The Dig for Treasure, Passion or Credit?

Emily Lister

The Dig
film poster © Netflix 2021

Warning: This review is of a film which relates to a historical dig. While I aim to provide only a summary of the plot, I trust, dear reader, that you are not entirely unaware of the discoveries made during the excavation!

The Dig is based around an excavation which led to the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial which undoubtedly has some of the most remarkable, intricate examples of metalwork from the Anglo-Saxon period. These artefacts are now displayed at the British Museum, and I wholeheartedly recommend a visit if you haven't yet seen them.

The film, set in 1939, focuses not on the artefacts but on their discovery, against a backdrop of Britain's preparations for the Second World War. Amidst sandbag-covered statues, RAF pilots soaring above, and the looming war, the question arises: Is this the right time for a new dig? Edith Pretty, the landowner, wished for the mounds to be excavated and hires self-taught and methodical Basil Brown to do so. However, once its national significance is revealed, the Ipswich Museum and the British Museum step in to take over.

Whilst much of the film is based on truth a measure of artistic license has been applied. This can be seen in the character of Peggy Piggot who was at the original excavation. Her portrayal minimizes her professional prowess, and the film does not show how she was in fact regarded as a leading British prehistorian. Indeed, when she is introduced in the film it is implied that she was allowed on the excavation due to her petite stature being unlikely to cause damage to finds and her character is then used in a fictional romantic subplot.

Forgiving such decisions, the film has a nostalgic feel created by the soft instrumental score, an intimate camera work style, and quintessentially British references. Scenes of Edith Pretty dressing for dinner evoke a bygone era, soon to be disrupted by war. The excavation not only has national importance but becomes a symbol of personal significance, from satisfying academic curiosities to evoking childhood wonder about our ancestors.

The film explores themes of establishment and hierarchy, particularly through the contrast between Basil Brown and the museum-academics. Basil Brown always refers to himself in the movie not as an archaeologist but as an excavator. The idea that the two are distinct entities (the trained academic and the self-taught individual) features frequently in the film and is used to create tension as the academics are perceived to be the elite. This dichotomy, while dramatised for the film, invites reflection on whether such academic snobbery may still exist today.

In the film Basil Brown’s pride is seen to be tested but overall, he is shown as someone of great humility and one who gives credit where credit is due. He highlights that it was one of the men assisting on the dig who found the first rivet, and that the excavation of that specific mound was all due to Edith Pretty’s ‘feeling’.

Such humility contrasts with depiction of the team from the museum as an exclusive club, using in-jokes and language as barriers, further critiquing social hierarchies. A satirical moment occurs when Charles Phillips, from the British Museum, is offended by an artefact being described as ‘rusty lumps’. He insists on a more scholarly description of a discovery, encouraging the man to use his training which prompts a change to the find becoming ‘an amorphous mass of corroded objects’. This use of language as a barrier contrasts with Basil Brown who wishes to make knowledge accessible to all (even if his wife tells him she still does not understand his books).

The need to distinguish the perceived elite is projected onto the site where after the discovery of coinage Charles Phillips declares ‘These people were not just marauding barterers. They had culture. They had art. They had money.’ Phillips’ focus on material culture is juxtaposed with Basil Brown’s appreciation of the effort and care in the burial rites with great emphasis on the difficulty of moving the ship into position. This dichotomy presents the viewer with deeper questions about what the makings of a ‘civilised’ society are.

The relationship between the characters of Basil Brown and Edith Pretty demonstrates that different upbringings do not change key desires. Although at opposite ends of the class system they are portrayed as being very similar. Both hold a passion for history developed at a young age and a desire to learn, although each faces battles to be able to pursue those interests whether due to social conventions or expectations.

For me, the film raises the enduring question of why do we care about the past? Where does the passion come from that gives us the strength to wish to continue even when forced to sit, sheltering in huts as the rain pours? To keep searching and researching even when our efforts have yet to yield results? Our desire to seek out the past is however a very personal thing and Basil Brown’s wife is shown to understand this by tolerating him to be away from home for extended periods. Her empathy is further reflected when she understands how after such an emotional investment Basil needs to say goodbye to the site.

Edith Pretty’s character suggests that ‘We’re digging down to meet the dead’. Whilst this may be accurate, I believe we are searching for answers and a connection with the past. Something that at times of change and conflict we are more drawn to. Edith Pretty’s son, Robert, puts forward ‘The Vikings and the space pilots are the same, really, aren’t they? They explore new lands and have battles in ships.’ I find such insights make The Dig more than a historical drama. It suggests that the basic essence of humanity is the same despite any divides geographically, socially, technologically or across time. Grief and loss are unavoidable and are we not all still trying to work out how best to live and understand our place on this little planet amidst the vast cosmos?