The painted portrait of Edith Pretty.

Edith Pretty

Edith Pretty introduction

Edith Pretty (1883–1942) arranged the excavation of the earth mounds of her Suffolk home in 1938–1939 and discovered the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon ship burial. 

It proved to be the richest intact burial ever found in Medieval Europe and contained a chamber full of treasures. Pretty was declared the owner but refused to sell her find. She gifted all of the treasure to the nation, gaining national and international acclaim. 

She remains one of The British Museum's most generous benefactors.

Early Years

Pretty was born into an affluent family and educated at Roedean. She travelled extensively throughout her youth, visiting Pompeii, the Egyptian pyramids, and tombs and monuments at Luxor and other significant digs with her father, who himself excavated a Cistercian abbey adjoining their home at Vale Royal.

It sparked a love of history and archaeology, which would give her the vision to excavate the Sutton Hoo ship later in life.

Early Years

Spirited, with a great affinity for people, Pretty spent much of WWI volunteering at a Red Cross hospital in France.

With no formal medical training, she embraced the task, working with casualties of the Western Front and witnessing terrible carnage. Edith kept in touch with her fiancé, Frank Pretty, throughout the war and subsequent travels to Africa, marrying him in 1926 at the age of 42.

The Prettys moved into the sprawling Sutton Hoo estate near Ipswich in 1926. After a period of illness, the birth of her son, and Frank's death, Pretty withdrew from her social life. As she spent more time on her estate, she focused on a curious feature of the grounds: 18 low earth mounds lying 500 yards from her house.

Sutton Hool burial

Pretty had the vision to dig. From experiencing her father's excavations at Vale Royal and from knowledge gained from her travels in Egypt, she knew that a professional excavation was needed.

She consulted the curator of the Ipswich Corporation Museum, Guy Maynard, and appointed local amateur archaeologist Basil Brown to start the work. 

Pretty oversaw the excavations herself for two years, and when the largest mound unearthed what looked like a huge ship burial, she knew it was of enormous historic significance.

Sutton Hoo burial

The grave goods were spectacular – an enormous gold buckle, richly ornamented with niello inlay, a jewelled wooden instrument, silver bowls and gold coins, gold clasps ornamented with garnet and glass, and the iconic Sutton Hoo helmet.

The scale of the discoveries exceeded Pretty's hopes, and a curator from the British Museum declared the dig as 'one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time'.

A treasure trove inquest held in 1939 determined that the treasure belonged to Pretty, and within days she had donated all of it to the British Museum in a stunning act of generosity.

In recognition, prime minister Winston Churchill nominated Pretty for a CBE. She declined.

Further reading

  • Mary Skelcher and Chris Durrant, Edith Pretty: From socialite to Sutton Hoo (Leighton Press, 2006)