Hands up those who have watched The Dig on Netflix recently? You will know that it tells the true story of how Edith Pretty and Basil Brown uncovered the greatest Saxon treasure trove ever found in Britain. The Dig is a fascinating watch (especially if history and archaeology are your thing); but did you known that Edith was born in Elland?
Edith’s grandfather was Robert Dempster, who founded a gas equipment business in Elland in 1855. Granddaughter Edith was born in 1883 and lived in a house at Rose Mount Works, where Dempster employed 150 people. As business grew, so did the site; eventually stretching across 26 acres.
Edith’s family amassed great wealth from the gas industry, at a time when gas light was used before the advent of electricity; and the Dempster empire would be providing gas tanks for towns as far away as Australia.
Young Edith would grow up to become an Edwardian socialite; she was well-educated, well-travelled, public-spirited and kind. Fast forward fifty years and Edith’s generosity would enable her to make a great gift of treasure to the nation.
The Dig picks up Edith’s story in 1938; when Edith (now Mrs Edith Pretty) is living at Sutton Hoo, a country estate near Woodbridge, Suffolk. Edith (played by Carey Mulligan) decides to enlist local excavator, Basil Brown, (played by Ralph Fiennes) to explore some archeologically interesting mounds of earth which lay on her land.
The following summer, Brown unearthed the stunning discovery: the remains of a huge burial ship that reached back in time to 630AD. The ghostly imprint of a 27-metre-long ship was uncovered, along with the burial chamber of a Saxon King, later found to be King Raedwald of East Anglia. When word of the discovery got out, it caused a public and professional sensation.
After lying in acidic soil for 1300 years, the ship’s oak timbers had long since disappeared but many of its precious metal treasures lay intact. Amongst the haul was a gold helmet, with garnet-studded eyebrows (although crushed into hundreds of tiny fragments). Other solid gold artefacts were found intact and gleaming. They included an exquisitely decorated shoulder clasp and a heavy belt buckle that weighed as much as a football.
The find was monumental, and changed our understanding of Saxon life and culture. Generous Edith (who thought she had been given a lucky lot in life) donated the precious find to the nation. It was the greatest donation ever made by a living donor, and the British Museum would be the proud recipient. Sadly Edith, who refused to be honoured with a CBE by Winston Churchill, died in 1942 and never saw the treasure exhibited in all its glory.
Without Elland-born Edith, the Sutton Hoo story would have been very different. Her vision to excavate brought an ancient king’s treasure trove into the light; and her gift to the nation helped shatter previous conceptions that Saxon England was dark and primitive. Edith’s great gift is available for all to see in Room 41 at the British Museum, London.
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