Digging Up Dirt: Sutton Hoo & Netflix

Why would anyone want to bury a ship? This question is asked in the Netflix original movie “The Dig” which explores the 1939 Great Ship Burial excavation at Sutton Hoo. Read on to find out about the true story behind the movie!

Netflix Movie Night!

Based on John Preston’s novel of the same name, Netflix’s “The Dig” will take you through the story behind the 1939 Sutton Hoo excavation. The film was directed by Simon Stone and includes actors from Lily James, Carey Mulligan, to Ralph Fiennes. Additionally, the characters and events depicted throughout the film are inspired by their real-life counterparts of which we’ll be exploring! Feel free to check out the movie trailer! 

Netflix, The Dig, Trailer

Meet the Characters

Edith Pretty (1883-1942)

Painted portrait of Edith Pretty, artist Cor Visser, Photo Credit © British Museum

As the owner of the Sutton Hoo estate, Edith Pretty (played by Carey Mulligan) took the initiative to start the excavation of several curious mounds found on her property. Pretty had witnessed excavations during her childhood which sparked her interest in archaeology and history. Therefore, her willingness to work alongside archaeologists and museums was encouraged. Prior to the excavations, Pretty worked as a Red Cross volunteer during WWI (she was far from boring). As the declared owner of the site, Pretty generously donated everything to the public. In fact, the excavation finds are located at the British Museum

Basil Brown, © Trustees of the British Museum

Basil Brown (1880-1977)

Played by Ralph Fiennes, Basil Brown was a self-taught archaeologist who first worked on the excavation site. Brown gained knowledge of East Anglia geology by working with his farmer father. His abilities landed him as an archaeological contractor for Ipswich Museum in 1935. This connection led to his eventual presence on Edith Pretty’s property. When he wasn’t working in the dirt, Brown enjoyed astronomy! 

The Piggotts

Peggy (Lily James) and Stuart (Ben Chaplin) Piggott were both archaeologists that worked on the Sutton Hoo excavation. Peggy gained several diplomas on archaeology and was the first to find gold at the site. Stuart had experience at numerous excavation sites and later became the Abercromby Chair in Archaeology at Edinburgh University.  

Charles Phillips ©Trustees at the British Museum

Charles Phillips (1901-1985)

As an experienced archaeologist, Charles Phillips (Ken Scott) was eventually placed in charge of the excavation proceedings. Despite this, Basil Brown and Phillips were still respectful of each other. Though, at times, his relationship was strained with the Ipswich Museum. Still, he assembled a strong archaeologist team that worked to uncover great finds. 

The Excavation

Everything began around July 1937 with a meeting at the Woodbridge Flower Show when Edith spoke with a historian about her property’s curious mounds. After a visit by the Ipswich Museum curator, the excavation was set in motion. Between June and August 1938, a team led by Basil Brown excavated three mounds (now known as mounds 2, 3, and 4). Many things were discovered and they were just the tip of the iceberg!

Mound 2 Finds:

  • Iron Ship Rivets
  • Blue Glass
  • Gilt Bronze Discs
  • Iron Knives
  • Sword Tips

Mound 3 Finds:

  • Remains of a cremated man
  • Corroded iron axe-heads
  • Part of a decorated limestone plaque
  • Fragments of pottery
  • Lid of a Mediterranean jug

Mound 4 Finds:

  • Bronze
  • Textile fragments
  • Bone
  • Ship Rivet

Following the success of this excavation, another began in 1939. During this excavation, more ship rivets were uncovered. As more and more of the ship became unearthed, Charles Phillips suggested that due to the its great size, the site must be a royal burial. In fact, archaeologists unearthed many gold items suggesting great wealth. So much, in fact, that security was increased in fear of robbers! The discovered items were later shipped to the British Museum for inspection where much was speculated about Anglo Saxon society. 

The Anglo Saxons

Sutton Hoo Helmet, © Trustees at the British Museum

The excavation revealed not just an early medieval grave but also a magnificent funerary monument. The 27m long ship and burial chamber had such luxurious riches that it clearly belonged to an important person especially since ship burials were rare! It must have taken great manpower to move and bury the ship as well. Imagine dragging one from a river, digging a trench, and creating a mound! Woo! That’s a lot of work.

Despite believing it to belong to an important person (maybe even a king), the dead person’s identity is not certain. Although, there is still so much we can learn about Anglo Saxon’s! Take for instance, the Sutton Hoo sword. Wear patterns indicate that the owner was left-handed. Since most people are right-handed, this would have come in handy during a fight as warriors anticipate a right-handed attack!  

Additionally, the Sutton Hoo helmet’s gold foil and amazing artistry with images of fighting warriors and fierce creatures let us know that the grave entombed a powerful warrior. We also know that the buried person had connections with the world. For instance, there are silver bowls from the Byzantine Empire!  

Overall, the burial site uncovered a society with international connections, great artistic ability, and immense wealth, power, and skill.

Now that you know about the excavation and its discoveries, grab your popcorn and start watching! Let us know what you think! Better yet, head over to the British Museum, start a treasure hunt, and see the burial items yourself!

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