I watched The Dig (Simon Stone, 2021), with Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown and Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty. The movie is based on John Preston’s eponymous novel which tells the story of the 1939 discovery of the Sutton Hoo burial ship, changing what was known of early Medieval Britain and the Anglo Saxons who lived in it.
All of archaeology Twitter has been talking about it and I wanted to join the fray, but from the museum side. This is a tad ironic when we take into account the movie’s not-so-positive portrayal of museums— they’re elitist, they don’t give Brown his due credit, they squabble among themselves, and provide the most antagonism. And yet The Dig has put into words something incredibly valuable for museums — that people matter, and more so than artefacts. This sounds rather obvious, but it is so rarely followed through in the building of our historical narratives. As such, this article is a loose commentary of what museums could learn from The Dig. (spoilers ahead!)
Where does the object belong?
It’s not the “perfect” movie; there are many questions surrounding mid-century British archaeology that were not really addressed, like the creation of a national British identity through archaeological research or the ethics of mortuary archaeology (at least not to a large extent). But it did show a new perspective on our relationship to heritage, I think.
The first clue to this it that the Museum, as an institution, isn’t shown as the inevitable, neutral-yet-godly endgame for material heritage. Compare The Dig to our other favourite archaeology movie, Indiana Jones, and pretty much any other popular museum narrative: the object belongs in the museum. The treasure belongs in a museum. The history of humanity belongs in a museum, forever and always, as no other place could be more suitable for it.
The Dig disrupts this narrative: while yes, Edith Pretty does end up donating the treasures to the British Museum, it wasn’t obvious that she would, and the movie didn’t put it as a moral imperative. She could have kept the treasures, or set up a museum in the village, or she could have reburied it — which wouldn’t have surprised me considering the overall sense of unity with the land she has going on. (This shows up very clearly later.)
Instead, the movie’s first approach to understanding the remains of the Anglo Saxon ship and its treasures is to foreground the people who were part of the dig. It is their stories, their feelings and hopes that are the lens through which we look at the archaeological expedition. Each character brings their personal stakes to the adventure — and here I’ll focus on Basil Brown, Edith Pretty, and her son Robert.
Knowledge and place
An important line of questioning is of course that of class and elitism. Basil Brown, our main character, is an ‘excavator’ and not an ‘archaeologist’ because he didn’t go to university, as he is reminded by Cambridge-educated Charles Phillips when the British Museum team takes over the dig. So we have two different types of expertise: on one hand the traditional university expertise that is meant to be rational, objective, and intellectual, and on the other one that is more embodied in feeling and intuition.
Both Basil, who can recognise Suffolk soil by touch, and Edith, who has a hunch over what mound will prove to be more interesting to dig, represent this second type of expertise. It is this form of knowledge that drives the narrative behind the discovery, and creates the emotional attachment towards the treasure rather than the dating of the archaeological findings to the 6th century AD, which while very impressive was more of a secondary celebration. Universal survey museums often rely on the first type of knowledge to categorise their collections and create their narratives, leaving aside local and individual histories. The Dig is a celebration of the smaller narratives, and I hope their recognition will continue to grow.
Death and ritual
Another important theme is death. It’s everywhere: in the imminent start of World War Two, in Edith’s mourning of her late husband, and in her own illness. It’s how this movie deals with it that felt truly remarkable to me.
The fear of death is often compensated through an overwhelming glorification of a distant path, as if immortalising something means that we will never ourselves disappear. It’s a romantic way of dealing with one’s own mortality, but it doesn’t allow us to connect with the characters very much. You get some big speech about life and death and continuity (there is one in the movie, actually), someone dies, and you’re left with a bittersweet feeling. It’s fine, but it’s not necessarily how people actually deal with it. Experiencing the past as matter-of-fact— which museums often do — sometimes misses the point, especially if we’re talking about things as important and complicated as death.
The Dig instead faces the matter head-on when ten-year old Robert takes care of his mother Edith in her final moments. (Metaphorical final moments, as she actually lived a couple of years more.) With Basil’s help, Robert lies her down on pillows and blankets in the middle of the ship’s imprint at night. As the three gaze at the stars above, he tells the story of a queen who is about to journey aboard the ship into space, and how she will be missed. It is, of course, Edith.
Robert’s courage in facing the truth about his mother’s illness is incredibly emotive, but what really got to me was seeing Edith lying down in the middle of the ship. Here was the movie’s powerful message: the structural integrity of the ship did not matter more than Edith and Robert’s mourning ritual. They’re definitely damaging it, but who cares? The ship is celebrated for its very nature and function — a burial site, including the rituals related to such a place. With some parallel shots of Edith lying down there and the ship later covered in bracken, for a moment I actually thought they had buried her there. While this didn’t happen (neither in the movie nor in real life), by creating this image the movie reinforces the importance and legitimacy of ritual as part of understanding and living history.
Ancient history is not glorified to the extent that present life is devalued; Edith’s story is just as important as the ship’s story. Beyond that, she is part of the ship’s story, or at least it is what The Dig tries to invoke. Imagine if she had actually been buried in it, and she became part of its narrative in the museum. What if museums treated these present-day rituals with the same affection as they did the distant path? How much more would people be able to connect with history, if it was allowed to be truly continuous?