Over the weekend, I’ve been monitoring responses and I’ve been delighted to see so much enthusiasm for the brand-new film The Dig, based on a book inspired by a pivotal 2-season investigation of an early Anglo-Saxon burial site at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. It has been great to see archaeologists & medievalists across the world recognising the film release allows both celebration & critical reflection on the history of the discipline and key discoveries, but also the practices & people involved in the production of archaeological knowledge in socio-political context.

Why are so many archaeologists joining the public and critics in being delighted at this representation of their subject despite reservations regarding the portrayal of specific individuals and the conflation and simplification of real-life events? I think it comes from so many factors, including the exciting story of discovery of a ship-burial unsurpassed in regards the number and quality of artefacts found. The site is already famous and well-presented at a National Trust heritage site and the British Museum and has had a significant influence on the archaeology and history of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms within a broader context of these islands, Scandinavia, Continental Europe and the Mediterranean. Moreover, the details represented of the excavation are ‘true to life’, the clashes of personality which again chime with the class and gender politics of the time (and still somewhat today as well), the specificity of the imminent-war context and the detail afforded to landscape, buildings & costumes as well as the archaeological monuments and the dig itself. Everyone recognises that while we are seeing a drama, it does show respect in broadest terms to the sequence of real-life events underlying the fiction. All of this is so rare in representations of archaeology in the arts and media! I’d also say a further key reason behind the appeal across both academic and popular audiences is because all the protagonists are united in their efforts to reject the equation of archaeology with ‘treasure’, recognising the early Anglo-Saxon grave links past, present and future through the story of its discovery and analysis and the story of early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and their Christian conversion. Moreover, this is not just a story about ‘early England’ and its proto-royals, if so I would critique it more severely. Instead, it balances this romance and patriotism in the face of impending war and the search for explicitly English origins with a careful consideration of the excavations as a mediation on archaeology, humanity and mortality more broadly.

In this second post about The Dig, I wish to explore the representation of the landscape of Suffolk and monuments of Sutton Hoo in 1939. This is very much the least important of three posts I intend to produce. See my part 1 blog for a general overview of my thoughts about the film’s characters, plot and mood, and its pertinence in 2021 as part of an ‘Anglo-Saxon archaeology for all‘. It is clear that while considerable research went into the show in making the scenes and landscape, barrows, ship-burials and artefacts reflective of the famous excavation at Sutton Hoo in 1939, there are things that the film didn’t, and perhaps couldn’t feasibly achieve. While these might seem pedantic details, as part of an ‘archaeology’ of the film itself I believe it is worthwhile exploring how it chose to portray the Suffolk landscape and the immediate environs of Sutton Hoo in particular, as well as the topography, the mounds and the archaeological discoveries. For a specific discussion of the research done and the accuracy of the dig itself, I defer completely to Dr Sue Brunning’s blog-post.

The landscape – a key actor in the story

Filming took place in both Surrey and Suffolk. For anyone watching the film, it is clear that the Suffolk landscape around Sutton Hoo is absolutely integral to the story.  Here are the main ways this happens:

  • Proximity to a railway line with trains to London is pivotal to the plot as Pretty visits to consult specialists regarding her health;
  • The relationship with Ipswich as far away but accessible via a very long cycle is key to the story when Brown cycles there with his first ship rivet;
  • The relationship with the tidal estuary is central to Brown’s journeys as he crosses by ferry and approaches Pretty’s house. It also features when, on a break from digging a ship-burial, he watches a working craft pass by as he sits on the river bank smoking his pipe: the ship in the grave and the river are linked inextricably. This connection is emphasised further when an RAF fighter crashes into the Deben, thus enhancing the spatial and visual relationship between the river and the burial ground regarding cross-North Sea conflict and communication past and present;

  • Indeed, proximity to RAF bases in SE Suffolk in general terms (note the comment below by Don Church meaning I’ve revised details here) means the aerial presence of the impending war is a key component of the story; and repeatedly we see attention to the skies above as a threat and a place of imagined journeying, from Robert’s rocket to Brown’s speculations that the ship was either meant for a journey to the underworld or the stars;

  • The relationship with Sutton parish church is important, where Edith Pretty visits her husband’s grave: the personal parallel to the grave of the ancient warrior she has instigated the excavation of is pivotal;
  • The close association of Edith Pretty’s home to the burial mounds is very important. This is accurately shown as close but not proximal, defining the rationale for Pretty’s interest and the entire flow of characters to and fro, as well as Pretty’s presence regularly on the dig-site. For example, Brown is able to rush out at night in heavy rain to extend the tarpaulin protecting the partially excavated ship;
  • The immediate proximity to a screen of trees – Top Hat Wood – blocking visual interaction with the river from the site is also precise, although the lack of conifers makes for a stark contrast with the actual site of Sutton Hoo. Moreover, the wood down to the river features in multiple scenes, as when Peggy collects moss to pack the finds in boxes, and the fictional Rory is camped there.
  • The grassland and the shepherd’s hut brought to serve as shelter are all fine and appropriate to the real-world landscape of the heathland of Sutton Hoo.

  • The mounds are shown in a sporadic group in grassland. I count five mounds in total, with one to one side of Mound 1, and three on the other. This is sufficient to give a sense of the earthworks investigated by Brown in 1938 before digging Mound 1 in 1939, and conflated into a single summer for the drama.

In all these regards and more, the Suffolk landscape – its farms, houses, fields, woods, churches, estuarine river and skies – and the archaeological site are key players in the story of The Dig and the carefully crafted screenplay makes use of the open-air and landscape vistas in a striking regard. It is hardly surprising that, in addition to Surrey, filming locations were carefully selected and from Suffolk. Hearty congratulations to all involved: rarely before has such care and attention been paid to the representation of an archaeological site and its setting as part of an historical drama.

Some inaccurate aspects of the landscape

However, I must break ranks with the near-universal approval of the film to be critical of the portrayal of the landscape in four specific regards. Note, however, I’m not saying these factors were all avoidable, some stem from the challenges of modern film-making and the fact that they couldn’t actually film at Sutton Hoo itself. Indeed, the characteristics of the site are so specific that a comparable topographical situation was evidently simply not available. Those qualifiers notwithstanding, I feel these deserve mention:

1. Animals

While nightingale calls are heard, a flock of birds is featured, and rabbits are mentioned, I saw sight of not a single four-legged beast in the entire film. There are no dogs, no cats, no horses used for riding or traction, no cattle, pigs, sheep or goats in the fields, no geese or chickens in farmyards. The 1930s in Suffolk is portrayed as a landscape of cars and bicycles with the occasional vans and lorries and a single tractor. Perhaps this is the simplest thing since any animal represented is subject to a cacophony of criticisms regarding whether that breed was living in that specific locality in the 1930s. Of course, Herdwick sheep greet visitors to Sutton Hoo today and they are a recent introduction, but I had hoped to have some sense of how the land was farmed and contained more than people and occasional vehicles;

2. The relationship with the river

I couldn’t help but notice that Brown cycles the wrong way having crossed the Deben by ferry from Woodbridge. He cycles on a track parallel to the river, but southwards on the west (wrong side) of the river in the early morning! If he were on the correct side of the Deben, he should have been heading first east and then north with the sun behind the camera and the river in view. In doing so, the countryside would be different, of course, and there is a steep incline (the reason why the barrows are located there, see point 3, below). Does this matter? No at all, but Sutton Hoo is so well-known this is worth noting as an error.

3. The topography of the Anglo-Saxon ‘princely’ burial site

The immediate topography of the burial site is not convincing and I do feel this does matter in relation to the story. Anyone who has ever visited Sutton Hoo will realise that the Anglo-Saxon burial ground is located in a very specific north-south orientated ridge-top location and the barrow cemetery is spread along it broadly SSW-NNE alignment in two lines of mounds and with a cluster of mounds at the south. The ground falls away steeply to the west through the wood, but also more moderately but demonstrably to the east and south. Only to the north is there a near-flat approach to Mound 1 following the ridge line and past the other burial mounds from Tranmer House.

In the filming location was probably chosen because no modern buildings could be seen and there is a screen of trees next to pasture: criteria difficult enough to achieve! However, because of this choice of location, there is no clear ridge and drop down to the estuary from the burial mounds, so one doesn’t get any sense of why they might be located there, on a ‘hoh’ – a promontory over the valley paired with the one occupied by Tranmer House to the north.  Moreover, it is evident that the filming location is at the bottom of a long marked slope from the north. This features repeatedly in the film because it is the direction Pretty and Brown walk downslope from the house which is out-of-site. This is a completely inaccurate relationship between Pretty’s house and the princely burial mounds. Moreover, the general arrangement of the mounds seems to be c. WNW-ESE and certainly not the required SSW-NNE, since Brown starts digging with the rising summer sun coinciding with the barrow alignment. So the arrangement of the barrow cemetery and Pretty’s house’s relationship with the mounds, is not factored correctly. Furthermore, the mound to the ‘north’ (actually west) of Mound 1 should be Mound 2 but it is far too close by. There is a cluster of mounds to the ‘south’ (actually east) of Mound1 and this is accurate and fair, but more mounds should have been located here. This has two striking implications for the story.

    1. the prominence of the burial mounds is underplayed in topographical terms and incorrectly aligned as well as too few in number (at least 10 should be visible): the context of Mound 1 and its topographical situation is simply inadequate;
    2. there is no line of sight between Pretty’s residence and the burial mounds along the ridge which anyone visiting will know is a key dimension of the story and Pretty’s inspiration for a dig to take place. The direction of the house is correct, but the topography and the arrangement of the mounds is not.
Looking north over mounds 11, 10, 1, 7, 6 and the reconstructed mound 2, with Edith Pretty’s residence clearly in visual interaction with the mounds (Photograph: Howard Williams, 2008)

4. The mounds

New mounds were obviously created for the film. The form of the mounds were interesting: in general terms they all seemed the right diameter but they were all too steep and high, as if they were inspired by the reconstructed Mound 2 created by archaeologists at the end of Professor Martin Carver’s excavations in the 1990s and ahead of the construction of the National Trust Visitor Centre rather than the heavily denuded mounds that have survived into the modern era and can still be seen today! This is demonstrated clearly in the portrayal of Brown’s excavation of Mound 3, the first mound to be investigated, and revealing the ‘Butcher’s Tray’ cremation burial. The trench is the one in which Brown is buried by a collapse of earth, yet the mound was estimated to have been no higher than 5 feet  (at least the cremation burial in Mound 3 was described as ‘5 feet below the ground surface’).

The reconstructed Mound 2 (Howard Williams, 2016)

In the film, it looms over Brown up to c. 8-9 feet. Brown was of course never buried alive and the real-world mound would have collapsed in a fashion only to cover him up to his chest at worst. The mounds are shown oddly clear of thick vegetation (bracken had to be cleared from the mounds by Brown before excavations began). Moreover, reiterating point 3, it’s difficult to be sure, but it appears that the production created 5 mounds to represent the Sutton Hoo burial site, and thus to visualise the 3 mounds investigated by Brown in 1938 and then Mound 1 in 1939.  There is not even a hint of undulations which might indicate further burials on the site: at least 10 would have been visible, a fraction of the larger group now recognised as numbering at least 18. Brown did not conduct a pre-excavation survey but more mounds were visible than the four he investigated;

The dig itself: reflections on the excavation

Now, I won’t go into microscopic detail about how the dig itself is portrayed, as the blog-post by Dr Sue Brunning mentioned earlier covers this. First up, as many will be aware, the film conflates two summers of fieldwork at Sutton Hoo by Brown and commissioned by Pretty as landowner: in 1938 he excavated what became known as mounds 2, 3 and 4, and he returned in 1939 to investigation Mound 1.

As others have commented (and I’ve dug at Sutton Hoo in 1991 and can personally attest), the soils are far more sandy than portrayed. This matters most when the Mound 1 artefacts are being uncovered from an uncharacteristically loamy soil.

Regarding discoveries, I note the lack of any attempt to represent calcined bones as visible in the excavation photograph from 1938 from Mound 3. Cremated remains would have been seen of relatively little value but still of considerable interest, as they were in Brown’s excavations. The interventions into mounds 2 and 4 are not shown at all, and the nature of the exploration of Mound 3 is inaccurate. The surviving plan by Brown shows three trenches cut into Mound 3 from the NNE, SSW and WNW with a further NNE-SSW trench in the eastern side of the mound. In the film, only a single trench is shown, seemingly entering from the N. It is a pity that finds from Mound 3, including an axe (francisca), a fragment of limestone plaque and a bronze lid of a ewer are not referenced, which together with the Mound 2 and 4 finds, would have illustrated the anticipation of more than simply degraded timber when 1939’s Mound 1 was investigated.

Regarding Mound 1, I felt the entire excavation was slightly too shallow by c. 1-2 feet but its difficult to be sure or care on this point. Still, I was disappointed that Edith Pretty wasn’t shown sitting close to the trench-edge as she appears in several photographs, but instead far-removed from the activities. Inevitably I found the artefacts uncovered were accurate but the brevity of the display of the excavation process meant that key stages didn’t get a look-in, including planning! I actually applaud their fleeting appearance and the focus on the people – rather than treasures laid out for all to see at the end it is photographs of the excavation. Perhaps the items of treasure are seen as so famous they needn’t have much attention. Indeed, the entire film is keen to emphasise that the treasure was neither the focus or primary concern (see blog-post part 3). However, I do think this was a missed opportunity to show more of the lifting, planning and recording of the finds, and in regards the ethics of ‘treasure’ and burial archaeology, I wish more had been reflected on here, especially in the light of Pretty’s own repeated concerns regarding the funerary context of the finds. Indeed, I think some further attention was needed here to assure to viewers of their collective splendour, range and funerary context in order to offset this against the different motives and desires of different characters regarding their significance and fate.

In summary, the landscape of Suffolk and the mounds of Sutton Hoo are carefully and evocatively reconstructed to the best of the film crew’s abilities and there is much to enjoy here drawing on careful research. My points 1 and 2 are utter pedantry, but I do think points 3 and 4, albeit minor, are worthy of mention, if only to encourage visitors to Sutton Hoo to reflect on the significance of the precision of Anglo-Saxon barrow locations, both in relation to each other within the cemetery, and in relation to the wider topography. Also, I think the lack of explicit spatial and visual relationship with Pretty’s residence is a true limitation of the film and has a direct bearing on the storyline. Lastly, I regard the scale of the mounds as portrayed in the film as exaggerated and this will only add disappointment to those who subsequently visit Sutton Hoo after lockdown. Regarding the landscape and the mounds, I’m not sure the film could have ‘got them right’ within the practical limitations of the locations selected, and within the narrative requirements of their script I’m reasonably happy with the portrayal of the excavations, although Mound 3 is disappointing. Something more of the recording process and the Mound 1 assemblage would have helped to draw together the individual acts of discovery and explain the significance of the finds to viewers.

A great film and considerable and unprecedented efforts were made to ‘get it right’ in regards the all-important landscape and mounds. In almost all regards that matter, they succeeded. The Dig affords a strong sense of the Suffolk landscape and the mounds’ relationship with both the river and Pretty’s residence and her husband’s grave on the eve of war.