Everyone loves a tale about buried treasure, and The Dig provides an adventure story to rival any, albeit in a very English way. The film is based on the true story of the archaeological excavations at Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk, in the final days before the outbreak of the second world war. It resulted in one of the most significant finds ever made in Europe, revolutionising our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon period. What was unearthed was the grave treasure of a very great Anglo-Saxon king, whose name is unknown, but many have conjectured it to be Raedwald, king of East Anglia in the 7th century AD. The artifacts recovered included the rusted pieces of a great warrior’s helmet (now reconstructed), weapons, golden-garnet jewellery, imported silver containers, drinking horns and vessels – all objects of the very greatest quality and craftsmanship, some from as far away as Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). The find opened a window on a time and culture we knew so little about that we had termed it ‘The Dark Ages’.
The film is beautifully acted, bringing to life the central characters in the drama: Mrs Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), the owner of the Sutton Hoo estate, who employs a local excavator, Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), to explore the mounds on her land, which she hopes will prove to be ancient burial sites. Brown does indeed make an astonishing discovery. Later, when The British Museum takes an interest, archaeologist Charles Phillips (brilliantly acted by a pugnacious Ken Stott) takes charge, reducing Basil Brown’s role to that of a rather menial assistant. This creates extreme tension between Brown and Phillips, which is no doubt exaggerated for cinematic effect, and adds to the drama. Fiennes recreates the Suffolk accent perfectly and is wonderful as the largely self-trained archaeologist, who left school at 14 and must now battle against the prejudices of the professionals. Perhaps surprisingly, the film only shows fleeting glimpses of the treasure unearthed by Phillips and his team. Central to the plot is Brown’s initial work, the unearthing of the imprint in the sandy soil of a large clinker-built ship, 27 metres long, and predating the Viking period. This ship must have been sailed up the River Deben, then hauled uphill to Sutton Hoo before being buried as the elaborate mausoleum for a great man and his treasure. The wooden structure and its mortal remains had rotted away long ago, but the ship’s iron rivets were still in their original positions.
The film stunningly recreates the unearthing of this ghostly imprint undertaken so painstakingly by Brown and his two assistants: Mrs Pretty’s gardener and her gamekeeper. What adds poignancy to the story is Mrs Pretty’s ill health, her son Robert’s growing attachment to the warm Basil Brown, and the threatening shadow of the approaching war. A totally unnecessary and fictitious love story is introduced between two of the minor characters, which rather detracts from, but never ruins, this charming film.
In the past I have used films as the basis for short courses on Christian themes, so I’m always on the lookout for a story that can provide starting points for good discussions. It strikes me that The Dig has some potential here. Firstly, it’s a ripping yarn that will engage an audience. Then there are numerous references to time and time passing; questions of identity and where we have come from; death and decay; hope and disappointment; pain, loss, and love; and finally unparalleled generosity. When human stories are told, whether heroic or tragic, we cannot help but become engaged. And cinema can be a mirror in which to see ourselves; an invitation to reflect on our own attitudes and shortcomings, prompting big questions, such as which values are important in life, and what makes a good person?
(The Sutton Treasures can be seen in The British Museum, Room 41)