An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

July 29, 2021

The Dig, dir. Simon Stone

The Dig. Directed by Simon Stone, 2021

Reviewed by Kristen Carella


I shall begin with what this review is not about.  It is not about the film’s historical veracity (or lack thereof), nor the proper crediting of Basil Brown for the mid twentieth-century excavation of the Sutton Hoo graves.  It is not about the book upon which the film is based.  Most of all, it is not about the sixth- and seventh-century treasures unearthed at this crucially important site for our understanding of early medieval English history.  Rather, this review focuses on the film itself as a literary artifact, taken as a piece of historical fiction that emerged in 2021, during a particularly fraught moment in the history of early medieval English Studies.


The film itself would seem to invite this approach.  Historical figures are portrayed with substantial liberty: No records indicate that Basil was accidentally interred while excavating the Sutton Hoo site, nor does any evidence suggest that British archaeologist Stuart Piggott was gay, for example.  Moreover, Basil’s motivations for engaging in this endeavor remain somewhat ambiguous (at first, he seems motivated primarily by higher pay, then later by more personal concerns).  Strikingly, the Sutton Hoo treasures themselves—stunning artifacts by any measure—barely appear on screen at all.  Mostly, we see only glimpses of them while still partially unearthed, mere outlines in the soil from which the dust is painstakingly brushed away before gently being placed in moss-softened containers and toted away to a location we never see.  We are never presented with the glittering treasures upon which to feast our eyes; they are always underground or offscreen.  Perhaps ironically, the film ends by telling us that the treasures were interred again, this time in the London Underground to protect them from the Luftwaffe bombings of World War II.


Whether self-consciously or not, The Dig was released just as the UK saw the dissolution of several prominent archaeology departments and the reduction of medieval studies faculty across the country.  Regrettably, these moves came despite a number of spectacular finds that penetrated popular news media, including the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard (2009), a site on par with the Sutton Hoo grave itself, and the DNA analysis of the so-called “Birka Warrior” (2017) which demonstrated conclusively that the paradigm example of a Viking warrior’s grave housed a woman, thus challenging age-old assumptions about gender in the medieval past.  If anything, early medieval archaeology has become more exciting since the Sutton Hoo find, not less; though this fact has not been reflected in decisions about funding in higher education, especially in the UK.


During this time also, early medieval English studies itself was—and still is—striving to address charges of longstanding elitism, racism, misogyny, sexual predation, and LGBTQ-phobia within its ranks.  As an initial gesture, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS) changed its name to the International Society for the Study of Early Medieval England (ISSEME, for which I  currently serve as Executive Director) to underscore its wish to separate itself from white supremacist misappropriation of the term “Anglo-Saxon.”  ISSEME has since undertaken to lay out a program of reform which we hope will take root throughout the field.  There is much more to be said on this topic that extends beyond the scope of this review.  Suffice to say that The Dig emerged at a time of deep anxiety surrounding early medieval English studies.


Against this backdrop, The Dig cannot help but raise meaningful questions, especially for those of us who have dedicated our life to research in this area, not the least of which is: What are we actually doing?


An overarching theme of The Dig is the role the past plays in the present, and—a related matter—to whom the past belongs.  The impetus for the excavation is Mrs. Pretty, who explains to Basil that she and her late husband bought the property with the hope of discovering what was in the mounds.  Basil comes around only slowly, eventually settling on the mound she recommended as the focus of his dig.  The remainder of the movie is about the excavation itself and dramatic interactions between the individuals involved in it.  Notably, this main narrative thread is punctuated with periodic scenes of burial and inundation that, while not bearing directly on the arc of the story, serve to contextualize it. 


Some of these images are loaded.  The excavation progresses as the Second World War is poised to begin, and we are confronted with images of military preparations.  Significantly, we are given a glimpse of British soldiers burying the Gladstone Memorial with sandbags to protect it from anticipated Nazi air raids.  As the camera pans across the Memorial, it focuses briefly on two of the four, smaller allegorical figures at the main statue’s base, namely those representing “education” and “courage.”  This gesture, an act of burying a cultural “treasure” cannot be understood, I would argue, as separate from the medieval act of burying treasure at Sutton Hoo.  People continue to bury treasures.  The past is always present, to be sure. 


By why Gladstone?  In 2020, calls for the Gladstone Statue’s removal became vehement as part of the global movement to topple racist monuments in the wake of protests following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis, MN police.  After all, Gladstone “Opposed the abolition of slavery and, upon the abolition, helped his father obtain over £100,000 in reimbursements for the 2,508 slaves he owned across nine plantations in the Caribbean. The Gladstones were one the world’s largest slave owning families.”[1] In 2020, Gladstone’s family expressed that they would not oppose to the statue’s removal.[2]


What is the message here?


One is tempted to pair it alongside archaeologist Charles Phillips’s repeated assertions throughout the film that the Anglo-Saxons “…were not savages!  They had art!  They had culture!” and that “The Dark Ages are no longer dark!”  His repeated statements to this effect come across like special pleading by someone with a definite agenda.  This image of Gladstone alongside these comments invokes those who appropriate and politicize the past for racist and/or political purposes, namely, to bulwark white supremacy.  Here, one detects inklings of so-called “Anglo-Saxonism,” a racist ideology that casts the inhabitants of early medieval England as racially and culturally superior.  In The Dig, this gesture is attributed to the academic elite whose appropriation of the past ranges from self-serving, e.g., competing against one another for possession of the grave goods in their museum, to political, e.g., the “glory” of an imagined “Anglo-Saxon” past that might resonate with a British government on the brink of war, a government which often described the Nazis as “Huns,” i.e., as non-Germanic outsiders invading Europe. 


This latter description is fundamentally racist:


The original Huns were a nomadic tribe, probably originating from Mongolia, who, under the leadership of Attila, terrorised the Roman empire in the mid-5th century, extorting large sums of money with menaces. Considered by Rome to be the ultimate of all savage ‘Barbarians’, Attila the Hun was referred to as the ‘Scourge of God’. Throughout the Middle Ages, Attila was regularly depicted in art as the antichrist and his army as a horde of demons. In the mid-19th century, the Hun was resurrected as an Asiatic foe at the same time the British empire came to view China as a direct threat. And then, in the early months of World War I, the allies applied the term ‘Hun’ to the forces of Germany and Austro-Hungary in order to conjure up images of a bestial foe. This can be seen, most notably, in a series of striking ‘Beat Back the Hun’ / ‘Halt the Hun’ posters, designed to persuade the American people to buy war bonds, in which the enemy is shown as a blood-crazed barbarian.[3]


Conversely, the British were portrayed as “Anglo-Saxons” in line with an age-old myth of English racial superiority that dates back at least as far as the sixteenth century, if not earlier.  This particular white supremacist view of history is often referred to as “Anglo-Saxonism” (a fascist political ideology),[4] as distinct from Anglo-Saxon studies, now typically referred to by scholars as “early medieval English studies” (an academic field of research).


A basic feature of Anglo-Saxonism is the false belief that the past belongs to some people and, decidedly, not to others; and that “Englishness” is somehow an inherited trait characterized by racial superiority.  In The Dig, the question of who possesses the object of excavation comes up repeatedly.  Very importantly, the Sutton Hoo treasures do not belong, literally or figuratively, to the academics portrayed in the film nor to the government.  Literally—and this is asserted periodically throughout the film—they belong to Mrs. Pretty, who repeatedly insists that Basil maintain a prominent role in the excavation.


To whom do the treasures belong figuratively? 


The answer to this question is a major theme of The Dig and centers on the character of Basil Brown.  Basil is not formally educated.  His interests are wide-ranging and include, most notably, a penchant not just for archaeology but—as is emphasized repeatedly in the film—astronomy as well.  At one point, he tells Mrs. Pretty that he has written a book entitled A Guide to Astronomical Maps and Charts in order to “make them accessible to ordinary men.”  Basil’s gaze is directed as much toward the cosmos beyond as to the earth below and, at least in the case of his book, aimed at bridging the gap between academic discourse and the common folk.  His interests are personal and local; they are driven by a passion for the object of study itself in a way that sets him apart from the academics who barge in with motivations that, in contrast, range from careerist to nationalist.  Basil’s expertise derives as much from self-study and hands-on experience as from folk wisdom (for example, he tells Mrs. Pretty that he learned from his grandfather how to look at a handful of soil and tell you what part of Suffolk it came from). 


The past belongs to Basil as much as anyone, even though he doesn’t own the property he’s excavating, hold an academic degree, or represent government interests.  On a more basic level, he knows the soil, he is of the land; it belongs to him because he has studied it and he understands it.  Soon after he first learns that he’s lost control of the project, we see him lying symbolically in the partially excavated ship in a fetal position, as if the earth itself were a womb.  Likewise, at one point early in the excavation, the mound caves in on him.  Basil becomes the object of his own excavation. After he is pulled out, his skin appears to be the same color as the soil, as if he’s one with the earth itself.  Later, he reports to Mrs. Pretty that while unconscious beneath the soil, he had a vision, or rather felt the presence of his grandfather. 


As such, then, the treasures belong to Basil; not individually, not as property, and certainly not as the common patrimony of some imagined racial/ethnic identity.  Rather, the treasures belong to Basil as the common heritage of all those, specialists or non-specialists, who seek knowledge for its own sake.  For Basil, digging into the earth in search of the past is one and the same gesture as gazing through a telescope into the cosmos.  The Sutton Hoo treasures he helps to unearth belong to him in the same sense that a star belongs to the astronomer who names it: These things are shared commonly by all who look on them with a sense of wonder.  This kind of “belonging” is inclusive, not exclusive.  This kind of belonging is fundamentally different from the academic archaeologists in the film who seek to possess the treasure and appropriate it for specific personal and political agendas.


It is important to understand that Basil is not falling into the ideological trap of seeking “origins,” racial, cultural, or otherwise.  What motivates him to excavate the site is a desire to situate himself in the universe between past and future.  This gesture can best be understood, at least on one level, as a spiritual endeavor.  Over the course of the film, it becomes increasingly clear that Mrs. Pretty is dying.  Her conversations with Basil link the continuous, interwoven scenes of his excavation of the mound during the day with scenes of him looking through his telescope at night. 


At one point, soon after the recovery of a dead RAF pilot whose plane crashed into the water near the excavation, Mrs. Pretty—no doubt pondering her own impending mortality—asks Basil about the religious significance of the site:


Mrs. Pretty:      The people who buried that ship.  What did they believe?


Basil Brown:    Well, they were sailing somewhere, weren’t they?  Down to the                                               underworld or up to the stars.


Mrs. Pretty:      Wherever we go when we die?


The question (to the extent it is a question at all) is left mostly unanswered until the final scene, where Mrs. Pretty—who is by then certainly dying—sits upright in the excavated ship, presumably in the position of the person originally entombed there.  The young Robert Pretty imagines the grave as a starship, which he and Basil are guiding toward Orion’s belt.  Robert tells a story to his mother, cast as a star queen, who must leave her child behind, but who can see him from above and follow the events of his life until they meet again.  The story is Robert’s thinly veiled attempt to come to terms with his mother’s imminent death: The excavated ship, recast as a starship, provides a means for him to grapple with this difficult truth.  This, too, is a spiritual gesture; and, albeit from a child’s perspective, one that reflects Basil’s more mature pursuit of essentially similar questions.  This scene, I would argue, gets at the heart of what the film is about.  Ultimately, these kind of questions—about who we are, life, and death—are why humans have always dug in the dirt after the past and looked through glass toward the heavens.


A base “desire for origins” has, and sometimes still does, motivate the study of the past.  Early medieval English studies, including but by no means limited to archaeology, has at times been misappropriated and weaponized by white supremacists both inside and outside of academics to justify the noxious myth of an ethnically “pure” identity.  A recent example is the disturbing proposal by certain, right-wing American politicians including Marjorie Taylor Greene to form an “America First Caucus” aimed at protecting what she calls “Anglo-Saxon political traditions.”  No doubt, what Greene has in mind bears a far closer resemblance to the Third Reich than to any period in southern Britain between the mid-fifth and the mid-eleventh centuries.  I could point to more such examples.  This kind misappropriation has no place in medieval studies.


That said, to imagine that the study of the past—and the study of early medieval England in particular (academic or otherwise)—is often, or typically driven by racist cooptation and misappropriation is also false.  Any such claim equivocates Anglo-Saxonism (a fascist, white supremacist ideology) with any other possible motivation for exploring the medieval past, including the legitimate academic study of early medieval England.  It is important to distinguish between these pursuits, if only so that people of good will can be on guard against the former.


The past provides a context for the present and is inextricably linked with our journey into the future.  That context need not be formative, nor is it hopelessly condemned to racist, misogynistic, or LGBTQ-phobic attempts at identity formation.  What supersedes any misguided, misappropriating “desire for origins” is a desire for knowledge in its most distilled form; a desire to understand one’s place in the universe on multiple levels, including spiritually—as Basil Brown’s character in The Dig exemplifies—both with respect for the past as well as for the future.  This kind of gesture—which includes but is not limited to academic inquiry—represents the best kind of human endeavor.  After all, the past and the earth that contains it, like the stars and the heavens that contain them, belong to everyone in common, and to all who have the courage to look deeper.                                                 

Kristen Carella