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Review: The Dig, Netflix, 2021

Uncovering the Sutton Hoo treasures

[SPOILER ALERT: This review contains spoilers. You’ve been warned!]

Last week I watched The Dig, a new release on Netflix. Starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, it is the story of the finding of the 7th-century Sutton Hoo ship burial in 1939, just as England was on the cusp of war. The movie is based on John Preston’s* 2007 novel of the same name. I have no idea how I missed this book when it first came out, but I will certainly be reading it now!

First, a background:

During the reign of Victoria (1837-1901), the British Empire reached its zenith. There was a great interest in science and technology, spurred on by the Industrial Revolution, the Great Exhibition of 1851, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, and the invention of the telephone. Instant communication from one part of the globe to another was suddenly possible, due to the telegraph cables laid on the ocean floors connecting continents together.

Advances in the fields of geology and biology gave more tools for dating archeological finds. Interest in history grew during the19th century and along with it, the growth of local archaeological societies and groups. These in turn spurred on many amateur archeologists to discover what lay both in their back yards and beyond. The word archaeologist was first entered into the OED in 1824.

This is part of the background of The Dig. The two main characters of the film were born into a time and culture filled with this intense milieu of historical, scientific, and archaeological discoveries which helps to explain how they found themselves working together in 1939 to discover what was underneath the mounds that lay in a Suffolk field.

Two Characters from Different Worlds

Picture from Basil Brown’s journal, from The British Museum

Basil Brown was born in 1888 in a village near Ipswich and left school at 12 to work on his father’s farm. He was a self-taught geologist, astronomer, and geographer. He learned Latin and could speak French fluently, plus a smattering of several other languages. He joined the Ipswich museum as an archaeological researcher in 1935, at first working as a contractor. From all accounts the portrayal of Mr. Brown in the film closely matched him in real life: a humble man who had a passion for history, science, and archaeology. Just as in the film, he relied on a bicycle for transport and cycled 56 km every week between his home in Rickinghall, Suffolk, and the dig site.

Edith Pretty came from a family of wealthy industrialists. When her father died in 1926, she and her sister inherited an estate worth nearly $22,000,000 USD in today’s money. She married Frank Petty in 1926 when she was 43. He had first proposed to her when she was 18! World War I intervened in their plans, it seemed, but it would be interesting to know all the reasons for the long delay. Their only son, Robert, was born in 1930 when she was 47. Her husband died in 1934, leaving her a widow.

Portrait of Edith Petty by Cor Visser, from the British Museum

Edit developed a keen interest in history from seeing the sites in Greece, Italy, Egypt, and Austria-Hungary. Her father must have been equally as interested and became one of the amateur archaeologists who were springing up in England at that time. He helped to spur on her interest in archaeology when she helped him excavate a Cistercian monastery near her childhood home.

Edith and Frank bought the Sutton Hoo estate soon after they were married. She obviously knew enough about the barrow mounds,18 in all**, that lay on her land to know that they were of historical interest, as in 1937 she began discussions with the Ipswich Museum about excavating them.

The museum recommended the services of Basil Brown for the excavations, and this is where the movie begins.

Surprisingly enough, The Dig doesn’t focus much on the gold treasure found at the site. However, there is a wonderful moment in the movie when Peggy Piggot, who along with her husband Stuart had been called in by the British Museum to help with the excavations, discovers the first piece. She holds up an exquisitely decorated gold and garnet sword pommel with a look of wonder on her face, and it almost made me cry. Imagine knowing you were the first to see it since it was buried centuries ago!

The Value of Ordinary Things

Gold treasure aside, the film is a lovely reflection on the unseen value of ordinary things, or, indeed, people. The mound which eventually divulges the stunning artifacts is first of all passed over by Basil, who sees evidence of disturbance in it and surmises that it had been robbed long ago. Basil himself is an ordinary man and initially looked down upon by the educated professionals who take over the excavation of the valuable site once they realize its worth. As it turns out, he is the first to recognize what has been found, and his careful excavations and field notes ensure that scientists and historians understand what was there. Edith is in ill health and her young son is pretty much overlooked until Basil kindly takes him under his wings and allows him to spend time at the excavation with him. In all these examples the film gently urges us to look beyond the surface and to “dig” for the treasures that might be found there.

The Dig also explores the idea of time and the impermanence of cultures. Throughout the movie, we see the hints of the coming war. The characters are beginning to realize that life as they know it is coming to an end. What will be the result of that war? Will England survive, or will it, too, be buried under the weight of history? These questions are never stated, only hinted at, but they provide a background to the events of the film and add tension as Basil and the team of archaeologists race to unearth the treasures and secure the site before the war begins and all excavations are ordered to end.

The Not-So-Dark-Ages

The dig as seen in 1939, with the imprint of the long-gone ship in the sandy soil. From

At the time of the Sutton Hoo discovery, the Anglo-Saxon culture unearthed with the ship was long gone, its stories and achievements nearly lost. This discovery changed all that, and forever changed the way people regarded the “Dark Ages”. The incredible finds threw the previous misconceptions of the years between the departure of the Romans and the Norman Conquest as being a brutish, non-cultured time completely out of the window. It has been called the greatest archaeological find in British history, and for good reason. The quantity, quality, and impact of the find have not been matched by any other than I can think of. In fact, it was the largest find of Anglo-Saxon objects in England until the Staffordshire Hoard find in 2009.

Basil Brown, in a letter to his wife at the time, called it “the find of the lifetime.*** How right he was! I’m so glad this movie was made to tell this story of discovery against incredible odds. War was declared merely a month after the inquiry which determined that the finds belonged, in fact, to Mrs. Petty. In an act of amazing generosity, she donated them all to the British Museum. It was the greatest gift ever given to the Museum up until that time.

There are still secrets to be discovered in the grounds around the burial sites. There are parts yet to be studied, left unexcavated for the benefit of future investigators who may have access to yet more sophisticated means of scientific discovery.

The Dig is an unexpected treasure of a movie about an unexpected treasure. I highly recommend it, and hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Wonder how the movie compares to the reality of the dig? Check out this blog post from the British Museum!

*Fun fact: Peggy Piggot, the archaeologist who first discovered the gold objects at the dig, is the aunt of the author, John Preston. He only discovered the extent of her involvement in it in 2004. The novel highlights her contributions to it.

**A couple of the barrows had been robbed in antiquity, in others archaeologists have found cremated remains along with various grave goods, none of which match the spectacular nature of the finds in the main ship burial.. Historians speculate that these burials could represent a family burial plot of some kind. As for the ship burial itself, the person buried there was obviously of very high status. The best guess is that it is  Raedwald, king of East Anglia, who died in AD 624. Human remains per se were not unearthed, leading some historians to speculate at first that this was more of a monument or a ritual burial to commemorate someone of high rank. But more detailed examination of the soil found in the midst of the grave goods did uncover phosphate in the soil, pointing to human remains. The soil there is highly acidic, so any other remains had been dissolved long ago.

***For a fascinating podcast from the Ipswich Museum about the field notes and letters of Basil Brown, click here.