Films about archaeology often feature exotic settings, vine-clad temples (packed with lethal booby-traps), ancient curses, and occasionally wince-inducing approaches to excavation. None of these tropes apply, however, to The Dig, Netflix’s film about the Sutton Hoo ship burial and the determined team of excavators who uncovered its Anglo-Saxon remains in the late 1930s.
This is no high-octane adventure romp, but a slow, almost meditative period piece that focuses more on the people involved in the investigation and on the looming threat of the Second World War than it does on the astonishing artefacts that were recovered from Suffolk’s sandy soil. The look of the film is undeniably gorgeous, full of sweeping shots of the landscape, atmospheric lighting, and a strong visual sense of the time in which it is set. There are also some fantastic performances, particularly Ralph Fiennes’ dour and dogged portrayal of the self-taught excavator Basil Brown, while Carey Mulligan gives a quietly compelling performance as Edith Pretty, on whose land the princely burial was found. (Both actors are pictured below right.) Yet, although The Dig depicts one of the most famous archaeological discoveries in British history, this is not a documentary; it is an adaptation of a novel of the same name, itself a fictionalised account of the investigation spiced with added episodes of romance and danger that are replicated in the film. This reviewer appreciates that excavations can, by their nature, be slow processes, and that, while the moment of discovery is thrilling, it can’t fill a two-hour film. I therefore won’t pick over departures from history too pedantically – and as an interpretation of the novel, rather than of real events, the film gives a very faithful impression. Still, some of the creative decisions didn’t sit entirely comfortably.
Chief among these was Lily James’ portrayal of Peggy Piggott as a timid archaeological ingénue, winning her place on the project not because she was a skilled excavator in her own right, but as the accident-prone sidekick to her much older and more experienced husband, valued only because her slight build would pose less threat to underlying archaeology. This quailing characterisation also has its origins in the novel, but given that the real Peggy Piggott had already directed excavations and published numerous archaeological papers by the time she worked at Sutton Hoo, and that the stories of early female archaeologists are still undertold today, it was disappointing that, in revisiting this narrative, the only female member of the dig team could not have been given a better treatment. Moreover, while Peggy was indeed in her 20s in 1939, her spouse was only two years the elder. The real Sutton Hoo team was strikingly youthful, making the casting of Ben Chaplin, 51, as Stuart Piggott (29), and Ken Stott, 66, as Charles Phillips (39) somewhat jarring, particularly as rather different standards (and, I understand, a last-minute change of casting) saw Edith Pretty ‘aged down’ by two decades.
The inclusion of a romance between Peggy and Edith Pretty’s dashing (and entirely fictional) cousin Rory, played by Johnny Flynn, also felt like a missed opportunity. While this theme is also hinted at in the novel, its reappearance in the film meant that a second interesting female story was also squeezed out of the narrative. Rory is shown as the site photographer, making the real people who captured the excavation on film – a pioneering pair called Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff, whose images are thought to represent some of the first colour photos of an English excavation – redundant. Their work is one of the less well-known aspects of the Sutton Hoo story (though the National Trust’s recent update of displays at the site gives them greater prominence – see CA 355), and it is a real shame that they were left out of this account too.
What about the archaeology? The excavation, when shown, is methodical and realistic, though the timeline of the dig is very compressed. The ghostly remains of the ship (shown above left) are beautifully rendered, as are the famous gold-and-garnet grave goods (which are only briefly shown; I was pleasantly surprised that the glittering ‘treasure’ was not made the focus of the film). There were also some lovely moments reproducing real details of the excavation: Edith Pretty watching the archaeologists from the comfort of a trench-side wicker chair; packing the finds in moss to transport them safely; and covering the ship’s outline with a protective layer of bracken when war brought digging to a halt.
Poetic licence aside, this is an enjoyable, evocative film. Above all, it left me looking forward to the day when I can revisit the finds in the British Museum, and even more so to when I can return to Sutton Hoo and stand among the silent mounds once more.
Review by Carly Hilts.