The Dig: Excavating Lost Stories While Burying Others

This blogpost contains minor to medium spoilers for The Dig (2021). The opinions presented below do not necessarily reflect those of NASTA.

When the film The Dig was recently released on Netflix, archaeologists rejoiced: finally, a film about us that doesn’t depict us as adventurers or grave robbers! Unsurprisingly, then, a lot has already been written about the film on social media and in newspapers. We hoped to contribute to the discussion with this blogpost, written in the spirit of our conference: what can The Dig tell us about storytelling and archaeology? 

For those that have been living under a rock (and for those that have been too busy  excavating one), the film is about the excavations at Sutton Hoo in the late 1930s. It follows landowner Edith Pretty as she hires excavator Basil Brown to excavate the burial mounds on her property. When an Anglo-Saxon ship is discovered in what appears to be an elite grave, the excavation is taken over by Charles Phillips from the University of Cambridge. Basil, skilled and experienced but academically untrained, is set aside. Despite Edith’s best efforts, his name and contributions to archaeology were buried for decades as (until recently) he was not mentioned in the British Museum’s display of the ‘Sutton Hoo Treasure.’

"We're part of something continuous"

Some of the main themes of The Dig are life and death, and how the dead live on through storytelling. At some point in the film, when Edith becomes emotional due to recent stress and a terminal medical condition, the following exchange takes place:

Edith: “We all die. We die and we decay. We don’t live on.”
Basil: “I’m not sure I agree. From the first human handprint on a cave wall, we’re part of something continuous. So we… don’t really die.”

Basil’s comments reflects one of the central claims underlying NASTA: we live on and are part of the stories we tell about the past. However, the film also problematises this idea: Basil, and others like him, have been excluded from mainstream narratives because they belonged to marginalised groups (in Basil’s case, the working class). The Dig tries to present a more inclusive narrative by challenging this academic elitism. But does the film succeed in unearthing a buried past? This question will be answered below as we’ll be discussing the film’s portrayal of women, class relations, and historical inaccuracies.

Buried women

The film has been repeatedly criticised for its portrayal of women. Some faults might be attributed to the film industry as a whole, which is often hesitant towards hiring women which fall outside the ‘young and attractive’ category—this might have influenced the decision to hire the 35-year-old Carey Mulligan to portray the 56-year-old Edith Pretty. But other criticisms go a little deeper.

Peggy Piggott is one of the film’s major characters and is used by the film to challenge institutional sexism in archaeology. After arriving at Sutton Hoo, she is irritated to find out that she was not hired because of her skills but because of her small frame (so that she wouldn’t damage the ship while walking on it). However, this surface-level criticism of sexism is contradicted by the fact that Peggy is constantly portrayed as inexperienced and bumbling—at some point even damaging the ship with her foot. The condescending portrayal of Peggy becomes even more puzzling when you consider that the novel on which the film is based was written by Peggy’s nephew. But most importantly, Peggy was already an experienced archaeologist by the time of the Sutton Hoo excavations, even having directed a fieldwork project herself.

Then there is the matter of Peggy’s love affair with the site photographer Rory Lomax—the latter being a completely fictional character. In reality, photos of the excavations were taken by the teachers and close friends Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff. Was the erasure of two women from the film really worth the forced inclusion of a standard heterosexual romance?

Class and ownership

Like with sexism, The Dig delivers a surface-level critique of classism (i.e. discrimination based on social class). But again like with sexism, the film falls short of overcoming the thing it tries to critique.
The theme of class is applied to the interactions between archaeologists. The fact that Basil is referred to as an “excavator” while Charles and Peggy are called “archaeologists” speaks volumes. This elitism is commented upon in the film as well: at some point, Edith accuses Charles of being “snobbish” towards Basil.
However, the theme of class is not applied to the past excavated by archaeologists. In one scene, Basil is telling Edith and her son about the ship that was just uncovered:

“Well, I’d expect this is a grave of a… a great man. A warrior… or a king. They must have pulled his ship all the way up that there hill from the river. Now, they’d have put it on ropes, and they’d have hauled it over logs. Men, horses, it must have taken hundreds of ‘em. I don’t expect them to go to all this trouble for any little squirt.”

The irony of a working-class archaeologist, long erased from history because of his class background, calling the working classes of the past “little squirts” seems to be lost on the film. While Basil’s speech is likely an accurate reflection of the elite-focused archaeological narratives of the past, the fact that the film failed to develop its theme of class more fully is a missed opportunity.
What about the film’s portrayal of contemporary class relations? Major emphasis is placed on Basil’s social marginalisation, but perhaps the most important class relation is left unchallenged: Edith’s status as landowner. Whenever Edith leverages her property rights to help Basil or protect archaeological finds, we’re supposed to cheer. But what the film neglects to ask is: should archaeological heritage fall under private property, seeing as most land is owned by a minority of people while heritage belongs to all?
However, the theme of class is not applied to the past excavated by archaeologists. In one scene, Basil is telling Edith and her son about the ship that was just uncovered:

Excavating through burying

We’ve noted a few historical inaccuracies so far, but they are not the only ones. For instance, the actors portraying Stuart Piggott, Basil, and Charles are significantly older than their real-life characters. However, historical inaccuracies in a film are not always harmful—in fact, sometimes they can be used to tell stories which accurately reflect historical realities.

Basil’s wage negotiations with Edith in the beginning of the film, during which he almost gives up an exciting excavation before the latter offers him a liveable wage, reflect the lived experiences of the many working-class archaeologists in the past and present. As far as we know, however, these negotiations never took place—Basil’s weekly wage was 30 shillings (not 2 pounds as in the film), the same as he’d previously received from Ipswich Museum.

Another example of an inaccuracy being used to reflect a historical reality can be found in the character of Charles. In the film, the latter is portrayed as the archetype of the old, white, male, upper-class archaeologist. Charles certainly wasn’t that old during the Sutton Hoo excavations and he may very well have been a pleasant and humble man. However, the point is that his ‘inaccurate’ portrayal accurately reflects the social elite that long dominated (and, though to a lesser degree, still dominates) the archaeological discipline.

What do our stories represent?

The Dig poses and implies some interesting questions about storytelling and archaeology. We’ve seen that the film excavates lost stories, buries others, and also excavates through burying. Basil reminds us that “we’re part of something continuous,” that we live on in the stories we tell about the past. But what if the stories we tell exclude the many people who did not belong to a particular gender or a small elite?
This is a question which The Dig fails to develop, and which it cannot answer. Neither will the answer be found in this brief blogpost. But we can at least identify the way forward: telling inclusive stories which reveal people and pasts which have been neglected (or erased) until now. Many archaeologists know this and have long tried to excavate buried people and buried stories. The Dig is admirable for opening up new stories for a large public, though its shortcomings are regrettable.