The Dig does not approach the Old English period in an exciting, or new way

As a student of Old English literature, and as someone obsessed with anything vaguely old, I was incredibly excited to watch The Dig, a film directed by Simon Stone and released on Netflix in January this year.  The Dig, based on a 2007 novel by John Preston, dramatizes the excavation of the Sutton Hoo archaeological site in 1939.  The film follows landowner Edith Pretty (played by Carey Mulligan) and excavator Basil Brown (played, with a striking Suffolk accent, by Ralph Fiennes). Whilst it has received generally good reviews, it has also been accused of misogyny, and of a reductive approach to the history which it attempts to portray.

So where does The Dig go wrong? 

The issue of accuracy is inevitably one which will crop up when discussing the representation of history in the media.  Fictionalising and exaggerating will, of course, happen to a degree, but the way The Dig approached this left a bad taste.  The character of Peggy Piggott (played by Lily James) becomes something of a focus of the film in its latter half, depicting her unhappy marriage to husband Stuart Piggott (played by Ben Chaplin) and her subsequent love affair with photographer and pilot Rory Lomax (portrayed by Johnny Flynn).  The affair, which culminates in Peggy and Stuart separating, and Rory being called up to fight by the Royal Air Force, has no grounding in reality, with Rory Lomax being a completely fictional character, and the timeline of Stuart and Peggy’s divorce being altered to fit within the span of the film.  But what’s so wrong with this?  After all, who doesn’t love a bit of romance to spice up a film which is, at its core, about digging?

The problem is not so much with the fictional romance sub-plot as with what the sub-plot obscures. The made-up character of Rory Lomax takes over the role of the two female photographers (Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff) who actually documented the excavation, with accusations of misogyny subsequently levelled at the film. The sub-plot also minimises the role of Peggy Piggott (also known as Margaret Guido).  The film presents her as inexperienced archaeologist who only helps in the Sutton Hoo excavation because she, as a woman, is lighter than any man, and can therefore take part in the excavation without ruining any of the fragile finds. In reality, Piggott was an experienced and important figure within the archaeological field.  In the span of her career, she wrote over fifty publications, and two years prior to the Sutton Hoo excavation, she had led her own dig at Latch farm in Hampshire, and was anything but the clumsy, inexperienced character who accidentally discovers some of the highly important finds portrayed in the film, such as the burial chamber, and a coin which shows evidence of trading links with the continent.

The film, as demonstrated by Louise D’Arcens, Professor of English at Macquarie University, also feeds into colonialist and white-supremacist ideas of the Anglo-Saxons as the ancestors of the modern English, with D’Arcens suggesting that The Dig can ultimately be seen as a ‘Brexit Film’.  D’Arcens’ assessment highlights the non-critical stance which the film takes towards the myth of a unified Germanic origin for the English, with Basil Brown’s wife suggesting that the excavation of Sutton Hoo is important so that future generations ‘can know where they came from’.  This concept of a common Germanic ancestor is one often peddled by far right and white supremacist groups, with the term “Anglo-Saxon” itself under scrutiny.  Scholar Mary Rambaran-Olm examines this in an article which explains how ‘the Anglo-Saxon myth links white people with an imagined heritage based on indigeneity to Britain’, and in a brilliant Twitter thread, which gives examples of the weaponization of this term by white supremacists, and the danger of this sort of rhetoric.

How can we then, moving past The Dig, make the Old English period engaging and exciting?  In school, it’s something we never really learnt about, and until university I had little idea about the period at all, knowing more about Ancient Rome than the England of old.  As a literature student I may be biased, but I believe that literature is one of the best ways to engage the past.  Beowulf, whilst being a brilliant epic tale of heroism and monster-slaying, is also interesting in the perspective it adopts.  Despite it being written in the latter half of the first millennium in England (dating the poem accurately inevitably provokes a lot of debate), the story itself is set in early 6th century Scandinavia, blending both Christian and Pagan, as well as Germanic and “English” cultural practices.  Rather than the conception of the Anglo-Saxons as one homogenous entity, who were the forebears to the modern English, it is far better to appreciate the varied cultural background which England has always had, and still does.

I’ll leave you with an extract from my favourite Old English poem, normally called The Ruin.  This poem sees the Old English narrator look at the ruins of an early Romano-British settlement, and try to deal with ideas of fate and time within their own cultural terms (for example through the discussion of a ‘meadhall’ as well as the use of the idea of Fate as ‘wyrd’).  It does a beautiful job of evoking nostalgia and wonder for a time which we can never go back to, and the importance of physical remains and ruins in being the last presences of lost societies.  I think, in its brief 49 lines, it does a better job of evoking the sense of wonder and appreciation of the past than The Dig, and certainly tells us something about the continuity of human attitudes towards time:

Beorht wæron burgræced, burnsele monige,
heah horngestreon, heresweg micel,
meodoheall monig mondreama full,
oþþæt þæt onwende wyrd seo swiþe. 

(Bright were the castle buildings, many the bathing-halls,
high the abundance of gables, great the noise of the multitude,
many a meadhall full of festivity,
until Fate the mighty changed that.)