A thoughtful reconstruction of an archaeological dig somewhere in deepest Suffolk feels like quite unlikely material for one of the first big Netflix hits of 2021, but The Dig has turned out to be exactly that.
Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James and Johnny Flynn feature in the film based on John Preston's 2007 novel, also called The Dig, which follows the excavation of burial mounds at the Sutton Hoo estate in 1938 and 1939. What started as a small investigation into mounds on land which had been farmed for centuries turned up the most extraordinary archaeological find of the century in Britain, and added a new set of national symbols to the English imagination.
But how much of The Dig is actually true? It's certainly very true to the local landscape, being shot close to the original excavation sites and taking care to give Ralph Fiennes's Basil Brown a fairly good Suffolk accent rather than talking like your common-or-garden ooh-arr bumpkin. It does take some liberties with what actually happened though.
"John Preston's novel departs from the truth in a lot of aspects and doesn't purport to be absolutely accurate, so the scope for departing from historical accuracy was already there," director Simon Stone told the BBC. So what exactly was invented for The Dig?
Did everyone in The Dig actually exist?
Very nearly. Two women who worked as photographers on the dig – Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff – are chucked out of the story entirely, and replaced by Johnny Flynn's love interest Rory Lomax, who didn't actually exist.
The ages of various characters get a bit jumbled up too. Carey Mulligan (35) plays landowner Edith Pretty (56) while archaeologist Charles Phillips (38) is played by Ken Stott (66) and Stuart Piggott (29) by Ben Chaplin (51), which changes the dynamics between them.
Lily James' character Peggy Piggott says that she hasn't "done much actual fieldwork yet" and stomps straight through the top of a barrow. In reality, though, she wasn't a klutz who didn't know which end of a trowel to hold, but an experienced archaeologist who'd studied at both Cambridge and the University of London and directed digs herself, even at just 27 years old. She wouldn't have damaged the site before trotting off for a barley water, nor did she turn up to dig in deeply impractical skirts – photographs show her in a boiler suit or in dungarees.
The dig of The Dig
The real dig started in June 1938, and over the next two months Brown and his team explored three mounds and found some interesting bits and pieces: an axe, and what seemed to be iron rivets. (Incidentally, there's no evidence that Brown was nearly killed by a collapsing burial mound.)
He returned in 1939. He was three days into a dig in the biggest mound on the estate – which, Brown later recalled, "felt rather like digging into a small mountain" – using a coal shovel, pastry brushes and a penknife, his assistant John Jacobs found a rivet. Brown dashed over, nearly shoving Jacobs to the ground in his haste, and eventually the men uncovered the ship's outline.
Peggy Piggott found the first gold on 21 July, and as digging continued, more and more treasures came to the surface. Gold doesn't tarnish or corrode in the same way as the iron remains of the ship's bolts and other features; it came out of the ground looking as it does in the film. Brown wrote in his journal that "all the objects shone in the sunshine as on the day they were buried".
The ship itself likely looked a bit less solid than it does in The Dig, though. By the time it was rediscovered the oak ship had decomposed and the outline of the ship was just compacted sand, the ghost of its frame having stained the soil.
"There's nothing holding it," as Fiennes' Brown says in the film, "except time."
Brown was forced to the margins of the dig by the British Museum representatives, as the film suggests. What the film doesn't mention is that Brown went to a spiritualist meeting in nearby Woodbridge, and was advised to "assert yourself and go on digging" by a medium.
What did the Sutton Hoo dig find?
The 27-metre-long ship was the big find, and it contained the grave and ceremonial treasure of an Anglo-Saxon ruler from the seventh century. It's now thought to be the resting place of Raedwald, who died in around 624, and was intended as a vast monument visible from the river below.
Buried with him was gold jewellery, Byzantine silverware, a sword with a gold and garnet-inlaid hilt, coins, shield fittings, and, most famously, an iron helmet decorated with a dragon and scenes of warriors worked in metal. You've definitely seen it before.
In total there were 263 relics in the hoard, with some precious jewels from as far abroad as South Asia. The former British Museum director David M Wilson said that the Sutton Hoo hoard was full of "work of the highest quality, not only in English but in European terms".
It made historians completely reassess Dark Ages England, a period which the British Museum said in 1946 had left us "nothing larger than a bucket or longer than a sword" and was long thought of as a backward, coarse, dim time. Suddenly, we knew they traded across an area comparable with the Roman Empire, and that in their day to day lives they valued beauty and skill.
"These people were not just marauding barterers," says Phillips. "They had culture! They had art! They had money!"
The plane crash
Seeing as how Rory didn't, as we've discussed, actually exist, it would have been quite difficult for him to dive into a tidal river and attempt to save a downed RAF pilot. There was a plane crash near Sutton Hoo later in the war though. A Flying Fortress came down in the River Deben towards the end of hostilities.
What happened to the characters later?
Pretty was offered a CBE for her part in the excavations and for gifting the hoard to the British Museum, but she declined. She died in 1942 after a stroke.
Brown might not have been allowed to lead the revelation of the burial site at Sutton Hoo publicly, and didn't get much recognition by the public at large, but he wasn't completely ignored by his peers. He was granted a £250 annual pension on the civil list in 1966 in recognition of his work, and a road has been named after him in Rickinghall, the village he lived in.
Peggy Piggott went on to have a highly respected 60-year career in archaeology, focusing on Bronze Age and prehistoric Britain. One element of the Peggy-Rory love subplot which does seem to have some grounding in fact is the sexless marriage between the Piggotts. Peggy filed for divorce from Stuart in the mid-Fifties, citing non-consummation, though they reconciled later and became friends.
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