The Dig is a film driven not only by discovery but by loss. This feeling is captured in everything from it’s melancholic characters to its muted but earthy cinematography. The movies tells the story of Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) who hires local self-taught archaeologist-excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to tackle the large burial mounds at her rural estate in Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge. He and his team discover a ship of Anglo Saxon origin while digging up a burial ground. It’s an archaeological discovery that lit up the Dark Ages. Before this discovery, a dearth of written sources was presumed to signal an absence of culture in this period.
The greatness of The Dig lies in its look at the personal lives of the people behind The Dig even if entirely fictional. This Netflix production focuses on how the key themes of archaeology such a death, loss and memory affect the characters. Brown struggles to maintain his control over the site, with Pretty, who’s going through health issues, not always available to make sure the right thing is done. But both share a passion for knowledge, for discoveries of the linkages between eras and peoples.
Based on John Preston’s novel of the same name, The Dig is a story laid out in truth, allowing the historical events and somewhat realistic characters to keep the viewers captivated rather than need for excessive drama caused by snakes, guns, treacherous Nazis or damsels in distress. The most important aspect is not the treasure found, but how the knowledge has impacted our lives. Allowing us to reflect on our complex relationship to the past, and how and why we value it. For a nation on the brink of war, the discovery of Sutton Hoo was a source of pride and inspiration, equivalent to the tomb of Tutankhamum.
The funerary mound contained the remains of a decayed oak ship, approximately 27m in length, which had been dragged from the nearby River Deben to serve as a royal tomb. Over 250 artefacts revealed the sophistication of East Anglia in Anglo-Saxon times. There were riches from across the known world, including silver bowls and spoons from Byzantium and gold dress accessories set with Sri Lankan garnets, highlighting that trade was happening on a large scale even then. The wood of the ship and the flesh of the man had dissolved in the acidic Suffolk soil, the gold, silver and iron of his wealth remained. The burial is thought to belong to King Raedwald, whose reign corresponded with the early seventh-century date of the coins contained in a gold purse (c. 610-635CE).
The movie gives us an portrayal of the archaeological excavation in the 1930s, conducted using workmen with just a few skilled excavators and qualified academics. There is careful attention to archaeological detail, emphasising that the ship’s timbers had virtually disappeared, surviving as nothing more than iron rivets and a silhouette stained in the sand. But with all its triumphs, The Dig fails to cast it only female archaeologist in a positive light, Peggy was known during her impressive career for her field expertise, but she is relegated to love interest for a swoony Johnny Flynn, her brilliance rarely shown. But that’s true for the rest of the dig team, few professional skills are depicted at all: the archaeologists were brought in to draw, plan and record archaeological features – not simply to extract artefacts.
The final scenes reburying the ship to protect it during the impending WWII shows that Britain is to bear even more loss within its history. Director Simon Stone explores the idea of having a legacy, the emphasis in the movie is what we leave behind for others. Thankfully for us, Brown and Pretty’s legacy is on permanent display. The finds were given to the British Museum to ensure that they were accessed to as many people for free allowing the treasures to be found again by new generations. Deepening our understanding of ourselves, our world, and our collective history.