A quick follow up on my three blog-posts reflecting on the new Netflix film The Dig. To my surprise, I was approached by The Guardian to comment on the positive reception of the film and I found myself quoted in a piece published today with a truly awesome title: Out of the dark ages: Netflix film The Dig ignites ballyhoo about Sutton Hoo.
The article flags up the great work of the National Trust and the British Museum to tell the story of Sutton Hoo, and records the amazing statistics regarding how popular Dr Sue Brunning’s blog-post and her YouTube videos about the artefacts from the Mound 1 burial chamber, most recently about the Sutton Hoo helmet, have been following the release of The Dig. See also the National Trust’s video here.
When I talked to The Guardian‘s senior news writer, Esther Addley, yesterday, I did mention a few issues I have with the portrayal of the archaeologists and the archaeology as outlined in my blog-posts 1 and 2 about The Dig. Yet, overall I echoed my overwhelming positive feelings about the film and its tremendous potential to energise enthusiasm and interest in the story of Sutton Hoo and the artefacts uncovered, but also the archaeology of early Anglo-Saxon England more broadly. I made the point that while some pseudoarchaeological and fantastical ideas about the early medieval past can be dangerous and pernicious, the period offers rich stories which can be mobilised to tell many accurate, rich, detailed, nuanced, diverse and inclusive tales about our early medieval past. Indeed, many of us became interested in the period through fiction – from modern television dramas and films to Arthurian literature and the poem Beowulf (a poetic epic from the era itself), as well as through visiting museums and archaeological sites and monuments, not least Sutton Hoo. Yet, we can always use these imagined pasts to take students on fabulous journeys into the Early Middle Ages. These journeys are partially possible through literature and history, but archaeology has a key and ever-expanding part to play. The discipline involves exciting theories, dynamic interdisciplinary debates, a rich range of methods and techniques and an unfolding range of new discoveries from the scale of early medieval landscapes down to specific sites, monuments, artefacts and substances.
In this context, Sutton Hoo is a gateway drug to so much more. I love teaching students year on year about the new research being done on the early and middle Anglo-Saxon periods (traditionally, c. AD 410-793) as well as the subsequent Viking Age (traditionally, c. AD 793-1066), looking to England but also farther afield, exploring the Irish Seas and North Sea worlds and their connections, as well as farther afield still from Vinland and Greenland to the Russian river systems and the Samanid Emirate. I want to keep doing so during and after the pandemic, teaching the world before, around and after the princely dead were burned and buried beneath mounds at Sutton Hoo.
Sadly, this is a time not only when access to heritage sites and monuments is curtailed, but when archaeology as a subject in the UK is under significant threat. This is not only from the universal challenges on our society and economy caused by Brexit and the pandemic, the HE sector included. It also stems from more specific threats. Individual universities are looking to find what their senior management regard as ‘easy targets’ for cutting courses, even bogusly misappropriating the ‘decolonisation of the curriculum’ to suggest the Middle Ages – its literature at present but I fear also its history and archaeology – is simply not of interest or relevance today. Moreover, the government has announced plans to slash of funds to support the UK HE archaeology provision.
The Dig reminds us of the power of our imaginations and real-world discoveries in exploring the ‘Dark Ages’ through archaeology. Yet, I fear that we are fighting a losing battle for the early medieval past in particular, and the discipline of archaeology more broadly. This is not only of concern regarding the protection of our historic environment and our heritage sites and museum collections, but also I fear that fewer and fewer young people will have the opportunity to learn about and be trained as researchers and practitioners to explore the early medieval past via what I regard as our most exciting university subject: Archaeology.