As a result of the new film on Netflix, The Dig, there has been renewed interest in the Anglo-Saxon ship burial site, Sutton Hoo. We have found a surprising link between the 1400-year-old Sutton Hoo burial, the Australian Museum, and a WWII war hero.
The Australian Museum Mineralogy collection holds a 55 mm iron rivet (D.39416) in two parts, the shaft and the ‘rove’ (a diamond shaped piece of iron with a central hole through which the shaft was driven) from the 1400-year-old Anglo-Saxon ship burial site at Sutton Hoo, Woodbridge, Suffolk, England. Over time they have been converted to goethite, an iron oxy-hydroxide.
The Australian Museum acquired the rivet in 1955, as a donation from Mrs O.M. Sherington, and the Mineral Register entry is in the handwriting of Oliver Chalmers, Curator of Minerals at that time, for 30th June 1955. I came across the rivet in 1979 during my first year at the Australian Museum and being interested in ancient history, I immediately realised what it was. The current screening of the movie ‘The Dig’, which features the 1939 Sutton Hoo discovery, has subsequently raised interest in this historic item from our collection.
I did some research which turned up a remarkable WWII story revealing the identity and exploits of the donor, Mrs Olive Marie Sherington (nee Hingley), from Collaroy, Sydney. Olive left Australia on a cruise to Europe, just a few months after her husband died in 1939. However, due to the declaration of war in September of that year the ship was turned back to London. After this unexpected incident, Olive was determined to serve the Empire in some capacity to help the war effort. Olive was holidaying in London when the war broke out, and she enlisted and served in the Battle of France in May 1940. Initially she helped run the British Army and Navy Club in Paris, but in April 1940 flew back to London to train with the British Women’s Mechanised Transport Corps. The Corps provided drivers for ambulances, staff cars and supply vehicles, and later Olive became a Senior Commandant in that organisation.
Olive drove trucks and ambulances in France and was one of the first women ashore at Normandy. She was one of the last British Forces women to leave France in June 1940 after the Dunkirk evacuation and was also one of the first to return to France, driving her truck off a landing craft onto the beaches, days after the invasion. She was never far from the front lines and was always ready to help. In her progress through newly liberated Europe she rescued, tended and transported many wounded soldiers and civilians at great danger to herself.
Olive was cited for her courage and fortitude when she transported a party of 13 seriously wounded British soldiers against dreadful odds to the motor vessel "Madura", just days after the fall of France, and stayed onboard caring for the wounded.
For her extraordinary wartime service, Olive was Mentioned in Despatches, awarded the ‘King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct’ badge from King George VI and received a commendation for bravery from Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Olive was much loved by her wartime compatriots and the patients she helped to transport and tend and was affectionately known as ‘Sherry’. Olive later worked with the Council of Voluntary War Workers in France, Holland and Germany, and back in Australia worked on behalf of war orphans with Legacy. Olive died on 16 December 1971, but her remarkable wartime exploits deserve retelling.
When the Anglo-Saxon ship burial and the amazing “Sutton Hoo treasure” were discovered in May 1939 it created a sensation. It was one of the most exciting discoveries ever made in British Archaeology, and the treasures can be seen on display in the British Museum where I first saw them in 1981. The gold and silver finds, including a sword, helmet & shield, and finely engraved decorative items such as a buckle, shoulder clasps and a purse lid set with polished garnets are very beautiful. People flocked to the site from all over Great Britain to see this excavated burial mound and its remarkable imprint of a 27 metre buried ancient ship with impressions of timber planks still visible and iron rivets (now mineral ‘rust’) still in place and lined up in rows. The occupant of the grave, (possibly Raedwald, an early 7th Century King of East Anglia) was not found, as the body had completely disintegrated.
A newspaper report of 4th August 1939 in The Herald (Melbourne, Victoria) has an extensive coverage of the Sutton Hoo find, including a detailed eyewitness account by Olive which begins: “Mrs Olive Sherington, of Sydney, who was present at the excavation, said:- I spent a week watching the searchers working with infinite caution using a fine brush and a tiny probe.” Another newspaper report of 5th August 1939 (The Daily News, Perth, W.A.) reports Olive said: “Excavators gave me a small piece of dark-red cloth in which the sword was wrapped, also a bolt from the coffin-ship”. Presumably, Olive brought the rivet back to Sydney after the war ended. We don’t know the circumstances of Olive’s donation after keeping the rivet for many years, but possibly she just wanted a secure place to keep her much prized memento safe for posterity, and here we are, still talking about it 66 years later!
Ross Pogson, Collection Manager, Mineralogy & Petrology, Australian Museum Research Institute
- Barnard, J. 2019. Why is the Sutton Hoo Ship fixed with rivets? The Sutton Hoo Ship's Company. https://saxonship.org/2019/08/23/why-are-ships-fixed-with-rivets/
- Casey, Shane. 2019. Olive Sherington: Last out and first in. Wartime Magazine 87, Australian War Memorial. https://www.awm.gov.au/wartime/87/article-four
- Grant, Lachlan. 2019. Remembering Australia’s D-Day Veterans, 75 years later. The Canberra Times, 1 June 2019. https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6191943/remembering-australias-d-day-veterans-75-years-on/
- McDowell, Jeanne Dorin. 2021. The True History Behind Netflix’s ‘The Dig’ and Sutton Hoo. Smithsonian Magazine https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-history-behind-netflixs-dig-and-sutton-hoo-180976923/
- The Daily News (Perth, W.A.). 1939. “Rich Finds in English King’s Grave”. Saturday 5th August 1939, page 3.
- The Herald (Melbourne, VIC). 1939. “Ancient Funeral Ship Unearthed on Hilltop”. Friday 4th August 1939, page 7.
- Williams, Gareth. 2011. Treasures from Sutton Hoo. The British Museum.