Books · British · Medieval Art and Architecture

The Dig: a Book and Movie About Sutton Hoo

Beautiful, bold, and vibrant, the treasures from the Sutton Hoo ship burial have fascinated me ever since I first studied them in freshman art history. As the strange remnants of a society so far back as to be incomprehensible to me, they captured my imagination and never let go. However, I knew nothing about the circumstances of their discovery until I learned that Netflix was going to release a movie about them, The Dig. In excited preparation for its January 29, 2021 premier, I did some research and also read John Preston’s novel that inspired the movie.

Spoiler warning: While I will not spoil anything specific to the novel or movie, I will talk freely about the historical events behind them.

The Dig presents a fictionalized version of real events that took place in Suffolk, East Anglia, England in 1939. On the eve of Great Britain’s entry into World War Two, a widow named Edith Pretty (1883-1942) hired local archaeologist Basil Brown (1888-1977) to excavate several mounds on her Sutton Hoo property. Intelligent and interested in archaeology, she suspected they were ancient burial places that might contain something interesting. And she was right. Brown and other excavators eventually uncovered the remains of an early-7th century CE Anglo-Saxon tomb, including a treasure trove of spectacular metalwork. This find revolutionized historical understanding of Anglo-Saxon culture, society, and art. Mrs. Pretty donated all the objects to the British Museum, where they’re now on display for the world to enjoy. Because Brown was self-taught and independent, his role in the discovery was, until recently, overshadowed by the contributions of other archaeologists from major museums. Learn more about the Sutton Hoo treasures in my article for DailyArt Magazine.

John Preston’s The Dig: A Novel Based on True Events. Cover image via Amazon.

Subtle, introspective, and atmospheric, the novel The Dig is a quite unlike anything else I’ve read before. It’s really lovely and poetic, but it also meanders a lot. Plot threads come and go in an almost ghostly manner, often without resolution, and much is hinted at rather than explained. The inner lives of the three characters who take turns narrating the story – Edith Pretty, Basil Brown, and young archaeologist Peggy Piggott – seem more important than the plot. The excavation is the sole thread that holds everything together.

There was also something intensely moving about [the ship’s] tenacious hold on survival. About the way in which it had resisted obliteration by transforming itself from one substance into another.

Preston, John. The Dig. New York: Other Press, 2007. P. 146.

I’m no movie maker, but I understand that this style of storytelling would not translate well on screen. While reading, I kept wondering how on earth they were going to make a movie out of this. Screenwriter Moira Buffini and director Simon Stone did an excellent job of creating a more coherent narrative while still preserving Preston’s atmospheric tone. When necessary, the movie explains things relatively organically, but it also follows the book’s habit of showing rather than telling, even if the message doesn’t come across with perfect clarity. On a couple of occasions, I probably would have been confused had I not read the book and done prior research. The movie is definitely more emotional and dramatic than the book, but it’s still fairly subtle as far as movies go. Just as in the book, the specter of World War Two looms large throughout, though in both cases it’s more of a backdrop to the story than integral to it.

The movie differs from the book quite a bit. Normally, that would be a problem for me, but I object to it less when the book itself is a loose adaptation of real-life events. I have no idea how faithful either version keeps to the truth, and I don’t suggest thinking about it too deeply. However, knowing that Sutton Hoo archaeologist Peggy Piggott (1912-1994) was the novelist’s aunt lends a touch of authority to his version of the story.

English-language poster for The Dig. Image via Internet Movie Database.

The movie stars Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty and Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown. Both are really excellent. I also liked Archie Barnes as Edith’s imaginative young son Robert Pretty. Robert was my favorite character in the book, so I’m glad he had such a big presence in the movie. Similarly, I appreciated Mrs. Pretty and Mr. Brown’s enhanced roles in the movie’s narrative; in the book, both tend to drop of out view for substantial periods of time. In particular, the movie beautifully conveyed the developing camaraderie between the archaeologist and landowner, something hinted at in the book but less fully explored.

My favorite parts of the movie were all the excavation scenes. Famously, the largest mound at Sutton Hoo contained a long-decayed wooden ship, of which a perfect impression remained in the soil. Such a thing is much more effective as a visual than a written description, and the movie’s presentation of it was spectacular. However, I wish it had spent more time with the artifacts found inside. According to the National Trust, the British organization that owns and operates the Sutton Hoo site, the movie used very high quality reproductions of the artifacts. It’s unfortunate that we only got to see them briefly, and largely obscured by soil, during a montage of their discovery. They could so easily have been one of the best parts! I also wanted the movie to focus a little more on why the discovery was so significant and meant so much to everybody involved, as this would have added nicely to the drama.

Sutton Hoo Purse Lid detail
Sutton Hoo Purse-Lid, early 7th century, gold, garnet and millefiori, 8.3 x 19 cm (The British Museum). Photo by Steven Zucker, Smarthistory co-founder (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

I enjoyed both the book and the movie, but I think I preferred the movie overall. (Blasphemy, I know!) More coherent and emotionally compelling, the movie is closer to the traditional mode of storytelling we expect in our books and movies. It has wonderful acting and visuals, and the film-making captures some of the atmosphere that makes the book so unique. The book is subtler and more ephemeral, but surprisingly it’s easy to read and understand. Of the two, it’s definitely the more relaxing option. The book includes some lovely passages of prose, and it does more justice to the Sutton Hoo treasures and their significance. It’s definitely not a typical historical novel, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I recommending trying one or both, according to your tastes. However, I don’t suggest doing both in the same week like I did! You can find John Preston’s The Dig: A Novel Based on True Events on Amazon, in libraries, or at bookstores. (Please note that, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.) The movie The Dig, directed by Simon Stone and starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes, is now available to stream on Netflix. View the trailer here.

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7 thoughts on “The Dig: a Book and Movie About Sutton Hoo

  1. Well done and timely article! I really enjoyed the movie and appreciate your informative comparisons between the movie and the book. Interesting note about the novelist’s connection to the archaeologist. While watching the movie, I was especially curious as to why Edith wanted the mounds excavated in the first place…now I know! Thank you for shedding more light on the find!

    1. Hi Stacy! I’m glad you enjoyed the movie and liked my article. According to the novel, Edith and her late husband had both been interested in the mounds and had planned to have them excavated together, but they didn’t have the chance before he died. Thanks for stopping by! Alexandra

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