I recently watched The Dig, the Netflix film about the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial. This has garnered plenty of rave reviews from professional critics and on social media, and I’ve got nothing really to add to the comments others have already made. The acting is first rate; top marks to Ralph Fiennes for nailing the very specific rural Suffolk accent (something which I researched for the Stannard novels) rather than relying on the generic Zummercornorfolk essayed by so many actors who murder English regional accents, but Carey Mulligan is affecting as the terminally ill widow who owns the land where the dig takes place and there’s also a decent turn from Lily James, whose contract must stipulate that she has to appear in every British drama series or film set between 1900 and 1950. Now, we all know that archaeology can be wildly popular (Time Team. That is all.) We also know that it can be sexy, thanks to Tutankhamun and Indiana Jones, although the latter bears as much resemblance to real archaeology as the aforesaid Lily James does to a panda. This, by contrast, is something that The Dig does brilliantly. I took part in a few digs when I was aged around seventeen to nineteen, and the one I remember most vividly involved spending most of one week sitting in a caravan, reading or playing cards, while it poured with rain outside (this, inevitably, was in west Wales in summer) with the only excitement coming when the professionals discovered a small piece of charred wood. Real archaeology is messy, involves a great deal of dodging the weather – in Britain, at any rate – and is often both tedious and frustrating. The Dig conveys these elements well, and also confronts the tensions which can sometimes exist when professionals interact with amateurs, be it in archaeology or, dare one say it, maritime history; the film keeps the snobbish condescension of the former for the latter just the right side of the line, although this element of the story was greatly exaggerated to provide the essential dramatic element of conflict. (In fact the ‘amateur’ Basil Brown, played by Fiennes, became a great friend of the ‘professional’ Charles Phillips.)
As Rick Spilman points out in his own blog, though, at the heart of The Dig is the story of a ship, the likely burial place of the shadowy King Raedwald. True, the hull had been gone for many centuries before Basil Brown stuck his shovel into the earth for the first time, leaving only its ghostly impression behind, but even so, it is the ship, and the astonishing royal helmet found within it, that constitutes the iconic image of Sutton Hoo. This is the inspiration behind the current project to build a replica of the ninety-feet-long vessel, one of the best proofs both that the Vikings, whose heyday was several centuries later, did not have a monopoly on such craft, and that applying the name ‘the Dark Ages’ to the centuries after the fall of Rome is a bit like…well, yes, casting Lily James as a panda. I’ll look forward to seeing the reborn Sutton Hoo ship take to the water!
One final thought on archaeological matters. Back in the olden times when it was possible to do such things, I often attended meetings in the Mortimer Wheeler Room of the Society of Antiquaries in central London. Now he would be a terrific subject for a film or TV series – important digs in many exotic parts of the world, a career as a TV personality, active (and dramatic) service in both world wars, plus a love life that can best be described as ‘colourful’. Interested film producers should form an orderly queue to the left.
Finally, good news for fans of the Quinton Journals – the first draft of the new book in the series is finished! It’s now with Beta Reader One, and I hope to provide more details (including the title reveal) in this blog soon. I’m also giving a talk, inevitably via Zoom, at the event on 6 March to raise awareness of another remarkably important historic ship, the wreck of the London which blew up in 1665. The equivalent event last year, just a couple of weeks before the first UK lockdown began, was the last time I gave a talk to an actual ‘live’ audience…Zoom talks don’t quite cut the mustard in the same way, because with no audience reaction or feedback, it feels rather like talking to oneself! Seriously, though, there’s a terrific cast of speakers covering a fascinating range of topics. Registration details, and plenty of other information about the ship and the finds discovered in it, can be found here.