“This is Anglo-Saxon. Piggott! Grimes! It’s Dark Age, by Jupiter. Sixth century! This changes everything. These people were not just marauding barterers. They had culture! They had art! They had money!”

So says Charles W. Phillips on the discovery of the burial chamber in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo according to the sensitive and sorrowful film on Netflix, The Dig. 

Based on John Preston’s novel, the story follows the kindred-spirit relationship between Basil Brown and Edith Pretty and some of the archaeologists and others characters involved in the famous discovery and excavation of the ship and burial chamber to be known as Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo on the eve of the Second World War. Conflating the excavations commissioned by Pretty on her land at Sutton Hoo during the summers of 1938 and 1939, it begins with the first visit of Brown to Pretty and concludes with the back-filling of the grave at the outbreak of conflict.

In the middle of a global pandemic with both the increased death-rate and the huge dislocation and disruption (physical, economic and emotional) it is bringing, the airing of this film chimes with the tempo of our moment, sad yet full of kindness and hope. The sense of impending deaths at war, the death of a pilot, and Pretty’s own failing health, as well as stinted dynamics between multiple characters works powerfully in this environment, as did Brown working to move dangerous amounts of earth in difficult circumstances with only two assistants and the time-sensitive efforts of the entire enterprise of the Phillips excavation team. This is essential viewing for all archaeologists, whatever your era of specialism and interests. Furthermore, it is yet another key example of what I’ve called the potential for an ‘Anglo-Saxon archaeology for all’, drawing together the story of the discovery with the story of the archaeology itself to tell a positive and engaging narrative about the centuries following the end of Roman Britain and our recent imaginings about the early medieval period. 

While the costumes and settings are well researched, inevitably the detail of the storyline includes exaggerations, temporal conflations and utterly fictional dimensions. The overall framing of Pretty as legitimate investigator and then generous donor, and Brown as the experienced but self-taught excavator side-lined by university academics, are perhaps only one particular reading of the story of Sutton Hoo’s Mound 1. This is the story the National Trust want you to take away as a visitor to Sutton Hoo today and the story the British Museum wish to promote to recognise the truly generous gift of Pretty of the ‘treasure’ to the nation. This is the ‘English’ story of Sutton Hoo, of the fragile remains of the past with an uncertain fate, saved and enduring, a security blanket against all else going wrong around us. The friable traces are a metaphor for the nation. The discovery fosters reflection on traces of Germanic invaders and settlers past and ongoing threats from Europe in 1939 and today: hopes and horrors borne on wind and tide.

Still, much of the interactions between the British Museum appointed team, Ipswich Museum, Brown and Pretty is fairly portrayed and tensions there most surely were, especially in the early stages of the dig. Individual moments of the film are well-researched, such as how the finds were revealed, lifted and packed, and then even stored for a time under a bed. The coroner’s inquest isn’t shown but the outside scene afterwards is, and how the ship was protected by Brown on the advent of war is true and accurate. There is much to be commended and the basic facts of the grave’s significance are conveyed in general terms.

I won’t pretend to be a film critic, but I would add some further observations about the characters and story. Some characters are well-cast and superb performances are delivered. Basil Brown was in his early 50s and is played superbly by Ralph Fiennes (58), including his accent, reserved demeanour, body language, gait and cycling. Brown is attributed the identification of parallels with the Snape ship-burial and determination of the finds as Anglo-Saxon before Phillips. Monica Dolan as May Brown is great too. Welsh archaeologist W.F. Grimes (33 in the summer of 1939) is played by Arsher Ali (36), dressed strikingly as seen in the original dig photographs and, as with the other excavators we sadly see very little of him. Margaret Piggott (26/27 at the time of the dig) is played by Lily James (32) and again she looks the part, but I won’t comment further on the irrelevant portrayal of her relationships and her odd representation as inexperienced in archaeology in this context. She is rightly shown as the first discoverer of gold in the ship.

I was irked by the age and demeanours of some of the actors selected, which I think might be justifiably criticised. I would point out three stark issues with the other castings: Edith Pretty was older than Brown at the time of the excavations, at 56. Carey Mulligan plays the role fabulously but is implausibly youthful at 35, even if her sad visage and struggles with health help to imagine her as an older lady. Her precognition is subtly portrayed too, which chimes with what little we know of her motives for the dig in the first place. Her reasoning behind her decision to give the finds to the nation rather than sell them or keep them is kept justifiably opaque, but we are steered towards the sense that the funerary context, that these were items placed with a dead man of warrior status (allusions to her dead husband?), influenced her. Wonderfully (and I confess I don’t know if accurately), she is given a voice to explain the significance of the find. Strikingly, in doing so, she is said to regard the ship itself as the greatest ‘treasure’.

In stark contrast, Ben Chaplin is 50; while he has aged magnificently, and plays the role brilliantly, it is difficult to see him as the 29-year-old Stuart Piggott. The portrayal of his sexuality is a matter for discussion elsewhere.

Most unfair of all, however, the 38-year-old thick-set Charles Phillips is cast as a truly super-sized Ken Stott (67) and this just doesn’t work at all in my view. Yet for all the bellicosity of his portrayal, Phillips is shown to get his way and present a coherent story for the significance of the find at the inquest and to visitors. And he does get the best lines, including:

The Dark Ages are no longer dark!

The Mound 1 ‘treasure’ was indeed portrayed as setting the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms on a new archaeological and historical footing in the British academic world and the wider popular imagination, also setting our understanding of ‘early England’ in a new light in relation to a broader Scandinavian, Continental and Mediterranean background.

For British Archaeology and medieval archaeology as a whole, and for the British Museum and National Trust specifically (where one can learn about the discoveries of 1938/1939 and subsequent fieldwork), this is a moment of celebration. It has certainly been delightful to see the enthusiasm and anticipation among archaeologists and wider still among enthusiasts regarding this film. Its release has coincided with a host of promotions and reflections from many quarters eager to communicate the dig and the site and the finds behind the story. See Dr Sue Brunning’s blog especially.

As someone who has published about the interpretation of Sutton Hoo on multiple occasions,  I too welcome this release and the interest and profile-raising it produces. However, the promotion of the authentic ‘Sutton Hoo Story’, the fictionalised and valorised rediscovery of English royal origins, means The Dig is worthy of our critical attention beyond mere celebration. Hence, I will follow this general post up with a second one affording a more detailed evaluation of how the landscape, site, monuments and artefacts are represented in the film, and a third exploring role of mortuary archaeology as a point of reflection on time and mortality.

To conclude, if there’s one thing now I want to see is the sequel, telling the story of the campaign of excavations led by Professor Martin Carver in the 1980s and 1990s…