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Archaeology gaffe: ‘Greatest treasure ever found in England’ put back together incorrectly

Sutton Hoo: Expert speaks in 2009 about helmet discovery

Next month Netflix will release its new drama film ‘The Dig,’ which depicts the events of the excavation of Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge, Suffolk. The site became the centre of an incredible discovery when an ancient burial was uncovered on the property of Edith Pretty. In 1939, archaeologists found two early medieval cemeteries that dated from the sixth to seventh centuries and have been excavating the area ever since.

One cemetery had an undisturbed ship burial with a wealth of Anglo-Saxon artefacts, including a ceremonial helmet, a shield and sword.

But the BBC’s ‘Masterpieces of the British Museum’ documentary detailed how World War 2 caused a mistake to be made in the later reconstruction of the helmet.

The narrator said: “London was under attack and the British Museum moved many of its treasures to an underground station.

“The helmet, still in over 500 pieces, was boxed up and stored here.

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“At the end of the war, the huge job began of piecing it back together – it took two years.

“This was the outcome that was proudly displayed in The Festival of Britain in 1951.”

The series revealed how concerns soon started to be raised by experts.

It added: “Despite all the attention the helmet was getting, there was a growing sense of unease around the way it had been put back together.

“It didn’t actually function as a helmet and the sides of the face and the throat had been left completely unprotected.”

Archaeologist and author Angela Care Evans revealed what the main issues were.

She said: “Because the crest and the dragon overlapped the neck guard, the guard was not flexible.

“It meant if you wore it you were almost imprisoned in it.

“These things led to the helmet being dismantled and then put together again.

“It was like opening a little box of horrors.”

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The series revealed how experts found a missing piece to the 500-piece jigsaw, which completely changed how the helmet looked.

It continued in 2009: “In 1971, the reassembly started, British Museum conservator Nigel Williams was given the job.

“For over six months the helmet laid in over 500 fragments on Williams’ worktop.

“Then an astounding breakthrough was made, in a box marked ‘head,’ he found the jaw to a dragon head similar to that on either side of the crest.

“It hadn’t been used on the original construction.

“It was a perfect fit between the eyebrows, interlocking with the other elements of the mask – suddenly the features materialised.”

Most of the objects uncovered from Sutton Hoo are now held by the British Museum.

The collection was described as “some of the greatest treasure ever found on English soil” and at the time it was worth around £50,000, or £3.3million today.

The new Netflix release is directed by Simon Stone and based on the 2007 novel of the same name by John Preston.

It is scheduled to have limited release on January 15, 2021, followed by streaming on Netflix on January 29, 2021.

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