Netflix's new film The Dig explores the extraordinary discovery of Sutton Hoo – an early 7th century AD ship burial found on the eve of the Second World War.
Curator Sue Brunning looks at how the silver screen portrayal compares to the momentous historical excavation.
'The Dig' - how it compares to history
This month sees the release of The Dig, a star-studded Netflix film about the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial in 1939. The grave, made in Suffolk in the early seventh century, centred on a 27-metre-long ship beneath a three-metre-high mound. Inside was a vast assemblage of exquisite objects from an incredible geographical range, spanning Britain, Europe, the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and South Asia. Nothing like this had ever been encountered before and it transformed our understanding of England's early medieval past.
Despite their glitzy appeal, The Dig (based on John Preston's 2007 book) largely eschews these objects to focus upon the discovery itself and the individuals involved: landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), Suffolk archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), Cambridge academic Charles W Phillips (Ken Stott), and his team, including Peggy Piggott (Lily James), who found the first piece of gold inside. The story of the excavation, overshadowed by impending war, is just as dramatic as the archaeology it uncovered and I am thrilled that The Dig will bring it to a wider audience.
Edith Pretty famously donated the Sutton Hoo finds to the British Museum in an act (as the film notes) of unparalleled generosity. Other participants enriched the Museum's archive by donating archaeological drawings, film footage, photographs, letters and their remarkable diaries, forming a precious first-hand account of the discovery. So, I was not surprised when Hollywood came calling!
To give you an idea of how Netflix's vision compares with reality, I've taken another look at the film alongside archival photos used by the filmmakers – and share some anecdotes about the Museum's involvement with the film...
The Sutton Hoo ship
In summer 2019 I welcomed Oscar-nominated production designer Maria Djurkovic and art director Karen Wakefield to the British Museum. They were astonished by the number of photographs in the archive and spent hours combing through them over several visits. Their questions were completely different to those I am usually asked, aimed at understanding the excavation's physical, practical and visual realities rather than the details of what was found. Consequently, I found myself viewing these familiar images from a fresh perspective. The research paid off. In October I visited the set and was bowled over by the full-size recreation of the ship. It so closely resembled the photographs that I felt a little pang of emotion, realising that this was the closest that I would ever come to being there at the discovery that inspired me to study early medieval archaeology, putting me on the path to where I am today.
Basil Brown, the archaeologist
Ralph Fiennes visited the Museum twice to research Basil Brown and kept archivist Francesca Hillier and me on our toes with plenty of questions. He quickly latched onto Brown's distinctive way of expressing himself and his clothing (boots with tucked-in trousers, waistcoat, hat), remarking upon a pocket-watch that he always wears in photos – a detail that I was delighted to see in the final film. We also enjoyed a sneak preview of his East Anglian accent when he read a passage of Brown's diary aloud! This image is from Brown's own photograph album, with his characteristic labelling in typed capitals.
Edith Pretty, the landowner
This scene, in which Edith Pretty observes the excavations from a wicker chair, was being filmed when I visited the set. Several 'archaeologists' were working in the ship, creating a tableau that I recognised immediately with great delight – right down to their costumes, like WF Grimes's boiler suit with white plimsolls. It was as if the archival photographs had come to life.
Basil Brown and Charles W. Phillips, a fraught relationship?
The film portrays the relationship between Basil Brown and Charles W Phillips, appointed by the Office of Works to supervise the dig, as quite antagonistic – a clash of class and culture between the self-taught archaeologist and Cambridge academic. While there is naturally some dramatic licence, Brown's writings show that the men did not always see eye-to-eye at first. In his diary, Brown notes that Phillips was 'a bit bellicose' and on one occasion describes 'a lively passage of words between us'. Fortunately, they buried the hatchet quickly and their relationship developed into one of collaboration and mutual respect. In the first major account of the dig, published within a year, Phillips praised Brown's 'commendable care and skill' in excavating the ship (Antiquity, 1940).
One of my favourite scenes in the film is when archaeologist Peggy Piggott uncovers the first piece of gold from the burial – a garnet-encrusted scabbard mount. It's a magical moment that also happens to be completely true. It took place on 21 July 1939 and kicked off days of jaw-dropping discoveries (compressed into hours in the film) as the burial chamber yielded its secrets. Basil Brown wrote in his diary, 'I must admit that I never expected to see so much gold in any dig in this country… All the objects shone in the sunshine as on the day they were buried.' Also like the film, Edith Pretty insisted that Brown be the one to convey the objects to her house for safekeeping. 'So I had the honour,' he records, 'of carrying in the golden treasure…without any of the servants being aware of the fact. Needless to say I did not go home that afternoon.' Peggy Piggott's first discovery was not captured on camera, but this photo shows her excavating the great gold buckle, delicately clearing its shimmering, serpentine surface. We can only imagine what she was thinking as she did so.
The Sutton Hoo finds make only a few cameo appearances in The Dig, but these moments are wonderfully realised. Following archival photographs like this one, top-quality replicas made by David Roper of Ganderwick Creations – ideal stand-ins – were laid out just as they had been found in 1939, ready to be discovered 80 years later by the film's 'archaeologists'.
Recreating the ship's rivets
Other finds from the burial were made specifically for the film. Prop-maker Len Wheeler came to view the iron ship rivets in the British Museum's stores and I watched, amazed, as he fashioned a perfect copy from metal rods and putty – the only difference being that it was a strange colour! The resulting prop, produced from Basil Brown's handkerchief at a key moment in the film, is thoroughly convincing.
Sutton Hoo on the eve of war
In The Dig's closing scenes, Basil Brown fills the ship with bracken as Britain enters the Second World War. This was indeed his final act on site and the timing could not have been more dramatic. In his diary for 31 August, he writes 'Continued getting bracken etc. Will fill in the ship and prepare for a long period if possible should war break out. Mrs Pretty thinks it will not come.' But come it did, just three days later. Brown closes his record of this most significant discovery – for him, for Mrs Pretty, for the excavators and for the world – with poignant pragmatism. 'This practically finishes the log of Sutton Hoo Dig for duration of war…I completed the filling up [of the] ship with the help of Spooner…and then went on with estate work. Trimming and tidying up etc. I continued this until my return home on Sat Sept. 16th.'
The Dig was released on Netflix on 29 January 2021.
The Sutton Hoo finds are displayed in The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe AD 300–1100, which can also be visited virtually.
The grounds and burial site at Sutton Hoo itself, managed by the National Trust, is currently open. Check the Sutton Hoo website before planning a visit.
Read more about the excavations at Sutton Hoo in our story The Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo and in The Sutton Hoo Treasures and The Sutton Hoo Helmet books, available from the British Museum shop. See the full range of products inspired by Sutton Hoo.