In January 2021, a Netflix original named ‘The Dig’ surprised both academics and the public alike in its fascinating approach on capturing an archaeological dig on the eve of World War II. Based on the true story of the Sutton Hoo excavation of 1939, several UCL academics came together to discuss how one of the most important archaeological discoveries was portrayed in ‘The Dig’, revealing the richest Anglo-Saxon ship burial.
Chaired by Professor Sasha Roseneil (Dean of the UCL Faculty of Social & Historical Sciences), the panel included Dr Sue Brunning (Curator of the European Early Medieval Collections at the British Museum with responsibility for the finds from the Sutton Hoo ship burial), Mark Roberts (Principal Research Fellow and Fieldwork Tutor at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology), Charlotte Frearson (Outreach Officer for the UCL Institute of Archaeology) and Mercedes Baptiste Halliday (second year Archaeology and Anthropology student at UCL). Directed by Simon Stone and based on the 2007 novel of the same name by John Preston, ‘The Dig’ was the third most watched title on Netflix on its debut weekend. It is no wonder that it was nominated for five British Academy Film awards.
While ‘The Dig’ was well-received and theatrically brilliant, issues with the film’s representation of the Sutton Hoo excavation were addressed during the event. In the film, Peggy Piggott is represented as an inexperienced and feminine character, yet in real life she was known for wearing a boiler suit. The two female photographers at the dig (Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack) were replaced by fictional character Rory Lomax, even implying a love interest between him and Piggott. Both were instances where female representation in archaeology could have been captured with more historical accuracy. In today’s society of equality and gender-rights, it was surprising that the filmmakers decided to draw on artistic licence in these portrayals.
Having been one of the consulted experts for the film’s creation, it was fascinating to learn from Sue about the extremely accurate replicas of the Sutton Hoo treasure used in the film, made by metalsmith David Roper. Archival documents were also searched meticulously by both Sue and the filmmakers to make an accurate rendition of both the site and those artefacts found within. She also remarked how representation of an actual archaeological dig without any of the flourishes of paranormal activity or action-thriller chase-scenes, so often seen in films depicting archaeology, was refreshing to see. Sue described the influence of pop-culture on reaching audiences far and wide, with the film’s success resulting in an incredible response from the public in the Sutton Hoo exhibition at the British Museum.
Mercedes reflected this notion as, due to global pandemic, many undergraduate students have not experienced archaeological fieldwork or been able to visit museums. Therefore, films and documentaries are an excellent way to engage with and learn about different sites and create conversation with those outside of academic circles. Charlotte’s inbox saw an influx of emails following ‘The Dig’, many asking “how do I become an archaeologist” or complementing how the impact of the film has truly been beneficial for the discipline of archaeology.
Those watching the panel event were given a relatable example by Mark Roberts of what Basil Brown experienced when the Sutton Hoo dig was taken over by the governmental Office of Works. In 1984, an attempt was made to take over one of the Institute of Archaeology’s dig sites in Boxgrove. Here, Lower Palaeolithic human remains were discovered dating back to approximately 500,000 years ago. The “older institution” wanting to take control of the site would then, naturally, have seized all the academic credit. Thankfully, much like Edith Pretty, the Institute of Archaeology’s director John Evans rebuffed the attempt and it has stayed with UCL to this day. The politics and intricacies of archaeological investigation was perfectly captured by the film, and Mark could empathise with the struggles even in modern times.
The Q&A session allowed the audience to pose their questions to the panellists about ‘The Dig’ and its influence; from ideas of which British archaeological site should have a film made about it next, to how the treasures of Sutton Hoo barely had any screen time.
‘The Dig’ has created conversation from both experts and amateur archaeologists alike. Rooted in the need to discover the past, the film revealed much about the people investigating the ship burial. Perhaps with increased public interest, we may see more of these films appear, publicising more about archaeology as a profession and increasing interest in the past.