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.”
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
“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.”
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.