Courtesy of Netflix

March 1, 2021

‘The Dig’: A Dramatized but Satisfying Story of Discovery

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On the eve of war, against a misty backdrop of the English countryside, Netflix’s The Dig uncovers the mostly true story of a remarkable archaeological discovery and the ripples it sends through the lives of those peering into the past. Based on a book by John Preston, The Dig seems at first glance to be a tidy little film that delights in dusting off history and using it to make sense of our present-day anxieties and curiosities. On a deeper level, however, it dares to question: who owns the past? And how can we hope to understand it when our own lives are so very short indeed? 

Suffolk of 1939 is a place of tweed jackets, dirt roads, crowded pubs, vivid green fields and the tensions of a society whose foundations have been shaken by the rumbles of World War II — a climate in which it is unclear how much value should be placed on old artifacts while the future is so uncertain. Despite these troubled times, wealthy landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) is determined to discover what lies beneath several mysterious mounds on her property, a large swathe of land called Sutton Hoo. She hires Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), a man with no formal training in archaeology but a genuine expertise from a lifetime of excavations. What they find — a massive Anglo-Saxon ship marking a burial site and a wealth of varied artifacts — rewrites historians’ understanding of a culture that had been presumed “primitive.” While widowed Pretty wrestles with her declining health and the future of her son, Brown struggles with being snubbed by eager scholars like Cambridge archaeologist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott). Ultimately the ship and its treasures survive the war and are allocated to a museum. 

 In part, the film feels like a love letter to Basil Brown and others like him: the unorthodox faces of history which were largely forgotten. A mere tap of Brown’s foot can tell him the nature of the soil beneath. Disparaged by the more traditional academic experts, he advocates for himself and for a role in the story of discovery, even when he knows his name may be left out of that story’s telling. 

There is also something distinctly moving about Mulligan’s performance as Edith Pretty. She is intelligent and experienced in archaeology and history, but was unable to make anything of it professionally. She grapples with ownership of the artifacts, which she feels she has a responsibility to protect from the indiscriminate destruction of the coming years, but as her sickness worsens, her hold on the future grows weak. Pretty’s imaginative young son Robert (Archie Barnes), facing the looming loss of his mother, hero-worships Brown as he works away at learning the secret language of the past. This is slow and unglamorous work, but in the eyes of Robert and the awed locals, the dig takes on monumental proportions. 

Delving deeply into both the voice of the past, present trials and thoughts of posterity, the film unravels time. Fragments of dialogue leak forward and backward into adjacent scenes, even when no one appears to be speaking. Periods of quiet are also interspersed throughout — the film is gentle, almost muted, and yet somehow bursting at the seams with the mundane loveliness of human life. We leap from wide open skies and wheeling birds to the claustrophobia of being buried alive, just as the characters soar from the high of unearthing wonders to the crushing dread of war, sickness and self-doubt. 

As an archaeologist-in-training, while I expected The Dig to dramatize and blur factuality, I settled in to watch the film with the expectation that I would find intellectual and aesthetic encouragement in the challenges and successes of archaeological discovery. I was introduced to it by the archaeology side of Twitter, which was initially full of delighted surprise that the field was getting well-received screentime beyond Indiana Jones. As the days went on, however, discussion began to grow more nuanced as archaeologists and historians alike pondered and criticized whether the film did justice to its leading ladies, or indeed if it was as historically accurate as it purported to be

Peggy Piggott (Lily James), a young archaeologist who becomes swept up in an affair with an excavation photographer named Rory (a character who replaced two real-life, female photographers), was made younger and far less experienced than she was in actuality. The dynamic between Basil Brown and Charles Phillips is also made more confrontational than it probably ever was. Deep currents of sexism and classism troubled — and still trouble — the field of archaeology. However, making Piggott a bit dewy-eyed and retroactively turning Phillips into the villain may have been a counterproductive way to address these issues. (I would also argue that the burial artifacts were exciting enough without concocting a bit of extra romance, but I may be biased.)  

Despite these flaws, the film manages to convey both the wonder of discovery and the terror of mortality; it questions the ownership of the past and stewardship of knowledge; it challenges the elitist equation of academia with intelligence. It studies the lives and emotional needs of unapologetically brilliant women in a society that left them feeling isolated. As a historical account, The Dig takes poetic license and dramatizes relationships, but as a story, it satisfies some part of the soul which searches for anything grounding, soothing and certain. The past is an unreliable mirror for the present, and yet we cannot help but reflect. 

Charlotte Mandy is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at crm299@cornell.edu.