Archaeology and the silver screen

It was medieval pot specialist Paul Blinkhorn who introduced me to the peculiar nature of archaeology in film. His lecture, delivered to an audience of summer diggers, was a smirky romp through the wilder fantasies of B-movie directors.

I won’t steal his punchline by telling you which movie came out tops for realism, in case you get a chance to hear it in person. Suffice to say, along the way we encountered any number of crystal skulls, escaped mummies, white worms, and Cluedo murders – but nothing that remotely resembled a real excavation.

No wonder, I thought. How do you turn the slow, methodical, almost static process of trowelling – heads down, bums up, chink-chink-chink – into a movie?

Then, suddenly, at the start of this year, I heard that a film about a real excavation was about to be released by Netflix. As far as I am aware, it is a first. Is there another? I mean a film where the whole thing revolves around an archaeological dig that really happened? This is the only one, right?

imageS: Sutton Hoo ship; The Dig, Netflix
Netflix’s new film, The Dig, tells the story  of the discovery and excavation of the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo. Image: The Dig, Netflix

The Dig is a beautiful film. Ralph Fiennes is brilliant and utterly convincing as Suffolk archaeologist Basil Brown. Carey Mulligan is grand as Edith Pretty, the local landowner who facilitates the excavation of Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo in 1939. Ken Stott’s caricature of Cambridge toff Charles Phillips supplies a love-to-hate baddie for the mini class conflict.

Mike Eley, director of photography, has captured the scowling bleakness and sheeting rain of coastal Suffolk. And there is a moving depth to it all, with its interwoven stories of human tribulation and tragedy, its plumbing of eternal questions about life, death, and continuity; questions underlined by the countdown to war that summer.

There is much more to be said. If you haven’t yet seen the film: strongly recommended. But…

The dig is, of course, a performer: it provides the main set within and around which the whole human drama unfolds; it drives the narrative, as we see the ship revealed, then the treasure discovered; it is the bearer of so many of the film’s heavy motifs. Life may be very brutal, Brown tells Mrs Pretty, but the ship is ‘part of something continuous, so we don’t really die’.

Even so, I was desperately disappointed that what was, for me, the single most important thing about the excavation was missed. One minute we have a narrow trench into the mound. The next we have the ship revealed. And the only reference to Brown’s brilliant innovation was to see him rushing into the Ipswich Museum seeking confirmation that they had found iron rivets at Snape.

To explain. The traditional way to dig a burial mound was to sample it by cutting a trench through the side from the edge to the centre. This way, in theory, you would have your sections through the mound as a whole and you would locate whatever was buried in the middle.

This, for sure, was an improvement on antiquarian treasure hunts, which typically involved driving a shaft from the top into the heart of the mound. But had Brown continued to trench, there would have been no ship.

Netflix’s new film, The Dig, tells the story of the discovery and

The first rivet convinced Brown he had a ship – or, rather, a ‘ship’. Because he also realised that all that remained of the ship was lines of rusty metal objects associated with deposits of discoloured sand. Everything hinged on exposing the shape thus represented without dislodging the fragile evidence.

What you see in the pictures is not a ship, but a shape in the sand. What you see is the brilliance of Basil Brown – the working-class man born to the soil who learned his trade of excavation on the job, and who realised that the only way to dig Mound 1 was to excavate out all the soil inside the hull to recreate the shape of the vanished ship in which an Anglo-Saxon king had gone to meet his ancestors.

Pity they missed that in an otherwise superb movie. After all, any old toff in a bow tie can dig up gold. But a sand ship…