoo helmet in the British Museum's Room 41 in London. Replicas are on show at Sutton Hoo.

The Sutton Hoo estate, including the Royal Burial Mounds, the exhibition hall and the house (now known as Tranmer House) are today owned by the National Trust, who reopened the estate to the public in 2019 after a £4 million “transformation” – a refitted exhibition space and new footpaths including a River View Walk through the woods retracing the route along which the ship was dragged from the river for burial. By the time you read this, a viewing tower will probably have opened, allowing visitors a bird’s eye view of the Royal Burial Mounds.

Signage for one of the walks to the Royal Burial Mounds, with the viewing tower under construction in October 2019

My visit was in weather reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon epic poetry – during a gale, in August! Sutton Hoo’s Property Operations Manager Alison Girling bade me take a seat in one of Sutton Hoo’s many cafes while she got me a coffee, but it never arrived. After a long wait I caught sight of her through the café window, jogging as she talked urgently into a radio – she was shutting down the site as the gale took hold. It wasn’t safe that day for walkers to go into the woods by the mounds, I was told, branches of the tall pines would likely fall on them.

The story of how the treasures of Sutton Hoo came to be uncovered includes some fortean twists. Numerous slightly different accounts of what inspired Edith Pretty to call in freelance self-taught archaeologist and astronomer Basil Brown feature seances, spectral apparitions of warriors on horseback and a local “metal diviner.” It’s as if the gold and silver treasures lying beneath Sutton Hoo’s mounds were exerting a supernatural influence on their discoverers, as if the treasures were crying out to mortals to find them.

Mound 1 - the mound that contained the Royal ship burial.

But the legitimate excavations in what’s now known as Mound 1, the world’s greatest Anglo-Saxon ship burial, complete with the impression on the sandy soil of the timbers of a buried ship 90 feet (24.7 metres) long, weren’t the first. Tudor grave robbers had looted most of the other mounds long before the official dig, “ill-doers” had dug a “robber’s trench” into Mound 1 that came within inches of discovering the treasures of King Raedwald. Who were these Tudor grave robbers? Tradition has pointed the finger of suspicion at Elizabeth I’s astrologer and legendary occultist Dr John Dee.

At the time of the 1939 excavation, Basil Brown’s team came across Mound 1’s robber’s trench and found Mound 2 extensively looted. Brown’s team believed that this happened in the sixteenth century and there is still a commonly-held belief today that the robber’s trench and looting was the work of a team led by Dr John Dee (1527-1608). The robber’s trench was later firmly dated by the discovery in it of a Bellarmine jar (famous for its use as a “witch bottle”) . A tradition also seems to have taken hold that Dr Dee sought a commission to search for treasure on the East Coast. (Sutton Hoo’s just 12 miles from the sea.)

Portrait of occultist and court astrologer Dr John Dee, from A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed For Many Years Between Dr John Dee... out of copyright

One ability Dee believed he possessed was discovering hidden treasure, he had several misadventures in that field. Dee genuinely had some expertise in geology, surveying and metal assaying. In later life he leased and ran mines of his own in Devonshire, from which he received royalties. Dee’s writings made little distinction between mining for ores and digging for treasure, in a period when archeology was known as “gold mining.”

Dee’s scryer (spirit medium) Edward Kelley conned him with an elaborate hoax involving fake artefacts he claimed to have dug up at Blockley, Gloucestershire in 1583 (or from Glastonbury or from a Welsh bishop’s tomb, in other versions). These were a book allegedly written by St Dunstan, a vial of a red “powder of projection” and a scroll in coded Medieval Latin written by two exiled Danish princes. The latter included a map cryptically describing ten locations of other buried treasure. Dee was convinced this was all for real.

One of the numerous spirits that Kelley persuaded Dee had appeared to him instructed Dee and Kelley to dig up the treasure identified in the scroll. The spirit identified himself as “El”, opening up his chest to reveal his name written on his heart. El allegedly told Dee and Kelley that if they collected soil samples from each location mentioned in Kelley’s scroll, spirits could then recover whatever lay buried there. Dee found the money to send Kelley on a twelve-day voyage around England in 1583 to gather these “earths.”

According to contemporary belief, treasure buried in the earth was in the custody of demons, only discoverable with their help. The 1562 Statute against Sorcery carried the death penalty for persistent discovery of treasure “by the aid of magic.” Dee repudiated magic and believed he was using mathematics and the scientific exercise of supernatural powers to find buried treasure. He therefore sought Royal Letters Patent to protect him against accusations of sorcery in his endeavours.

So, prompted by his desperate finances, Dee wrote in October 1574 to Lord Treasurer William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Pleading for an annual pension of at least £200, Dee proposed a way to source it cost-free, by discovering buried treasure. He saw the appearance of a new star two years previously as foretelling “the finding of some treasure.” Dee’s letter explained how visions, dreams and “strange terrestrial emanations” pointed to hoards beneath the earth.

Dee’s letter requested a licence to seek for treasure on the Queen’s behalf, in return for half the spoils. Cecil Declined. Martin Carver (see bibliography below) suggests that Dee’s proposal to Lord Burghley could have been an attempt at “a portable antiquities scam”, presumably aimed at fleecing investors.

A table in the "Enochian" language said by Dr John Dee to be used by angels to communicate, inspired by the Book of Enoch in the Old Testament. From A True and Faithful Relation... out of copyright

Enthralling as the idea of Dr Dee grave robbing Sutton Hoo is, it’s alas supported by scant evidence. The cryptic “Danish scroll” apparently made no references to locations around Sutton Hoo. Carver describes a “systematic pillaging of mounds in Suffolk” starting from the time of the dissolution of the monasteries (some 20 years before Dee’s letter to Cecil), fuelled by a belief that corrupt monks had buried their ill-gotten gains. Landowners could apply for licences to dig for treasure on their own land – Sutton Hoo’s local landowners in Dee’s time were the Mather family, Sir Michael Stanhope and Sir Henry Wood, so suspicion falls on them rather than Dee.

Mound 2 - the mound looted by Tudor graverobbbers, now reconstructed to something like its original height.

In the lean, famine-afflicted 1570s, many in desperation turned to digging for buried treasure, especially in burial mounds – so much so that “hill-digger” became a term of abuse. So the intriguing idea of Dr Dee as a clandestine Sutton Hoo archaeologist begins to look less likely.

Some 350 years after Dr Dee’s alleged occult diggings in the vicinity, the mix of paranormal phenomena and archaeology returned to Sutton Hoo.

Edith Pretty, who lived at the house at Sutton Hoo, was involved in Spiritualism and donated money to the Spiritualist church in Woodbridge. When her husband Frank was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1934, Edith contacted well-known spiritualist faith healer William Parish, of whom she was reportedly so in awe that she later instructed her gardeners to plant tulip bulbs in the spots where Parish had paused while walking around the estate. Edith had already been England’s first woman magistrate, she’d volunteered as a nurse in France in World War One, travelled to Egypt, Sudan and South America and gone on a tour of Europe by car. With her husband gone, such an adventurous woman needed something to occupy her mind, her thoughts turned to archeology and the spirit world.

There is debate as to whether seances were held at Sutton Hoo. One account by a local source told of seances in a purple draped “telephone room”. It is known that a “tiny room” in the house was used as a private chapel where Edith could “talk to my husband” after his death. Maids described a crucifix and candles there. Archaeologist Charles Phillips in his memoirs records that Edith would go to Spiritualist meetings in Woodbridge every Thursday. She would “commune” with her husband through a medium. Other sources say Edith regularly attended seances in London, or that she was with the Spiritualist church in London Road, Ipswich, which still survives today as the Horley Spiritualist Centre. She also came into contact with medium and spirit healer Albert Charles Toft of Llanelli, who claimed to be directed by a disembodied Indian spirit diagnostician named Ranji.

Tranmer House

One story of how Edith was inspired to commission the Sutton Hoo dig was simply that it came to her in a dream. Edith told archaeologist Basil Brown when he was on the 1939 dig to go to spiritualist service in Woodbridge, where medium Florence Thompson was in attendance. According to Brown’s diary, Florence told him, “I see fields…. Now I see lots of sand… all sand… assert yourself… go on digging… and you will find what you’re looking for.”

Another story – recounted by Shiela Norman, daughter of the leader of the Woodbridge Spiritualist congregation – has a séance conducted or at least attended by Pretty, supposedly in London, in which a man on black horse materialised and told Edith to plunge a sword into the mounds.

In yet another version, an unnamed guest at Sutton Hoo saw “warriors atop the mounds” one morning from an upstairs window – another variation of the story had these as spectral “horsemen”. Yet another iteration of the story has a friend staying with Edith reporting a single “ghostly figure on horseback on the mounds” – it’s not clear whether this was the same friend who saw multiple figures – on horseback or otherwise – from the upstairs window.

There was a pair of buzzards flying over the Deben when I went on the guided walk of the Royal Burial Mounds, led by Mark Brewster, my guide from the Sutton Hoo Society. He related what he described as a “ghost story” in which – during a seance in the long “seance room” on the top floor of the Sutton Hoo house – a guest rushed to the window after seeing from the corner of her eye a single figure on horseback holding a sword ride over a mound. Brewster reckons it was probably just a poacher, heading down to the Deben ferry. East Anglia’s sudden thick mists can play tricks with the eyes. A more prosaic explanation for Edith’s motivation to cause a dig to take place on her land is that her father had been an amateur archaeologist.

There was also a tenant living on the Sutton Hoo estate known as “Old Pettit”, who was said to be a metal diviner – he assured Edith that “fabulous treasure” lay under her garden, gold and silver, especially in the larger mound.

If you stand outside Tranmer House today and look up, you can the upstairs windows from which Edith’s guest allegedly saw at least one spectral horseman on the mounds. Now only the ground floor’s open to the public. The top floor bedrooms have become holiday apartments. While the other mounds aren’t visible from the ground floor of Tranmer House, you can see the top of Mound 2 through the ground floor windows. Mound 2 – the one looted by Tudor grave-robbers, possibly something to do with Dr Dee – was built up with earth in the 1980s, party so visitors could see something of the mounds from the house, but also in an attempt to reconstruct how the mounds might have looked before a millennia and a half of ploughing and erosion reduced them.

From one of these top floor windows, a house guest is alleged to have seen at least one spectral figure on horseback on the mounds

There was a faint smell of woodsmoke when I visited Tranmer House. One room has become a wood-panelled cinema, with film and radio recordings showing of the 1939 dig. The National Trust have made a good job of evoking 1939 – among the facsimile documents on the desk that visitors can handle is a telegram sent by Brown to archaeologist couple the Piggotts. Peggy Piggott was a much more experienced archaeologist than her husband, but in 1930s Cambridge women couldn't take full degrees, only “diplomas”, so she was the less qualified junior partner of the couple. The telegram tells her husband Stuart they’ve found a “VIKING SHIP” (what they first thought they’d found) and instructed him to “BRING WIFE.”

As the Sutton Hoo dig team were sorting through their finds, a planned open day to showcase some of these was cancelled as World War Two broke out. Work on the dig stopped, the “ship trench” was hastily covered over with bracken. In today’s Tranmer House drawing room you will hear Neville Chamberlain’s tones on the radiogram saying he had “received no such assurances… so I have to tell you that from midnight tonight, we are at war with Germany.”

Edith donated the finds to the British Museum – faith healer William Parish was apparently influential in Edith's decision. Only when her executors were clearing up after Edith’s death did they discover the letter from Winston Churchill offering her a CBE for her generous gesture. Edith declined. The archaeological finds were shipped to the British Museum’s underground safe storage facility in Aldwych Underground station for the duration of the war.

At Sutton Hoo in wartime, the mounds were filled back in, only to be be damaged by armoured vehicles driving over them, destroying much of the impression in earth left by the huge ship in which King Redwald had been interred. The anti-glider trenches dug across the estate (well clear of the mounds) to stop German paratroopers landing are still visible. Edith Pretty died suddenly in 1942, her house became a hostel for Land Army Girls (some carved their names on the fireplace) and smaller buildings on the estate became a refugees’ school.

The archaeologists were back at Sutton Hoo in 1985, in a series of digs that yielded the remains of a noblewoman cremated in two bowls, and also the remains of a dog, horse, goat and sheep.

Unearthed in Mound 17 were the bones of young warrior buried together with his horse in full ornate harness, the horse apparently sacrificed to accompany his master to the afterlife. (You can see them in the exhibition hall, together with a replica Saxon sword that you can try lifting – it’s surprisingly heavy!) These burial practices hinted at a culture in transition from paganism to Christianity – King Raedwald converted to Christianity himself and raised Christian altars, but on the advice of the women of his household kept the altars to the pagan gods in place as well.

Mound 17 - from which the horse burial was excavated

Were the apparitions on horseback seen by Edith’s guests something to do with the warrior horseman buried in Mound 17? England’s man-and-horse burials are almost exclusively from Suffolk – others were discovered at Eye, Mildenhall and Snape. There’s also a legend in the Suffolk village of Blythburgh – 22 miles up the coast – about a ghostly horse that used to burst forth from a mound to canter around the local common. (The mound’s long been lost to erosion and ploughing.) Could Blythburgh's equestrian phantom have been inspired by a long-forgotten Saxon horse burial find?

Other excavations, including the digs in the 1980s and 1990s, unearthed mysterious “sandmen”, blackened stick men with vague features, they melted away to nothing soon after being exhumed.

These, it turns out, were the victims of medieval executions dumped in the earth. Coastal Suffolk’s sandy, acid soil meant the bodies quickly rotted away, the spaces in the sandy earth were then filled with black, sandy silt. These mystery figures, basically made of sand, fell apart on contact with air. Like the impressions of the victims of Pompeii, there’s one black-painted fibreglass cast of a “sandman” on the Sutton Hoo site, Brewster said he thinks the other sandman casts are somewhere in British Museum storage.

Now the archaeology’s happening four miles down the road at Rendlesham (better known as the epicentre of the UK’s best-known UFO incident of Boxing Day 1980) where a team of detectorists with the permission of the landowner are sweeping the fields where the seat of the Kings of East Anglia once lay. Brewster told me he’s heard Sutton Hoo has more – as yet undisturbed – mounds somewhere among the trees near the river.

© Matt Salusbury

A full-size seaworthy reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo ship is currently under construction in The Long Shed Woodbridge (the nearest town to Sutton Hoo) using ancient shipbuliding techniques. It's regularly open to the public, for opening hours see here.

The frontispiece of A True and Faithful Relation, which describes Dr John Dee's alleged communication with spirits.


Edith Pretty: From Socialite to Sutton Hoo
, Mary Skelcher and Chris Durrant, Leiston Press 2006

The Dig, John Preston, Penguin, London 2008.( In September 2019, a Netflix crew were spotted in Suffolk filming the forthcoming TV series The Dig, based on this novelisation of the 1939 excavations and starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan.)

“Sutton Hoo - An Archaeography”, Martin Carver, in Great Excavations, Shaping the Archaeological Profession, John Schofield (ed.), Oxbow, Oxford, 2011

A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits
And also the Letters of Sundry Great Men Kept in the library of Sir Tho. Cotton
, Preface by Meric. Casaubon D.D, D. Maxwell, London 1659

The Queen’s Conjurer – the science and magic of Dr John Dee, adviser to Queen Elizabeth I
, Benjamin Woolley, Henry Holt, New York, 2002

Edward Kelley’s Danish treasure hoax and Elizabethan antiquarianism”, Francis Young, Intellectual History Review, February 2019

“Dr John Dee”, Three Famous Occultists, G. M. Hort, Rider & Co London 1922
National Trust Sutton Hoo, admission £13.50 adults, for seasonal opening times see here

Nearest train station Melton (trains from Ipswich and Lowestoft) Greater Anglia. Sutton Hoo is a short (uphill) cycle ride from Melton, or by M&R Cars of Woodbridge.

Bus 65 from Ipswich and Woodbridge (not Sundays) has a Sutton Hoo stop, First in Norfolk and Suffolk buses.