“There’s nothing holding it, except time.” — Review of “The Dig” (Netflix 2021)

It is the 1930s, a man in a dusty felt hat is about to uncover a sensational treasure hidden in an ancient tomb …

But this is where parallels end between Basil Brown, played by Ralph Fiennes in “The Dig”, and that other prominent American movie archaeologist who since the 80s seems to coin the daring and dashing ‘adventurer’ cliché of archaeologists in public perception. Rather than a bullwhip, Brown makes use of a tape measure, preferring trowel over revolver. Instead of another colonialist grab-and-run adventure, the recent Netflix movie (directed by Simone Stone) re-tells the discovery of one of the most remarkable archaeological finds in Great Britain of at least the past 100 years, “based on a true story” — and the novel of the same title by John Preston (2007). Book and film are giving an account of the excavation of a 7th century Anglo-Saxon ship burial near Sutton Hoo in Suffolk (complemented by the occasional drama of romantic relationships). An abridged narration though, condensing two excavation seasons into one summer and re-arranging the order of events and discoveries for dramatic reasons.

In 1939, at the eve of World War II, which is already lurking in the fog behind the impressively photographed English landscape and not so slowly seeping into this carefully staged postcard idyll with black-out exercises, marching soldiers, and low-flying fighter planes, widowed landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) engages Mr. Brown to excavate one of the monumental burial mounds on her property. Without anticipating the movie’s story here, it can safely be said that, after initial setbacks, Brown will not only be successful, but downright sensationally successful: Unearthing an extraordinarily rich burial including a delicate and fragile ancient ship — hold together by nothing except time. And that this success soon will get around and attract renowned academics — who subsequently will claim oversight of the excavation of a find which in the meantime is considered nothing less than of national importance.

This British class-consciousness, the juxtaposition of ‘working man’ and landowner (whose title to the land is an essential prerequisite to the excavation, the discovery — and thus the whole story) on one hand, but in particular the dichotomy between archaeological excavator and academic archaeologist, is emphasized as prominent plot element throughout the movie — and offers a canvas for further reflection: About genesis and history of the archaeological disciplines in general, but also with a view to a current discussion regarding local communities’ participation and perspective in the field of archaeology, mirroring a still in current international excavations found distinction between those digging (often highly skilled and experienced local work crews) and those ‘doing field research’ (i.e. academic staff) — and the different appreciation of both groups’ contribution to this research.

Yet it is the focus onto the very quintessence of archaeology and archaeological sources which is one of this movie’s peculiar strengths: The narration takes its time to prolong the moment of discovery, at least in its final unfolding, and outlines it as the result of a whole excavation process — in which exposure and documentation (in photographs as much as excavation journal) naturally go hand in hand and where an iron rivet has as much importance for the evaluation of the find complex as a gold coin. That, in the end, not much is revealed about archaeological procedere beyond this source aquisition in the field can hardly be blamed on a movie which focusses on the dig already in its title.

The depicted characters, however, except both main protagonists, remain rather pale in comparison. They do not seem to have much chance to develop alongside the sensation of the archaeological discovery. For the advancing plot this is indeed barely relevant; the essential insight that archaeology is not (only) a look back into episodic pasts but also a bridge to one’s own present, is being negotiated between Brown and Pretty (respectively Pretty’s son Robert (Archie Barnes)) with the motif of very personal loss and grief. These dialogues, in which the characters remind each other (and the audience) of everyone’s ephemerality, are without question among the most remarkable moments of the movie, even more when such sentiments are, somehow comforting, contrasted with archaeology’s longue durée perspective on those few traces remaining in the dust of history.

The decision to enrich the actual events with more dramaturgic elements like the all too human, but obviously ficticious triangle (or even quadrangle?) relationship around the (real) archaeologists-couple Peggy and Stuart Piggott (Lily James and Ben Chaplin) seems unnecessary and a bit overconscientious against this background. In particular the characterization of Peggy Piggott a.k.a. Margaret Guido (née Preston, the book’s author is a nephew of hers), who gained scientific fame as renowned expert in settlement archaeology and was an experienced excavator already at the time of the Sutton Hoo discovery, is irritating at best. Her movie-depiction as naive, somehow clumsy adjunct of her husband is doing neither her real nor her movie self any service at all. Even if one is inclined to sympathetically assume an intention to emphasize the marginalised role of female archaeologists behind all this, the movie is still walking right into the self-set sexism trap given the rather reduced female cast (and excavation ensemble).

The narration finally culminates, historic reality of the now very seizable war stepping out of the fog, in the moment of Neville Chamberlain’s address to the nation — followed by everybody on the radio. Soon, the viewer realises, countless new tombs will join this burial mound once erected ad gloriam an unknown hero from a past long gone. Only this time room for glory is limited.

(This review was originally written for the monthly newsletter of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ur- und Frühgeschichte and published February 22, 2021.)

#Archaeologist, contemplating dust. Got a hat (no whip though). Once known as ‘Yunus’ among Bedouins. #Excavating, #illustrating, #communicating archaeology.