Reel Science

Netflix's best drama of 2021 reveals how one ancient grave changed human history

You need to watch this prestige picture ASAP.

Netflix

Netflix's latest drama is, if nothing else, quiet. In contrast to the much more outlandish Bridgerton, the streaming platform's new prestige period film feels like a surprising choice for the platform to throw its weight behind.

But buried underneath the movie's soft, gauzy color palette and muted tones is the story of one of the most important archaeological discoveries in European history, which was overshadowed by the advent of World War II.

The Dig, which was released January 15, 2021, stars Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown — a middle-aged, self-taught archaeologist living in England on the cusp of World War II in 1939.

Brown comes into contact with Edith Pretty, a widow played admirably by Carey Mulligan. Pretty, so the story goes, has a fervent interest in archaeology and hires Brown to excavate several strange mounds located on her property in Suffolk, where Henry the VIII reportedly went looking for buried treasure.

This story is founded on truth. Basil Brown and Edith Pretty were real people, and their unorthodox collaboration led to a discovery which would rewrite the history of ancient peoples in what is now Europe.

Summer sky over a burial mound at Sutton Hoo.Getty

In the movie, as the dig gets underway, Brown unearths an ancient ship with unusual features. Ultimately, his discovery will rock the archaeological community.

"Why would anyone want to bury a ship?" asks Edith's young son, Robert.

Why, indeed. It's not an unreasonable question — who would go to the trouble of burying a ship beneath the ground? As it turns out, Brown has stumbled upon the grave of an unknown, but probably very important, man. The strange ship is actually an ancient burial site.

The film's dramatic scenes retell the true story — Pretty and Brown discovered the Sutton Hoo royal burial site. At this site, they unearthed treasures from countries as far away as Sri Lanka, as well as gilded artifacts from closer to home.

The Sutton Hoo burial site is considered one of the most important finds in British archaeology.Photo 12/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Unfortunately, the acidic soil ate up the dead man's remains, so he remains unidentified to this day — some suspect he was Raedwald, the seventh-century king of East Anglia.

As the film shows, word about Brown and Pretty's project made it out to the nearby Ipswich Museum, which had feuded with Brown over his work for them. In the film, the Ipswich Museum tries to take credit for the discovery, despite the fact Pretty was the one who commissioned the dig.

A reconstruction of the man's burial at Sutton Hoo.Geography Photos/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The real-life Brown did work as a contractor for both the Ipswich Museum and for Pretty, but in the movie, they point out his lack of formal training — Brown learned about digging in the soil from his farmer father — which is a big sticking point for the museum.

Brown himself even internalizes this elitism, referring to himself not as an archaeologist, but as a humble "excavator," according to the film.

Brown's internal conflict speaks to the problem of science as the preserve of an elite. After Brown unearths the top part of the ship, a more formally trained archaeologist, Charles Phillips, takes charge of the dig on behalf of the British Museum, snatching away the project from Brown.

Ralph Fiennes in "The Dig."Netflix

And so begins a tug of war between Phillips and Brown. Phillips sneers at Brown patronizingly, demeaning his skills and relegating him to grunt work, excluding him from the incredible finds hidden inside the ship.

Elitism in archaeology wasn't confined to the 20th century — it is very much a modern phenomenon. When the British Channel 4's Time Team conducted an amateur nationwide archaeological project in gardens and schoolyards in 2003, professional archaeologists decried the venture as "entertainment, not archaeology," "a grotesque parody," and "ludicrous."

In the film, the most important dispute between the two men centers on the ship itself. Phillips insists it is a Viking ship, which would be in keeping with the scientific consensus of the time. But Brown suspects it is not Viking at all, but, rather, an Anglo-Saxon one.

As the dig proceeds and they discover opulent treasures within the ship — including an Anglo-Saxon helmet fit for a fierce warrior — Brown's viewpoint wins out, changing world history as we know it.

How Sutton Hoo changed history

Replicas of finds from the Sutton Hoo Saxon burial site - a richly decorated Anglo-Saxon helmet of warGetty

This 1,400-year-old Anglo Saxon grave is revolutionary; the British Museum calls the Sutton Hoo burial site the "most impressive medieval grave to be discovered in Europe."

The finding provides an unprecedented insight into the Anglo-Saxon period of European history, but, more importantly, it fundamentally reshapes our understanding of what is known as the Dark Ages.

The archaeologists in the film rejoice, realizing that the ancient treasures indicate this period was not devoid of civic life — as was commonly thought — but instead, a society filled with a rich, cosmopolitan culture.

The Dark Ages may not have been so "dark" according to new Netflix drama 'The Dig.'Nastasic/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

The movie isn't perfect. Both Mulligan and Fiennes fade into the background in The Dig's second act as the story shifts to focus on a love triangle between a young female archaeologist, her secretly queer husband, and a dashing young photographer determined to serve his country in the upcoming war.

While this subplot highlights the consuming totality of war — and how it can overshadow even a world-changing archaeological discovery — the love triangle ultimately feels less compelling than the friendship between Fiennes' and Mulligan's characters.

Equally compelling is the professional role of the female archaeologist in the love triangle — Peggy Piggott — who joins the dig with her husband, Stuart Piggott.

Piggot is brought onboard essentially for her small stature — an asset on a fragile dig site — rather than her education, and Phillips, as the traditional scientist, refers to her dismissively as Piggott's wife. But as she proves herself more than capable, she becomes an integral member of the dig.

Carey Mulligan in "The Dig."Netflix

Both Pretty's role as the "boss" of the dig, and Piggot's role as an archaeologist offer the audience a glimpse into the often over-shadowed role women have played — and continue to play — in the field.

According to a 2014 report, 46 percent of professional archaeologists in England were women in 2013, significantly narrowing the gender gap from only a decade prior (the field remains predominantly white).

The Dig is perhaps the coolest depiction of a female archaeologist onscreen since Laura Dern's turn as Dr. Ellie Satler in Jurassic Park.

The movie also raises interesting questions of archaeological ownership and credibility. Despite Pretty's efforts, Brown's crucial work on the dig went publicly unrecognized for decades, though his name now appears alongside Pretty's in the British Museum's collection.

Following the excavation, Edith donated all of the archaeological findings to the British Museum, where they are still on view to the public today.

The Dig is available for streaming on Netflix now.

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