It speaks, dunnit? The past

In the new Netflix film The Dig, based on the novel by John Preston of the same name, amateur archaeologist Basil Brown is commissioned by Edith Pretty to dig mounds on her land at Sutton Hoo in south-east Suffolk, on a ridge above the estuarine River Deben. He immediately explains that they are standing in someone’s burial ground. Brown half-accuses, half-mocks his employer of being interested in finding buried treasures. Pretty retorts clearly and with confidence: she had helped explore Vale Royal Cistercian Abbey in Cheshire. In other words, her motives are for exploration, not the search for hidden wealth.

This seems to be both a surprise and delight at Brown when he realises, perhaps in a very rare instance in his dealings with the upper-class, or anyone at all outside of his museum contacts, that he has found a kindred spirit. For both Brown and Pretty, the past is more than fragments and rubble, more than hidden riches and silent skeletons. We are left guessing regarding how precisely the past ‘speaks’, and there are untold stories here about Brown and Pretty. However, archaeologists then and now know exactly what Brown means by this, and archaeologists then and now know that it speaks differently to each of us. In other words, the voices Pretty hears might be different to Brown’s, but that matters very little. What matters is that they are both trying to listen as attentively as their backgrounds, experiences and training allows, and that’s their connection: archaeology is the glass to the wall, the telephone, the stethoscope for speaking with the dead.

Indeed, for me this is one of the key messages of The Dig to viewers today: the past is about exploring stories of our shared humanity and our shared mortality, not plundering for loot or to indulge our personal theories and fantasies. And it is by listening to the dead that we can speak to the future through and share onwards those stories.

Parallel dialogues with the modern and early Anglo-Saxon dead

As the film unfolds and the excavations progress, the mounds become a material locus for many different kinds of death. First up, the dig of an ancient ‘warrior’s’ grave is paralleled in Pretty visiting her husband’s. The burial mounds and her husband’s churchyard burial are clearly axes in Pretty’s dialogues with warriors past from before the dig begins, and arguably inspiring her motivations to uncover the ancient dead.

Whilst digging Mound 3 (here fictitiously shown as happening in 1939 rather than 1938), Brown is almost buried alive, his trench collapse almost takes him down to join the early Anglo-Saxon dead.

Seemingly unrelated, but tying mortality to the environs of the mounds, an RAF pilot crashes and dies it the Deben nearby. Thus, a modern-day warrior immersed in the waters that early Anglo-Saxon mariners traversed for trading, raiding and settling.

Brown is shown sleeping outside in one scene, mirroring Pretty in her bed. Robert is found lying asleep on the floor as if dead, almost as if they are each communing with the dead in the mounds. There’s no explicit haunting, the presence of the dead is not manifest and ghostly. However, it is all left for us to individually discern what is being shown.

The identity of the early Anglo-Saxon dead beneath the barrows is not arbitrary. The ship and artefacts tell fragments of a story of a past life. Brown asserts this with foresight in the film, even before the artefacts start being found: a warrior he speculates.

This precognition is confirmed by Pretty who is given the final voice regarding the importance of Mound 1. Rather than dwell on the items of gold-and-garnet, silver and bronze, she states clearly its funerary significance as a vessel, and the identity of its principal discover, thus deliberately rejecting the equation of ‘treasure’ with monetary value, and bypassing crediting the Charles Phillips excavation team who worked so hard on recording and recovering these fragile traces:

a burial ship, engineered from oak, in my opinion, the greatest and most beautiful treasure of all. Ninety feet long, lying east to west. Found and excavated by Mr Basil Brown.

Let’s repeat this robust (partial) narrative asserted by Pretty in the film: the ship is a ‘treasure’ and Brown was its finder. The rich artefacts are not ignored, but they are portrayed as meaningful and significant only in relation to the funerary context: this is a burial, not a hoard, something which generations of the public, and academics too, are want to forget.

This determination near the end of the film builds on multiple scenes throughout. For instance, the parallels with the other great early 20th-century discovery by a British archaeologist are explicitly crafted into the story as Pretty reads Howard Carter’s account of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Subsequently, Pretty and Brown exchange familiarity with Carter’s discovery, but rather than the golden treasures, the ‘wonderful things’, they share the story of the fingerprints Carter found at the tomb entrance, revealing traces of a past human life left to be found thousands of years later. Uncovering old tombs is portrayed as a three-way dialogue, between past lives, the dead, and the discoverers. This is a reading of the significance of burial archaeology which we needn’t accept, but we can certainly reflect further upon.

Back to the future

Following Phillips’ unceremonious take-over of the excavations, Brown quits, and only Robert Pretty pulls him back to fulfil his promise. But May, his wife, gently reprimands Basil regarding his principles and motives using his own words:

You always told me your work isn’t about the past or even the present. It’s for the future. So that the next generations can know where they came from. The line that joins them to their forebears. Isn’t that what you always say? … Why else would the lot of you be playing around in the dirt while the rest of the country is preparing for war? Because that means something, innit? Something that’ll last longer than whatever damn war we’re heading into.

The sense of time, the urgency created by impending war, does not dilute but instead concentrates the importance of the archaeological work. Far from irrelevant, the project is for future times when the war has past. So the archaeologist is not only in dialogue with past lives and the dead, but also with future generations as well.

There is, however, an interesting distinction in perspective between Pretty and Brown we are shown when Pretty doubts her actions.

Pretty: “Am I doing the right thing? It’s someone’s grave.”

Brown: “No, that’s life what’s revealed. And that’s why we dig.”

Brown is assuring Pretty that the excavation is legitimate and not desecration in his mind, a journey to the past to reveal the stories of past lives for the benefit of future generations.

It is this assurance regarding the funerary context and the importance of the finds which is implicitly identified as Pretty’s unspoken motive in an act of unprecedented generosity in giving the ‘treasure’ to the British Museum after the coroner’s inquest finds that the items are not Treasure Trove and belong to the landowner.

I’m giving the treasure to the British Museum, as a gift. It should be where the greatest number of people can freely see it.

At first glance, the sentiment of C.W. Phillips stands in complete contrast to the sentimental, almost spiritual affinity with the site and the monument expressed by Pretty and Brown.

What happens to the treasure? That’s the real question.

Yet of course his fixation with the fate of the artefacts is not for person gain, but for their custodianship in a museum: for posterity. Yet we are not allowed to dwell on the feelings and thoughts about the archaeological record by Peggy, Stuart, CW or any of the other archaeologists. Instead, it is Pretty and Brown’s relationship with the dead that begin and end the film: Robert and Edith lie in the ship at night to sleep, prefiguring their own deaths maybe, Edith’s only 3 years later. Robert explains that time operates differently up there; in the ship, and the journeys it is offering through its archaeological discovery, we reach to the future.

This is an idea articulated at multiple points in the film, through the young Robert Pretty’s rocket and Rory and Robert going to see Buck Rogers at the cinema. Brown earlier refers to as one possibility of the intended function of burying a ship beneath a burial mound. The ship is a vessel for other words, which might be underworld, across the sea or through the sky. Indeed, the celestial references are echoed in the aerial allusions of the passing RAF fighters, aerial battle and death, are alluded to repeatedly in the film, and it is tangible likelihood this is  Rory’s fate. 1939 is shown as fixated with the future and connecting with it as much as the past. The archaeological endeavour is alluded to the means by which stories transcend the horrors of the war to come.

If 1,000 years were to pass in an instant, what would be left of us?

asks Rory of Peggy Piggott. She replies: the mug, parts of watch and the torch. Through archaeology, we cannot live forever, but traces of our stories via material traces just might.

We say goodbye to Pretty’s dialogue with the dead gazing up at the stars with Robert. But for Brown, his farewell comes in dialogue with the mound in a different way: protecting Mound 1’s fragile ship and back-filling Mound 3 (which of course he had in reality done the previous year in 1938). There is a sadness and foreboding, but this closing of the mound closes the story, or at least that stage of it.

Concluding thoughts

Are these sentiments and portrayals accurate for 1939, or part of our 21st century ethics and sensibilities? Of course the film spins an English patriotic narrative. It exonerates Pretty as a rich widow landowner hiring Brown to open up burial mounds without properly reflecting on the likely consequences. It even exonerates the archaeological team working against the clock in difficult circumstances with war looming. By failing to mention them, the film also underplays the media and popular storm fixated with the ‘treasure’. It tells a particular tale that is comforting to modern eyes and ears and one archaeologists that our digging into the past has meaning and relevance for us and for future generations.

So, while 1939 and 2021 are very different in so many ways, there are parallels between that time and ours. We still face a media and large sections of the populace who are obsessed with the discovery of buried treasure for its monetary value and the 15 minutes of fame it might bring. The Dig speaks to us about the fragility of our archaeological heritage, the responsibilities of landowners, metal detectorists and archaeologists alike, and it has lessons regarding the still underpaid and under-recognised archaeological profession and issues of class and gender that still affect the heritage sector in a myriad of ways. About the human past, it reminds us of the popular value of telling the story of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms within stories of Britain and its international relations. And it has things to tell us about death: for the funerary significance is kept front and centre. I had wished more of the burial assemblage had been depicted – not so much individual items, but the relationship between and careful planning of, the burial chamber, in order to further highlight this theme (see Part 2 of my reflections for more on this) but The Dig gives sufficient basic information to explain to visitors that these finds transformed academic and popular appreciation of the emerging royal dynasties of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the early stages of territorial kingdom formation and Christianisation, exhibiting far-flung connections.

Indeed, it is as a grave of a high-status, important ‘man’, perhaps King Raedwald, that has dominated the narrative since the coroner’s inquest of 1939. The Mound 1 burial and ship reflect the funeral with rich and complex seafaring, martial, feasting and ceremonial dimensions. As Martin Carver has long argued, a mortuary theatre with many allusions and citations. And while we now know so much more, and ideas have shifted, regarding the interpretation of Mound 1 and Sutton Hoo more broadly, The Dig responsibly and clearly presents the excavation of Mound 1 as an exploration of the past by individuals sensitive to unfolding elements of this story. The protagonists are players uncovering traces of past performances, not silent things bereft of meaning and mortuary import. They are shown reflecting upon the mortuary context and its dialogues with their own sense of purpose, identity and mortality. The Dig is therefore far from a documentary, but neither is it a treasure-hunt. On the verge of global war, a corner of Suffolk in 1939 cannot be characterised as a story of treasures discovered and gifted and a myopic obsession with Englishness. It is instead a reflection on the early Anglo-Saxon past set against a global theatre, and likewise the significance of archaeology as a discipline, and our shared future. It makes the case that mortuary archaeology in particular is about the business of the future not the past, not always by design and manner of execution, often by happenstance, through the discoveries and practices, stories and material connections we create. Archaeologists speak with the dead to realise our hopes for humanity through and beyond our own mortal coil.