I wasn’t sure; Mary Beard was reluctant; OH didn’t know anything about it. What was it? The Dig; a modern retelling of the Sutton Hoo excavation. It’s important to remember that The Dig is fiction, based on a novel which the author openly admits took some liberties with the facts, as did the film; nevertheless the essential truths are uncovered and laid bare for all to see. For me it was especially interesting because way back in the ’80s I took a job for a couple of months working on an Iron Age barrow; I thought I’d be spending my time scraping away at little bits of flint or bone but no such luck: the job was to uncover the original burial mound which was surrounded by no fewer than three circular trenches, each of which had to be excavated and then planks put across to reach the central mound. All day long we were mattocking and shovelling and wheeling barrows across these ditches (important to use three planks, not two as I discovered one day and nearly dumped myself in a ditch under a wheelbarrow of earth; when wet, the soil could be extraordinarily heavy.) We started work at 8 and finished at 4 (though we did have tea- and lunch-breaks) but it was exhausting, break-backing, mountainous work. Then at night I’d retire to a mosquito-ridden tent and set my alarm for 7 so I could shower and breakfast before starting the day. In the time I was there we didn’t find much but it was an interesting experience and the others were friendly and egalitarian, the qualified archaeologists more than happy to explain their work to the uninitiated.
Back to the film. Ralph Fiennes plays Basil Brown, a self-taught archaeologist who has been working with Ipswich Museum and is head-hunted by Mrs Pretty (Carey Mulligan) the owner of Sutton Hoo, to excavate some mounds on her land. Though treated as no more than a hired hand by the upper-class Museum staff, Mrs Pretty shows him more respect and it’s clear that Brown knows his work. He cycles the 35 miles from his home in Diss carrying all his equipment and once there, knows exactly where to dig. He shifts tons of earth manually and in the night gets up to heave tarpaulins over the site to protect it from a thunderstorm. His dedication is second to none and his instincts are sound; in fact he represents the triumph of instinct and experience over dogma and ‘knowledge’. Ken Stott plays Charles Phillips, the Man from the British Museum who swans in to take over once the ship has been uncovered and tries to oust Brown from the site, but Mrs Pretty steps in and insists on Brown staying, and together with other hired staff including a married couple and a photographer they complete the excavation.
I dread to think what Hollywood would have done to this story, but here it is pitched perfectly. The period is conveyed completely unselfconsciously without cliche or obviousness; the planes that keep passing overhead remind us that the Second World War is just about to begin, and Mrs Pretty is dying of heart disease which would nowadays be treatable. There is an understated naturalism in the way that characters interact and an understanding without intimacy between Mrs Pretty and Mr Brown: the closest they get is when she invites him to dinner but then his wife arrives and he has to cancel. Other stories are dealt with deftly; there’s a married man who clearly doesn’t want to sleep with his wife but his closet homosexuality is only hinted at and the difficulties resolved without fireworks (he goes off with the other guys; she forms a liaison with the photographer.) She is the first person to find gold in the burial and one of the final scenes shows her throwing her wedding ring into the mound before it is back-filled. The scenery is also very much present, though not obviously so; we see the marshland between the site and the coast and the river that runs at the bottom of Mrs Pretty’s land but like the house and grounds, they are just there. There’s an interesting use of camera angles too, and altogether it’s an unusual film; one which would have been disastrous in the hands of any Hollywood director.
Sutton Hoo was a find of incalculable importance which changed the view of early Anglo Saxons completely. Far from being the Dark Ages when people reverted to a primitive way of life, these were cultured and sophisticated people; artisans who knew how to work gold silver and iron, how to build ships and – no small feat – how to roll a ship several miles inland over logs and bury it deep in the ground. The Sutton Hoo hoard is on show at the British Museum and there are of course virtual tours available.
It makes you wonder what’s under your feet. In the case of Loughborough, probably not much; our house was almost certainly built on farmland which might previously have been forest. But who knows? Maybe an undocumented Roman villa or a Saxon homestead lies under us? Archaeology is a fascinating subject; it’s also a fragile science where the slightest mistake can result in valuable data being irretrievably lost; all the better that in Sutton Hoo someone was there who knew what he was doing. And I’d say exactly the same thing about The Dig. It’s on Netflix right now so go watch.
Additional: I’ve also discovered a link with Detectorists. I was already thinking they were similar but there is an actual link: Johnny Flynn, who plays one of the archaeologists, performed the theme tune of Detectorists. I’ll leave you with that: