This week on The Past: The Dig

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The big talking point here this week has been The Dig, the new Netflix movie of the Sutton Hoo story starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes. Who would have predicted that a drama about the 1939 excavation of a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon burial mound would become one of the stand-out hits of lockdown? Or that it would plug so directly into modern concerns about the representation of women on screen?  

The Dig tells the true story of Edith Pretty (Mulligan), a landowning Suffolk widow who on the eve of World War 2 employs a local excavator and self-taught archaeologist by the name of Basil Brown (Fiennes) to investigate a mysterious series of mounds on her 500-acre estate at Sutton Hoo. From these beginnings, the film-makers weave a nostalgic and gently affecting drama that is as much concerned with class in the 1930s as it is with archaeology. 

As regular contributor Neil Faulkner explains on The Past website and in the first edition of PastCast, our unmissable new podcast, The Dig rightly turns the spotlight on Brown, the tenant farmer’s son who is now regarded as a true hero of British archaeology. The film is not without its blind spots, however – and as Carly Hilts, the editor of Current Archaeology, argues, it is its downplaying of the contributions of real-life women to the story that strikes perhaps the most uncomfortable note. To redress this imbalance, she tells the stories of five women linked to the site, including that of the mysterious Anglo-Saxon ‘queen’ buried under Mound 14.  

Elsewhere on The Past, you’ll find in-depth coverage both of the movie and of the real-life discoveries that inspired it – from Lindsay Fulcher’s examination of how Brown’s work helped illuminate the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ to Joe Flatford’s excavation of past treasures from the Current Archaeology archives. And if you still haven’t had your fill, you can even test your knowledge with our fiendish Friday quiz – which this week is also devoted to all things Sutton Hoo. 

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