Netflix’s “The Dig”: The Gentle, Sweet Story Buries the Dazzling Viking-like Sutton Hoo Artifacts
Remember the Vikings, the fierce seafaring Norse people of the late 8th through the 11th centuries? The ones known as much for pillaging Britain and Ireland as for their amazing seamanship in longships?
Before the famous Viking warriors though, there were early Anglo Saxons, also descended from Scandinavians and also ferocious fighters with longships. The Anglo-Saxons were conquerors, as well as raiders, who took advantage of a power vacuum created when the Romans left Britain in the 5th century. The Suffolk coast of England was one of the areas they settled.
Some historians suggest that the poem Beowulf, which valorizes sixth-and-seventh-century warrior culture, including ship burials, may have been originally composed at the kingdom of East Anglia, territory that would have included what is now Sutton Hoo.
What does Netflix’s “The Dig” have to do with Vikings and early Anglo Saxons? The 88 ft longship found during the archaeological dig at Sutton Hoo on the Suffolk coast was initially thought to be Viking, though archeologists quickly decided it was even older, which made it early Anglo Saxon.
Netflix’s Version of the Story
Neflix’s “The Dig,” however, doesn’t focus on the story of glittering warrior artifacts and the culture which produced them. Rather, it tells an unpretentious, even underdog-like story of the 1938–39 archeological excavation at Sutton Hoo. The ailing owner of the land, Edith Pretty, played by Golden-Globe nominee Carey Mulligan, had long pondered the possible contents and history of the barrows visible out her manor-house windows. As World War II approaches and her own health deteriorates, Pretty asks self-taught excavator Basil Brown, played by Oscar-nominee Ralph Fiennes, to investigate.
It’s a charming story. Brown uncovers a rare seventh-century Anglo-Saxon burial ship. Along the way, he develops an unlikely friendship with Pretty and her young son that crosses lines of gender and class.
Brown’s efforts are off to a slow start when he chooses to excavate one of the smaller mounds because he thinks it less likely to have been looted, and his digging yields nothing of great interest. Then they try Pretty’s original choice of mounds, a larger one that is oval-shaped. Her instincts were good. Looters centuries earlier had failed to find the treasure, giving up too soon. Pretty and Brown hit gold, figuratively and literally.
At the Time, People Thought Early Anglo-Saxon Life Brutish
At the time of the Sutton Hoo discoveries, popular belief characterized early Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of the region as “living in small, sunken-floored, smoke-hazed huts in a state of squalor and poverty,” according to Angela Care Evans, British Museum curator.
Archeologists of the day were dumbfounded by the finding of a longship burial in the Suffolk countryside. A culture of people living hand to mouth, as the people of that era were believed to have been, wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to build such a ship, much less furnish it.
In the film, Cambridge archaeologist Charles Phillips arrives to take over the dig after a ship is uncovered, and the dig then warranted an archeologist more qualified than Brown, a mere excavator without academic credentials. The Phillips character says the discovery of the burial ship “changes everything,’ meaning it upended the then-current understanding of Saxon culture. “These people weren’t just marauding barterers. They had culture! They had art! They had money!” he exclaims.
However, following the lead of the 2008 John Preston novel by the same name, “The Dig’s” script keeps the “everything changes” part of the story mostly offstage.
“The Dig” Leaves Out Similarities to a Beowulf Ship Burial
Evans’ 1986 book, published by the British Museum, asserts a wildly different take on the Sutton Hoo discovery than the modest Netflix character-driven representation. She likens the imagined death ceremony for the warrior king at Sutton Hoo to Shield Sheafson’s funeral in the medieval epic Beowulf. A recent prose translation of the old English poem reads as follows.
At the hour that was appointed by Fate, Shield passed under the protection of God. His dear kinsmen…laid their beloved leader, the mighty one, the generous giver of gifts, upon the widest part of the deck of the ship, beside the mast. Many a treasure and ornament, fetched from far lands, were placed near unto him. Never heard I of a more comely ship adorned with weapons of warfare and with war-weeds, with sword-blade and with breast-plate.
Note the part in the quote about a beloved leader buried with treasure, as well as weapons, in a “comely” ship fit for a king. The ship in the Beowulf burial ceremony was pushed into the water current, not buried on a plateau overlooking a river. Otherwise, there is much to compare between the furnishing of the Beowulf death boat and the Sutton Hoo ship contents.
The 263 artifacts from the dig included gold and garnet buckles, a sword, a shield, spears, coins, silver cutlery, a chain-mail shirt, a scepter, and a distinctive full-face helmet of a kind never before recovered in Britain. These finds lend credence to the idea that high-status seventh-century individuals (Anglo-Saxon, as well as Vikings) lived the life depicted in Beowulf — lavishly-dressed nobles dwelling in a grand hall, drinking mead to the sounds of minstrels, in between bouts of sword-based fighting.
Moreover, the Sutton Hoo dig boasted kingly-hall furnishing such as a cauldron that would have required a 30 ft. ceiling to suspend from cross beams. Fragments of heavy textiles survive, which were likely wall hangings or floor coverings, as well as elegant drinking horns, maplewood bottles, gaming pieces, and a lyre testify to a lavish, celebration-oriented lifestyle. These possessions would have graced the king’s hall while he was alive, and they were intended to furnish a similar hall in the afterlife. However, they also demonstrate the society’s wealth and the warrior-king’s high status.
Sue Brunnin, curator at the British Museum, said, “We can’t name that king [buried in the Sutton Hoo ship] for certain, but a popular candidate is Raedwald, who ruled the kingdom of East Anglia around this time in the early seventh century. He may have held power over neighboring kingdoms too, which may have earned him a good send off.”
The Ship’s Discovery Was Coincidental
The discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship depended upon so many accidents, making one wonder what additional Anglo-Saxon treasure might still lurk below ground — or how much has been lost or covered over as farmland. Angus Wainwright, Historical Trust archaeologist, told iweekend:
In many respects we only know about Sutton Hoo because of a series of small accidents — the fact that Mrs. Pretty could see the mounds from her windows, the fact that she bumped into a local historian who encouraged her at a garden fete. Without these events, the land would eventually have been ploughed and we would probably have never known what lay beneath.
The 263 artifacts of the dig included gold and garnet buckles, a sword, a shield, spears, coins, silver cutlery, a chain-mail shirt, a scepter, and a distinctive full-face helmet of a kind never before recovered in Britain.
Much of the longship’s story is still missing. Physical artifacts from Sutton Hoo, as well as the ground itself, continue to be examined using new technology such as magnetometry. But we do already know enough to speculate the ship was buried by a violent, yet rich, Beowulf-like culture.
“The Dig” allows its characters themselves to speculate— only in their cases, it is not so much about grand halls, sword fights, and gold jewelry. Rather, it is musings about the existential connections between the ship itself, the people who once sailed, then buried it, and themselves, who dug in the ground to uncover the ghostly ship. British Museum curator Dr. Sue Brunning told Express.co.uk:
There is one particular moment [in the film] where [Brown] goes and smokes his pipe during a break by the river. “He sees a boat sailing past and…you can see that he is imagining the ship he has found would have sailed in that same water.”
The film is implying that history, like the river, is a continuous stream; and the 1938 characters are already part of the history of that unexpected warrior king and his improbable ship.
Digging the dirt: The true story behind The Dig
The Dig is a new film by Netflix, based on the novel of the same title by John Preston. But do you know the true story…
Davis, Gerald. Beowulf: The New Translation. Hartford, Conn: Insignia, 2013.
Evans, Angela Care. The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial. Published for the Trustees of the British Museum by British Museum Publications, 1986.