Beautifully shot and movingly emotional, The Dig is an impressive example of how the process of history and archaeology can be adopted for drama, even if the film has a tendency to run away with that drama.
Making a drama about archaeology is an almost knife-edge impossibility, for the simple reason that real day-to-day archaeology is incredibly dull. I say that with the greatest love for the subject and admiration for its field-teams but it is, fundamentally, an occupation of standing in cold holes. Huge exciting discoveries do occur, very occasionally, but how best to present them in film format is a difficult question. One option is the whip-toting, artefact stealing of Indian Jones – an increasingly unpalatable and irresponsible option. The other is essentially a procedural look into how archaeologists work – possible for a documentary format, but incredibly unlikely to succeed with large audiences. I get it, not everyone would be as happy to watch a two-hour documentary on the delights of Processual Archaeology as me…. Still, the Dig toes the line well, contextualising archaeology within the life stories of a set of very ordinary people.
Central to the film is the discovery of England’s most famous archaeological site – Sutton Hoo. An ‘Anglo-Saxon‘ burial site, possibly of King Raedwald of East Anglia, the site was first brought to attention on the eve of the Second World War. The burial itself comprises of an impressive ship, accompanied by a wealth of arms and armour (the helmet is especially notable), feasting equipment, and incredible gold and garnet jewelry. Described by some as the Tutankhamen of England, and drawing fruitful parallel’s with the epic poem Beowulf, the importance of Sutton Hoo to the archaeology of England cannot be overstated.
Interestingly, it is not the archaeology itself that takes centre stage here, but the inter-personal connections of the different characters drawn into the dig. That is perhaps a bit of a disappointment but also as a product of necessity – padding almost two hours of exclusively archaeological content might have somewhat limited the audience. Certainly, there’s a lot of drama here, some of it genuinely incredibly moving – the cast is uniformly excellent, and the presence of competent and convincing child actors is always an incredibly welcome addition. But this heightened drama has also attracted criticism. For one, the character of Peggy Piggot, a remarkable archaeologist and pioneer of women in academia, is reduced to the role of a (entirely fiction and invented) love interest. Her skill and knowledge is reduced to her being a nosy intruder into the world of archaeology. So too is the role of the photographer at Sutton Hoo, in reality undertaken by another woman Mercie Lack, replaced by a fictional man. In a discipline that already suffers substantially from a gender imbalance, this is an unhelpful decision.
Netflix knows how to shoot a film, and they truly deliver here. It’s very clear that the attempt is to create a visual steeped in the rural stereotypes of England, no doubt in an attempt by Netflix to market a rather localised plot to a global audience. Great sweeping shots of Suffolk fields, flat caps, very VERY strong Suffolk accents. The use of dappled sunlight, in particular, is an impressive tool to create a warm and homely tone, held in stark contrast to the ever-present looming war.
All in all, The Dig delivers on its promise of a beautiful, moving and genuinely gripping film.
A greater public engagement with archaeology and the stories behind the artefacts we find is only ever a good thing, and to that end we’ve got to be happy that sites like Sutton Hoo are becoming viable film topics. However, The Dig is still not yet a model on how Hollywood can best marry archaeology and drama together into an accurate and constructive yet entertaining mix. Perhaps this perfect blend is simply an impossibility.