Edith Fairly was satisfied that the mounds on her land in Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, held essential archaeological secrets and techniques. In 1939, on the eve of the second world conflict, she was confirmed proper as the splendid ship burial of an Anglo-Saxon king was uncovered. For a nation on the point of conflict and going through its personal “darkish age”, the Sutton Hoo ship burial was a supply of delight and inspiration, equal to the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Netflix’s The Dig, based mostly on the novel of the identical identify by John Preston (2007), recounts the story of this outstanding discover. It reworked understanding of the “darkish age” of the seventh century. Earlier than this discovery, a dearth of written sources was presumed to sign an absence of tradition on this interval.
Movies are likely to painting archaeologists as treasure-hunters or forensic detectives – notably the Indiana Jones franchise. Nevertheless, this Netflix dramatisation approaches archaeology with a brand new degree of subtlety and accuracy, probing loss of life, loss and reminiscence – key themes within the archaeological examine of the previous.
Revealing the useless
The funerary mound contained the stays of a decayed oak ship, 27m in size, which had been dragged from the close by River Deben to function a royal tomb. Over 250 artefacts revealed the sophistication of East Anglia in Anglo-Saxon occasions. There have been riches garnered from throughout the identified world, together with silver bowls and spoons from Byzantium and gold gown equipment set with Sri Lankan garnets.
Though the physique had lengthy since disappeared, the non-public regalia of a warrior-king survived, his sword, defend and ceremonial helmet. He’s believed to be King Raedwald, whose reign corresponded with the early seventh-century date of the cash contained in a gold purse (c. 610-635BC).
The Dig focuses on the connection between Edith Fairly (Carey Mulligan) and Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), the native novice excavator employed to research.
It attracts on real parts of the central character’s biographies, together with Fairly’s bereavement after her husband’s loss of life and the analysis of her terminal sickness (she died in 1942). Like many presently, Fairly was fascinated by “spiritualism”, the concept we are able to talk with the useless via using a religious medium. Spiritualism could have spurred her archaeological patronage, simply because it motivated investigations at different well-known websites, particularly Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset.
Turning the digital camera on archaeology
When the ship is revealed, Fairly and Brown are joined by “skilled” archaeologists, the real-life Sutton Hoo excavation crew. Nevertheless, dramatic license adjustments their roles and ages to emphasize the hierarchical character of Thirties archaeology.
The movie provides an correct portrayal of the archaeological excavation within the Thirties, carried out utilizing workmen with only a few expert excavators and certified teachers. There may be cautious consideration to archaeological element, emphasising that the ship’s timbers had nearly disappeared, surviving as nothing greater than iron rivets and a silhouette stained within the sand.
Nevertheless, the rivalry between the self-taught novice “digger”, Basil Brown, and the Cambridge-educated archaeologists is maybe exaggerated. Brown is portrayed as having native, intuitive information. He may “look at a handful of soil from wherever in Suffolk and know precisely what farm it got here from”. Though he was certainly self-taught, Brown was not precisely an novice. He was employed as an excavator by Ipswich Museum for 30 years and was extremely revered by the native archaeological neighborhood.
The Cambridge males additionally patronise the one feminine archaeologist, the real-life Peggy Piggott (Lily James), when she arrives accompanying her extra skilled husband, Stuart. Peggy is welcomed as a result of her slight body can be very best for working within the delicate circumstances of the ship’s hull. She’s proven unearthing the primary gold artefact (which actually occurred) however there’s no trace of the meticulous subject expertise for which the actual Peggy was identified throughout her illustrious profession. Certainly, few skilled expertise are depicted in any respect: the archaeologists have been introduced in to attract, plan and document archaeological options – not merely to extract artefacts.
The professionals are portrayed cynically, exploiting the invention to bolster private and institutional reputations. In distinction, Fairly and Brown replicate philosophically on the that means of the grave and the necessity to respect the reminiscence of its human inhabitant.
Because the skeleton of the ship emerges from the sand, it’s a metaphor for the transience of human life, notably poignant with conflict looming. Edith says to Brown, “We die and decay and don’t stay on.” He counters, “From the primary human hand-print on a cave wall, we’re a part of one thing steady, so we don’t actually die.” The concept all human lives are related via the thread of the previous is on the coronary heart of burial archaeology, which isn’t about treasure however unearthing relationships between the residing and their reminiscences of the useless.
The Sutton Hoo ship burial was definitely distinctive in its wealth and state of preservation. Additional excavations at Sutton Hoo
revealed richly furnished royal burials in different mounds, together with these of ladies and kids, whereas comparable high-status burials have been excavated elsewhere, such because the Prittlewell Princein Essex.
Right this moment Anglo-Saxon archaeology explores many alternative social roles and life, together with (pagan) women-priests and unusual farmers. The archaeologists themselves are additionally a extra various and inclusive lot, dedicated to working with native communities to find their previous, and giving cautious reflection to moral points – akin to whether or not, and below what circumstances, we must always disturb the stays of the traditional useless. The Dig reminds us that the position of archaeology is just not in treasure-seeking, however in reflecting on our advanced relationship to the previous, and the way and why we worth it.
Roberta Gilchrist receives funding from the AHRC.