The Dig and the Sutton Hoo Ship

boat in front of a sunset Photo by Katherine McCormack from Unsplash Released on Netflix in January 2021, Simon Stone’s “The Dig” chronicles the excavation of the Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo burial sites in Suffolk, England. What began as a curiosity regarding burial mounds on Edith Pretty’s property became an international spectacle amidst the beginning of England’s involvement in World War II. The film follows Pretty, played by Carey Mulligan, in her search for help in excavating the mounds and her procural of Basil Brown, an amateur but wildly intelligent archaeologist portrayed by Ralph Fiennes. He begins to dig up the first mound that piqued Pretty’s interest and after painstaking and solitary work, Brown uncovers one of the most significant archaeological finds: an Anglo-Saxon burial ship which concealed evidence of Anglo-Saxon culture that historians did not believe to have existed in the so-called "Dark Ages." As hints of the ship were uncovered from the dirt, the idea that it may have been a Viking ship was abandoned; the more consequential the discovery became, the more people wanted in on the excavation. The British Museum commandeered the dig and while Basil Brown remained on-site, he was given little responsibility due to his lack of formal credentials. The film follows the excavation’s progression in conjunction with that of Edith Pretty’s sickness and the relationships of other characters. At the end of the film, it is revealed that Pretty decides to donate the artifacts uncovered at Sutton Hoo to the British Museum, and that even though she asks for Brown’s recognition in any exhibit, his name remains relatively unknown for decades.  

“The Dig'' highlights the importance of archaeological discovery at a time when it seemed to be on a backburner, and this was an immensely important site that changed our perception of an entire society. Sutton Hoo remains, to this day, the turning point in our collective interpretation of Ango-Saxon society. Before the excavation, it was assumed that Anglo-Saxons were devoid of culture. As the Roman Empire’s presence in the British Isles dwindled at the start of the Dark Ages, historians presumed they took with them the art and culture that defined the Romans as we know them. The contents of the ship’s burial chamber disproved that long-held assumption — the Anglo-Saxons were just as worldly and their culture just as rich as we know the Romans to have been.  

Mulligan and Fiennes dazzle in their portrayals of Edith Pretty and Basil Brown, and not because their performances are showy — rather, both are reserved. Like archaeologists, their performances are meticulous and careful. While both are seasoned actors, their work in “The Dig” has been understated and publicized much less than, say, Mulligan’s role in “Promising Young Woman.” Mulligan perfectly conveys the depth and sadness that her character possesses without being obvious. Fiennes instils a layer of sensitivity into Brown that one would not immediately expect of his character. Lily James accompanies the two in the supporting role of Margaret (“Peggy”) Preston and helps to build chemistry as part of the budding romance in the film. Her performance will surely be relatable for some viewers and eye-opening for others. She brings a knowing naivete to the story that drives one subplot strongly until the end.  

Stone’s adaptation chronicles the Sutton Hoo discovery as it was written in John Preston’s 2007 novel with very few deviances and changes. He stayed true to the most important parts of the story and produced a beautiful period piece that skillfully translated the effort that goes into making a discovery this great and emphasizes the importance of archaeology in our society. Somehow, Stone and the entire crew involved were able to make a movie about finding an old ship thrilling and graceful at the same time. While visually breathtaking, the aesthetic is rooted in a loving understanding of the setting and the delicacy of the entire situation, given the state of the world at the time of the ship’s unearthing. 

It seems that the movie wasn’t slated for a high-profile release. That assumption aligns with the fact that historical movies aren’t the most popular among viewers that aren’t already interested in the movie’s content. Fortunately, being bored in a pandemic has compelled people to watch stories about topics they wouldn’t usually be interested in, like chess or big cat parks. Even if the Sutton Hoo discovery isn’t what drew people to “The Dig,” I believe they will still enjoy the film in some capacity, whether it be for the romance, characters, stunning visuals, or acting. Now streaming on Netflix, “The Dig” is a quarantine must-see for history buffs and romance seekers alike.