Scene from The Dig, Netflix Scene from The Dig, Netflix

The Dig corrects the erasure of working class archaeologist Basil Brown in the excavation of Sutton Hoo, but falls short on portraying the key women involved, finds Kevin Potter

There are few excavations within the British Isles that can claim to challenge the archaeological and cultural significance of Sutton Hoo. It is not hyperbole to say that it transformed our understanding of Anglo Saxon Britain. It also provided some of the most spectacular and evocative treasures (an appropriate term in this case) to be found in Britain. The famous Sutton Hoo helmet alone has adorned the covers of countless books and has developed a cultural resonance that extends far beyond its historical and academic value, to become almost a symbol for British archaeology itself. 

With such cultural resonance it is somewhat surprising it has taken as long as it has for Sutton Hoo to become the focus of a big budget drama exploring the lives of those who worked on the excavation. The Dig is a beautifully shot and charming film. It is warm with a gentle pace and is highly evocative, with spectacular reconstructions of the excavation. Ralph Fiennes gives a great performance. His scenes with the landowner’s son are particularly memorable for their tenderness and for imparting the wonder of exploring the past. As a film I wholeheartedly recommend it, and it corrects a historical injustice by bringing Basil Brown to public attention. But it is not without issues.

Correcting a historical injustice

The first thing to acknowledge about The Dig is that it is based on a novel of the same name by John Preston (the nephew of Peggy Piggot), which is a work of historical fiction based on true events. The excavation itself is more of a backdrop to the lives of the characters it portrays than the central subject, and it is also far from a complete account of those involved, in particular for overlooking the role of women on the excavation. The two central characters it focuses on are Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) and Edith Pretty (played by Carey Mulligan).

In focusing on Basil Brown the drama does a great service in remedying a historical injustice and bringing his name to public attention. Sadly it is only in recent years that he has been recognised as instrumental to the excavation. On the face of it a regrettably all too familiar story of academic snobbery refusing to recognise an ‘amateur’; although it is the case that Charles Phillips, the professional British Museum academic who was brought in over Brown’s head, was magnanimous in his praise for Basil Brown’s abilities as a superb, experienced and highly intuitive excavator.

Indeed, early on the film confronts head on any notion that Basil Brown was in any way an amateur, in the pejorative sense in which that word is so often used. In the film, he describes himself as an ‘excavator’ but is quick to point out to Edith Pretty that he is a professional with a wealth of experience. This touches on a regular misconception about archaeology as a whole. When we think of an archaeologist there remains a popular image of the wealthy antiquarian or the Oxbridge professor.

In fact archaeology has a rich working class tradition. Many of our most experienced archaeologists today began their careers through Manpower Services in the 1980s. But more than that archaeology is, by its very nature, different from history, which often looks towards epoch changing events and the lives of those, with wealth and power. Whilst Sutton Hoo is not itself an example, being the burial site of a powerful man, archaeology studies material culture and seeks to understand the lives and environment of ordinary people, of the cultures that formed our present.

Today archaeology is recognised as a profession not simply an academic pursuit. I describe myself as a field archaeologist. Like Basil Brown I have no academic background in archaeology, but mercifully few would today question the right of an archaeologist with decades of fieldwork experience to call themselves a professional. Indeed, the discipline of archaeological excavation is very much a practical one that is quite distinct from academic study of the subject and requires a deep understanding of methodology and a unique skill set that takes years to develop. Without those skills and training there would simply not be quality data for academic study.

Basil Brown was a pioneer of essential techniques still used today and  married that with a passion and learned understanding of the subject that could itself not fairly be described as amateur. To understand how skilful he was it is worth reflecting on the nature of the site. Absolutely nothing remained of the ship itself, ie the physical timbers of which it had been constructed. The acid environment caused by the sand in which it had been encased had simply eaten it away. All that remained were the heavily corroded iron rivets holding the hull together, and a ghostly impression of the ship picked out in a hard crust of solidified sand, extremely fragile and very easily damaged or destroyed.

A less careful and experienced excavator than Brown could have dug right through the hull of the ship without even realising that it was there – but it was Brown, who, firstly, recognised the importance of the rivets as they began to emerge from the sand, from his knowledge of similar objects recovered from another ship burial at Snape, about eight miles north-east of Sutton Hoo; and secondly, who then allowed the lines of rivets to guide his recovery of the rest of the ship, with consummate care and subtlety. 

Sadly, whilst the film deserves credit for rectifying the treatment of Basil Brown it is less admirable for its treatment of key women involved with the excavation. Leading Anglo Saxon archaeologist Paul Blinkhorn drew attention to this on social media, pointing out that the entire narrative in relation to the photographer, depicted in the film, is in fact fictional. This in itself is not a terrible thing, historical fiction should be allowed some artistic license for dramatic purposes. In this case, the photographer provides a background love story and links the events to the outbreak of WWII.

The issues arise when we realise that the photographer was not a man, but in fact two pioneering women, Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff. Both were professional photographers and associate members of the Royal Photographers Society. Their work forms a crucial part of the academic archive for Sutton Hoo. Archaeological excavation is not a treasure hunt, it is a careful recording of context, an effort to reverse engineer the sequence of events that formed the site under excavation. It is literally impossible to understand or date a discovery without this work. Once a site excavation is complete all we have are the formal records of it to describe the context, and photographs remain one of the most crucial of them.

There have also been some pretty strident observations about the film’s portrayal of Peggy Piggott. She comes across as someone inexperienced in archaeological fieldwork, somewhat clumsy and ill at ease, and in thrall to her husband. This impression is straightforwardly egregious. In fact Peggy (Margaret) Piggott, was only a couple of years younger than her husband, and by the time that she got to Sutton Hoo, was an extremely experienced and confident archaeological fieldworker in her own right, having already supervised several excavations of her own.

It is true that her marriage broke down eventually, but not for many years after Sutton Hoo. She remarried later on to become Margaret Guido, and went on to become one of the most outstanding and eminent fieldworkers and archaeological scholars of her generation and a prolific author of a wide range of scholarly books and papers. She died at the age of 82 but was still conducting fieldwork into her 70s. The film has done her memory something of a disservice, and it is somewhat surprising  that her nephew, author of the original novel, did not intercede on her behalf in this respect.

It is a shame that the film did not do more to emphasise the women involved. Archaeology is, in my experience, notable for its gender balance. On most of the sites I have worked on over my twenty years in the industry, women have been as numerous as men and involved in all of the same work, be it digging through appalling weather and conditions to supervising.

Many of our most notable archaeological academics are women, but there remains a vestige of patriarchy that occasionally rears its head and needs to be challenged. For example the foul comments of people like David Starkey about the appearance of eminent classical scholar Mary Beard. Perhaps it was not conscious, but by omitting women who were crucial to the Sutton Hoo excavation, the film sadly perpetuates a false masculine image of the archaeologist.

In conclusion it is well worth watching and thoroughly enjoyable, but falls short as an account of the excavation and the people involved.

With thanks to Dr Nick Corcos

The Dig is available to watch on Netflix