Just before the outbreak of World War II, a widow and a local archaeologist team up to excavate large burial mounds in Suffolk, England, and discover priceless treasure, in the new Netflix film, The Dig. It’s based on the 2007 novel of the same name by John Preston, and brings to vivid life the famous 1939 excavation at Sutton Hoo. It’s a quiet, thoughtful film with gorgeous cinematography and fine performances from the cast, although ultimately it feels rather lacking in depth and emotional heft.
(Some spoilers below.)
Sutton Hoo is the site of two early medieval cemeteries, incorporating a group of 20 or so earthen mounds. In 1937, a British widow named Edith Pretty inherited the land from her late husband, and hired a local archaeologist named Basil Brown to excavate the mounds, paying him 30 shillings a week. She was particularly interested in Mound 1. But after conferring with colleagues at the Ipswich Museum, Brown opted to excavate three smaller mounds (designated 2, 3, and 4) first, over the summer of 1938.
They found that looters had already made off with most of the valuable artifacts, but the discovery of iron ship-rivets and a burial chamber with metal and glass fragments in Mound 2 seemed promising to Brown. He concluded that the mounds dated back much earlier than previously thought, to Anglo-Saxon times.
The following May, Brown and his crew began excavating Mound 1. Edith Pretty’s intuition proved correct. Not only did Brown and crew discover more iron rivets within Mound 1, they were still in position. Over the next several weeks, they unearthed the remains of an Anglo-Saxon ship, complete with a burial chamber that likely once held an ancient king. Scholars are divided as to the identity of this king, with the most likely candidate being Rædwald of East Anglia, or perhaps his son, Eorpwald. Any human remains had long since been absorbed into the soil, but among the priceless artifacts recovered were a gold belt buckle, part of a sword belt, a ceremonial helmet, a lyre, and silver plate dating back to the Byzantine Empire.
Once word spread of the site’s significance, the British Museum, the Science Museum, and Office of Works assumed responsibility for the excavations. Cambridge University archaeologist Charles Phillips took over from Brown, bringing on additional colleagues, most notably a married team, Stuart and Peggy Piggott. Edith Pretty was deemed the rightful owner of the treasures, and decided to bequeath the items to the British Museum, on the condition that Brown be given credit for his work. The artifacts were safely stored for the duration of World War II, which broke out in September of 1939, and exhibited for the first time nine years after Edith’s death (she died in 1942). Alas, no mention was made of Brown at the time, although his name is now included with the permanent display.
A former television critic for The Sunday Telegraph, John Preston is also the nephew of Peggy Piggott (later known as Margaret Guido within the archaeological community), but he apparently never heard the story of the Sutton Hoo excavation until 2004. So Preston’s novel isn’t based on his aunt’s firsthand accounts, although it particularly emphasizes Peggy’s role in the excavation (she becomes the narrator at one point). Like any good fiction writer, he takes a fair share of literary license with the history—as he freely admits.
For instance, in the book, it’s Pretty’s cousin, Rory, who photographs the site; in reality, two women named Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff were the photographers. Rory is there primarily to provide a romantic subplot for Peggy, trapped in an unhappy marriage. In the book, Peggy and Stuart are newlyweds who interrupt their honeymoon for the Sutton Hoo dig. In reality, they had been married for nearly three years, and their marriage didn’t end until 1956. Preston also condensed the excavation timeline considerably for narrative clarity, reducing it down to a single season from April to September 1939. The account of the Mound 2 excavation is merged into that of Mound 1, and a scene involving a landslide on the site is likely taken from earlier excavations.
The film adaptation started out as a BBC Films production before moving to Netflix, with Cary Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes on board as co-stars, playing Edith Pretty and Basil Brown, respectively. The cast also includes Lily James as Peggy Piggott, Ben Chaplin as Stuart Piggott, Ken Stott as Charles Phillips, Archie Barnes as Edith’s son, Robert, Monica Dolan as Brown’s long-suffering wife, May, and Johnny Flynn as Rory Lomax. Per the official premise: “As World War II looms, a wealthy widow (Carey Mulligan) hires an amateur archaeologist (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate the burial mounds on her estate. When they make a historic discovery, the echoes of Britain’s past resonate in the face of its uncertain future.”
The plot hews to the book for the most part, with the same creative departures from history. Mulligan and Fiennes play off each other beautifully as a close friendship develops between the outsider archaeologist and ailing widow—their relationship is the heart that anchors the film. Director Simon Stone wastes no time getting to the excavation, and those portions of the film are beautifully rendered with close attention to historical detail (the aforementioned liberties notwithstanding).
The focus shifts a bit in the latter half, with the introduction of the love triangle between the Piggotts and Rory. Stuart Piggott is depicted as a closeted homosexual who is repulsed by the mere sight of his young wife’s naked body, and it’s to Chaplin’s credit that this does not come off as shallow caricature. James is very good as Peggy, but I should note that some archaeologists have been critical of how the film portrays her as inexperienced, mostly hired because she was light enough to climb around the fragile site without causing damage.
The Dig is a pleasant, eminently watchable film, telling its story at a leisurely, yet never sluggish pace. But it never really penetrates below its pretty surface, and in the end that makes it more forgettable than it really should be. If nothing else, here’s hoping The Dig reignites public interest in Sutton Hoo—still one of the most significant archaeological finds in England—and the nearly forgotten archaeologist who first unearthed its secrets.
The Dig is now streaming on Netflix.
Listing image by Netflix