Netflix’s The Dig is one of 2021’s early joys: a wonderful recounting of one of archaeology’s great stories of discovery, the uncovering of the treasures of Sutton Hoo in England. In doing so it focuses on the personal stories of, and common ground between, two individuals from very different classes: the ‘amateur’ archaeologist and local autodidact Basil Brown, and the upper-class Edith Pretty, owner of the Sutton Hoo estate.
[Some spoilers for The Dig follow]
Another major focus of The Dig is the theme of death, and what remains of us once we are gone. From the main story of the excavation of a literal tomb, and the deaths of Edith’s husband and a RAF pilot who crashes in the nearby river, to the ongoing concern over the immediate future of an ill Edith and her cousin Rory who is off to fight in World War II, the fragility and temporary nature of human life as compared to the depth of time is emphasised over and over again.
The story, as told in The Dig (at least in the movie version – I have not read the source novel so can’t comment on that), repeatedly emphasises that once dead, we personally cease to exist almost entirely. At one point Rory asks archaeologist Peggy Piggott “if 1000 years were to pass in an instant, what would be left of us?”. Peggy replies by pointing out that all that would remain are those things made of durable materials: “This [coin], and parts of your watch. The torch. Fragments of the mug. But every last scrap of you and I would disappear.”
At another point, Edith – in despair at her ongoing illness and its likely effect on her life expectancy – mourns to Basil that “we die and we decay. We don’t live on.”
What makes this choice of storyline and theme by the film-makers interesting is that, to do so, they had to omit fascinating parts of the actual history of the discovery, and the beliefs of their characters, which are in diametric opposition.
For instance, rather than believing that “we don’t live on”, Edith Pretty was in actual fact a “convinced Spiritualist”. C.W. Phillips, the professional archaeologist who took over the excavation from Basil Brown, mentions this explicitly in his memoir My Life in Archaeology, in his very first mention of her and the mounds at Sutton Hoo:
Maynard introduced me to Mrs Pretty and it was proposed that we should take a short walk over the heath to the edge of the woodland… As we proceeded I could see that there was a sizeable group of bracken-covered mounds at the edge of the heath and I learned that Mrs Pretty, a convinced Spiritualist, had become interested in this group of what were almost certainly burial mounds on her property and had applied to Ipswich Museum for advice and help in examining them further. [my emphasis]
Phillips goes on to explain, later in the chapter, that “on Thursday in each week she kept an appointment in London with a Spiritualist mentor who put her in touch with her husband, with whom she was thus able to commune about her affairs.”
Furthermore, according to Phillips, the reason Edith “had become interested” in the mounds, was “that she saw shadowy figures in the dusk moving round the barrow group which is just visible from Sutton Hoo House.” Though he notes that “this might have had a very mundane explanation”, Phillips also wonders “whether the decision to open three of the barrows in 1938 came from the London source” (that is, her Spiritualist mentor)!
In his book A Needle in the Right Hand of God, R. Howard Bloch provides more details on Edith Pretty’s inspiration to dig into the mounds:
In the summer of 1937, Mrs. Edith May Pretty, a widow living on her estate in Suffolk, East Anglia, recounted to Vincent Redstone, a local historian and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, her dream of the previous night. She had seen “a large white horse with a helmeted rider, then the burial of a man and the flashing of gold objects as they were placed in the grave beside him… Her nephew came with a dowser’s rod and assured her there was gold buried under the largest barrow.
It’s curious that The Dig reduces all of this actual history – Edith’s dream, her seeing shadowy figures at the mounds, the possible influence of her Spiritualist mentor, and confirmation via dowsing – to Edith simply telling Basil Brown that she had “a feeling” about digging beneath the main mound.
And the influence of Spiritualism continued on ‘the dig’. According to R. Howard Bloch, in the midst of the ‘takeover’ of the excavation by professional archaeologists, and with World War II looming, Basil Brown also received a message from a Spiritualist medium urging him to continue his work:
[By the end of June,] Basil Brown had found the other end of the ship, which provisionally measured eighty-three feet. On the evening of Sunday, July 2, he attended a meeting at the Woodbridge Spiritualists’ Hall, in the course of which the medium, Mrs. Florence Thompson of London, addressed Brown specifically, describing several people she could not place. “I see green fields which you left for a more important position. Now I see sand, all sand. Someone is holding you up in your business. Assert yourself and go on digging.” He reported the results of the ‘seance’ to Mrs. Pretty, who telephoned Reid Moir of the Ipswich Museum to expedite excavation of the ship.
And finally, we come to the fate of the treasure of Sutton Hoo itself. As The Dig recounts, an inquest was held to decide ownership of the excavated objects – which were worth, in C.W. Phillips’ estimation, “certainly in seven figures”. The Treasure-trove inquest’s decision was clear: as the objects were never intended to be recovered, the treasure legally belonged to the landowner, Edith Pretty.
Phillips (who, it must be noted, was supportive of Edith’s legal claim on the treasure) writes in his memoir that a consequence of the inquest’s decision was that “if the treasure was to find its proper resting place in the British Museum the Treasury would have to foot the bill and this it was not prepared to do.”
So the only way for the Sutton Hoo treasure to end up in the British Museum was if Edith Pretty made a spectacularly generous donation. This, as it turns out, is exactly what happened – but again, Edith’s Spiritualism may well have been the influencing factor behind the decision!
C.W. Phillips says in his memoir that the inquest decision ignited some heated debate in the Pretty family. “I had myself heard another member of the Pretty family say when she visited the site that the treasure must not be allowed to go out of the family,” Phillips writes, “and that (Mrs Pretty’s son) Robert’s interests must be safeguarded”, given Edith’s fragile health.
But, Phillips notes, on the evening after the inquest, Edith’s Spiritualist adviser “had come to Woodbridge and was staying at the house”.
He came out to look at the excavation and I went for a stroll with him on the heath. We discussed the events of the day and I found him a pleasant person. He asked for my opinion on what should happen now, and I told him plainly that I thought the time had come for his client to make a very generous gesture. The next day brought the news that this had been done…
So, far from being a tale of the fragility and limited nature of life, again and again in the story of Sutton Hoo we find the influence of the afterlife. From dreams and visions of ghosts inspiring the dig, to Spiritualist mediums communicating that the excavation must continue, and finally to Edith Pretty’s generous donation, the dead seem to have ‘spoken up’ during nearly every major decision in the story.
It’s strange that Netflix’s retelling of the story omitted these fascinating historical elements (especially given TV and movies’ general love of supernatural themes). It’s difficult to fault their decision though; The Dig is a fantastic piece of story-telling as is, and its themes of death and the impermanence of life – without delving into the ideas of an afterlife – have their own message worth contemplating.
And besides, if the creators had decided to recount the more fantastical sides of the story, the movie might have gone down a rabbit-hole full of interesting asides and lacked focus. Because, apart from the pervading influence of Spiritualism, there seems to be a near endless supply of fascinating mythical and magical facets to the Sutton Hoo story.
For instance, while The Dig does mention that the mounds may have at some point been excavated at the orders of King Henry VIII, Basil Brown also noted in his diary that the failed excavation/looting of the main mound was said to have been possibly conducted by “John Dee, the Court Astrologer, [who] was commissioned to search for treasure along the coast by Queen Elizabeth, and apparently came to Sutton.” (Four centuries later, and both the Sutton Hoo treasure and John Dee’s personal magical items now reside at the British Museum.)
C.W. Phillips also invoked prophecy and myth in regards to his excavations at Sutton Hoo in his memoir My Life in Archaeology. With World War II looming during the dig, Phillips – not normally given to hyperbole or fantasy – confessed that he began worrying that they may have been invoking a curse that would bring about the downfall of England:
The general sense of imminent crisis was now so oppressive as July moved into August that it affected everyone, though few yet showed it openly, and soon it would be affecting everything. Several times it came into my mind that there is a vague belief in East Anglia that the fate of England depends on the unbroken sleep of some ancient king buried near the shores of the North Sea and we seemed to be in a fair way to committing this offence.
And, if we really wanted to go down the path of Sutton Hoo being ‘haunted land’, Forteans might well note that the mounds sit just 5 miles from Rendlesham Forest…