Netflix film The Dig tells the story of the discovery of Sutton Hoo.
Before 1938, one of the biggest archaeological finds in Britain remained deep under burial mounds on an estate in Ipswich, East Anglia. Curious about what was under these mounds, estate owner Edith Pretty contacted Ipswich Museum in summer 1937, and the following spring self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown arrived at Sutton Hoo to excavate. He found human remains, an axe head, pottery, a sword head, a bronze disc, and pieces of iron identified as ship rivets. The rivets could have been scattered by grave robbers, Brown supposed, but still, further excavation of the largest mound was needed. In summer 1939, the second excavation revealed that the site did indeed contain a ship, 90 feet (27m) in length.
Over 80 years later, few outside the world of archaeology remember Sutton Hoo or understand its significance. Netflix’s new film The Dig can help with that. Based on the novel of the same name by John Preston, the film explores the initial excavation requested by Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), conducted by Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), the discovery of the ship, the intensifying media interest, and the battle between Ipswich Museum and the British Museum to house the artefacts themselves. In the midst of these discoveries, we also discover the characters involved. Pretty, a widow living with her young son, struggles with loneliness and a debilitating heart condition which eventually requires her to walk with a cane. The true centre of the film is Brown, an “amateur” archaeologist with knowledge of the soils and geology of East Anglia. His work supersedes what professionals expected to find, and his determination does not falter even when he becomes buried under a collapsed dirt wall. Despite his commendable character, he fights to avoid being side-lined when esteemed archaeologist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) bulldozes his way onto the site – quite literally, as Brown stresses to him that someone of his size should not stand on the fragile ship remains.
Phillips arrives with married archaeologist couple Stuart and Peggy Piggott (Ben Chaplin and Lily James), while Pretty’s cousin Rory Lomax photographs the site. Fictional character Lomax serves as a potential lover for Peggy, whose marriage is failing as it is heavily implied that Stuart is gay. Peggy, already a respected archaeologist with diplomas from Cambridge University and the Institute of Archaeology, is supposedly only part of the project due to her delicate size and her status as Stuart’s wife. While remaining loyal to Preston’s novel, the film could have done better in representing Peggy Piggott and not bothering with the love story, which may have been an attempt to lure romance fans had it not been plotted halfway through the film.
While she delivered an excellent performance, the choice of 35-year-old Carey Mulligan for Edith Pretty, who was well into her 50s at the time, has prompted debates on social media about why none of the many actresses of the right age were chosen. 66-year-old Ken Stott portrays Charles Phillips, who was then in his late 30s, and while Stuart and Peggy Piggott were aged 29 and 27 respectively, Ben Chaplin is old enough to be Cinderella star Lily James’ father. The choice of casting seems to tell viewers that even films set in the dirt require young, glamorous women, while age or appearance does not matter for men.
Despite the typical perils of Hollywood films – unnecessary romance, simplifying a female character, and questionable casting – The Dig celebrates not only the fascinating find but honours the legacy of Basil Brown whose work at Sutton Hoo went officially unrecognised for years. When an inquest decided that the artefacts belonged to Pretty, she gifted them to the British Museum and requested that Brown be acknowledged. But his name was not featured in Sutton Hoo’s first exhibition after the war, and has only been featured recently at its permanent home, the British Museum. While The Dig will hopefully inspire wider public interest in archaeology beyond Indiana Jones, the current reality is that the pandemic prevents potential visitors from seeing the collection. But for now, the film succeeds in celebrating the amazing contribution of Basil Brown and telling the world his name and his story. We can also see his name when we return to see the collection which, after 13 centuries, will still be waiting.