Review: The Dig
Declan Bell-Evans | Bristol University
Netflix’s new original film, The Dig, brings us a story of friendship, love and the ways humans deal with the uncertainty of death. The onset of the Second World War looms over the film, as Mrs Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate a set of burial mounds, believed to be Viking, on the land bought by her and her late husband. This leads to a very British and heartwarming friendship between Basil, Edith and Edith’s son Robert (Archie Barnes).
The film is based on the real events of the excavation of Sutton Hoo, an Anglo-Saxon ship burial in Suffolk - believed to be either the burial of Rædwald, King of East Anglia in the early 6th Century AD, or his son King Sigeberht. The Dig is a remarkably accurate portrayal of a 1930s archeological excavation. Most techniques and processes in this film are not only true to the events of this particular find, but are still commonly practiced in the 21st century.
Basil demonstrates unparalleled local archeological knowledge (but still faces endless snobbery from the museum bods). He identifies before the dig has commenced, that there are robbers’ trenches in the mounds, left by treasure hunters centuries before. Unfortunately, people have been grave robbing for treasure as long as we have buried our dead, and like the Pyramids of Egypt, where a prominent display of a burial has been left, a grave robber has most likely attempted to steal its treasure.
The mattocking and the way the mounds are dug in sections by Basil, are also staples of a burial mound excavation. It is important to start excavation of burial mounds in these quarter sections, so if you don’t find anything interesting, you don’t disturb too much of the archaeology or waste your time digging up the entire thing.
One aspect that other films about archaeological finds often neglect, is the need for covering the site with tarpaulin, wooden walkways, and a nearby shelter. While we may not always have a quaint Shepherds Hut on hand, and usually settle for a portacabin, archeologists and excavators throughout the decades have been managing dig sites under constant threat of uncooperative British weather. Too often, sudden torrential rain can leave the unprepared with a day of bucketing water out from the trenches.
When archeologist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) is brought in by the Ipswich Museum to take charge, he employs Peggy and Stuart Piggott (Lily James and Ben Chaplin). Peggy Piggott would later be known as Margaret Guido, a famous Archaeologist. The novel this film is based on was written by her nephew. In the film, Peggy and Stuart’s marriage breaks down, and Peggy and Edith’s cousin, Rory (Johnny Flynn) begin a romantic relationship.
Soon to be called up by the RAF, Rory is summoned by Edith to assist with the dig, where he becomes the site photographer. Photographic records of a dig in progress are an essential part of an excavation to show scale and exactly where artifacts were discovered on the site. I particularly appreciated the inclusion of metre scales positioned on the site whilst Rory is taking photos.
Charles and the Ipswich Museum believe the mounds are Viking and refuse to accept the ‘untrained’ Basil’s theory they are older. Then, an iron rivet is found, which matches one found at another Anglo-Saxon site. The team continues to find an entire ship burial. Basil’s theory is confirmed by the appearance of an Anglo-Saxon Merovingian Coin. This is a Frankish coin, dating the grave and indicating that the people living in this area at the time were actively trading across the channel.
As a perfect demonstration of the real-world politics involved in such a find, the Ipswich Museum and Charles from the British Museum are soon engaged in a tug-of-war, both hoping to win the treasure. In reality, the finds did end up at the British Museum (where you can see them today). The Iron Helmet has been reconstructed and is one of the prize artifacts of the museum’s collection.
The excavation is captivating, and the film shows us how the characters - while intellectualising burial and afterlife - are forced to face their own, and their loved ones’, demise. Firstly, through Edith who, already widowed, is coming to terms with her own mortality after discovering she has a serious heart condition and may leave her son orphaned. Both mother and son struggle with this, as Robert sees his mother weaken. This is a heartbreaking view of a child feeling powerless to prevent the loss of another parent.
Rory’s impending call to join the RAF leads both Peggy and Edith to face the idea of his death in the War. This is compounded when a trainee pilot crashes near the dig site and dies. As Edith says, ‘My husband always said ‘if you want your son to die then let him join the air force’. In a private moment with Basil, she declares, ‘We die and decay, and we don’t live on’. So, Basil responds, ‘…from the first human hand-print. we are part of something continuous, so we don’t really die’. This scene is poignantly followed by one of Peggy looking through the photographs of the dig laid out for the public. While we have Basil’s words of human legacy ringing in our ears, we notice that none of the photos of the dig contain one key contributor: the photographer Rory, who has left to serve. Perhaps not all of us leave our mark to be rediscovered by later generations.
Our occupants of 1939 are not alone in their struggle with mortality. They are digging up a 6th Century Anglo-Saxon ship burial, after all. There is plenty of musing on the importance of belief in the afterlife held by the Anglo-Saxons. As they are filling in the trench, Robert says to his mother Edith:
We’re sailing into the cosmos...Orion’s Belt to take the queen home. This boat’s hers, her people gave her treasure for her long voyage, and she was sad when the ship came because she knew she’d be leaving everyone behind. The Queen looked back down to Earth, and she could see that her son had grown up and that he was now a space pilot. And she knew that when he made his first journey up to the stars, she would be there to meet him.
Not only are Robert’s words to his mother a poignant and poetic metaphor for death, but they also mirror why Anglo-Saxons and other cultures conducted ship burials. Funerals and burials tell us much more about the people saying goodbye than the person they mourn. We can never know exactly what the circumstances were, but we can theorise the people who buried the king at Sutton Hoo wanted to demonstrate his power and give him his greatest possessions for his afterlife. The burial would have been a spectacular occasion as the ship was dragged to its final resting place, and the body was carefully placed inside, ready to sail off to the next world.
As reinforced by The Dig, the concept of mortality can be difficult for the human mind to deal with. If it gets too much, and you find yourself bogged down in the deepness of it all, take some advice from Basil Brown: ‘Have some lemon drizzle cake, Mister Phillips; it’s most refreshing’.
Declan Bell-Evans is a Bristol University Archaeology and Anthropology Graduate and former Commercial Archaeology Archivist.