Digging the dirt: The true story behind The Dig
The Dig is a film by Netflix exploring the story of the excavation of the Great Ship Burial at Sutton Hoo in 1939. The film is based on a novel, also titled The Dig, written by John Preston. Many of the events and characters depicted in both the film and the novel are inspired by real events and real people. Read on to discover the incredible true story and meet some of the characters involved with one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time.
" I’d never heard her name before. The character was so compelling, but diving into her real life was extraordinary. She was so beyond her time as a woman at the beginning of the 20th century. She was well travelled and educated and generous throughout her life."
The true story of the excavation of the Great Ship Burial began in July 1937 at the unlikely location of Woodbridge Flower Show. It was here that Edith Pretty, who had long been interested in the burial mounds on her estate, first met with Vincent Redstone, a local historian who wrote to Ipswich Museum. Shortly afterwards Guy Maynard, curator of Ipswich Museum, visited the Sutton Hoo estate and the wheels were set in motion to explore the site, but little did they know that what would eventually be unearthed would completely transform our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon period. In the following spring, arrangements were made between Edith Pretty, Guy Maynard, James Reid Moir (President of Ipswich Museum) and Basil Brown to begin excavating the site. Edith Pretty provided Basil Brown with accommodation and assistants in the form of Bert Fuller and Tom Sawyer who were labourers on the estate.
Between June and August 1938 Basil Brown and his team excavated three mounds (today referred to as Mounds 2, 3 and 4). Within Mound 3, he unearthed the remains of a cremated man, along with a corroded iron axe-head, part of a decorated limestone plaque, fragments of pottery and the lid of a Mediterranean jug. Mound 2 revealed pieces of iron, which he recognised as ship rivets - although having been previously scattered by grave robbers, they did not immediately suggest a ship burial. He also recovered a piece of blue glass, a gilt bronze disc, iron knives and the tip of a sword blade. Mound 4 was the last of the 1938 season, and whilst it had a very shallow pit, and showed signs of having been robbed, careful excavation revealed some tantalising fragments of bronze, high-quality textile and bone. The objects were presented by Edith Pretty to Ipswich Museum where they were placed on display. The British Museum were also informed about the finds and Guy Maynard wrote several articles on them. There was still great intrigue over the contents of the largest mound, so a second season of excavation was arranged to commence on 8 May 1939.
For the 1939 excavations Basil Brown was joined by William Spooner (gamekeeper) and John Jacobs (gardener). Just three days in John Jacobs called out that he had found a piece of iron. Basil Brown rushed over and recognised it as being a ship rivet. Excavation continued and, despite the excitement, he maintained his careful, methodical, approach.
" The film catches her straight out of university and right at the beginning of her incredible journey. She was an archaeologist for almost 60 years and you just have this sense she had a full life and was brave. She achieved so much against all the odds; she’s an inspiration."
Charles Phillips first visited the Sutton Hoo site on 6 June 1939, following the correspondence with Basil Megaw at the Manx Museum. Charles Phillips was astonished by what he saw, suggesting that the sheer size of the ship could mean it was a royal burial. Both Guy Maynard and Charles Phillips contacted the British Museum. Meetings were arranged between Edith Pretty, the British Museum, the Office of Works, Charles Phillips, Ipswich Museum and the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology to discuss how best to continue. It was decided that Charles Phillips should oversee the work, a position he entered in to on 10 July, with Basil Brown assisting him.
The relationship between Charles Phillips and Basil Brown was one of mutual respect. Charles Phillips was complimentary towards the careful way Basil Brown had excavated the ship. As Basil Brown was employed by Edith Pretty, he wisely remained neutral in any disputes that arose and continued to work alongside Charles Phillips and his team. Tensions did however begin to rise between Charles Phillips and Ipswich Museum. There was some political background to this; both James Reid Moir and Guy Maynard were heavily involved in the Prehistoric Society of East Anglia throughout the 1920s and 30s. Increasingly, members joined from outside East Anglia and they witnessed the transformation of this organisation into the (national) Prehistoric Society with key members including Charles Phillips, the Piggotts and O.G.S. Crawford. These tensions heightened when Charles Phillips assembled his support team of Peggy and Stuart Piggott.
Together, the team began to excavate the burial chamber and on 21 July Peggy Piggott unearthed the first items of gold in the form of the two sword pyramids.
As the team continued to excavate more and more gold emerged from the sandy Sutton Hoo soil. Basil Brown even postponed his planned trip home to see his wife, May, in order to stay and watch as the team carefully exposed more items. Naturally, the discovery of such incredible items only served to heighten the importance of the site and security became an issue. The first gold items had been moved from the Royal Burial Ground to Sutton Hoo House by Basil Brown and Edith Pretty under the watchful eye of William Spooner (gamekeeper) armed with his shotgun. Items began to be sent to the British Museum for study and conservation work to commence. Unfortunately, tensions rose again when Guy Maynard visited the site only to discover gold items had already been removed to London and Charles Phillips had not informed him. At this stage Charles Phillips also invited O.G.S Crawford and W.F. Grimes to assist with the excavation work. O.G.S Crawford became one of the first photographers of the excavation and photographed many of the objects before they left the ground.
The elation at the discovery of the finds led Edith Pretty to organise a sherry party with select guests invited to see the ship on Tuesday 25 July. The earth beside the excavation was shaped specially to provide a viewing platform and the police guard was instated to keep a watchful eye on proceedings with PC Ling brought in from Sutton and PC Grimsey from Melton. All had to be careful not to reveal too much information, as the discovery had not yet been reported in the press. Charles Phillips gave a short speech about the ship, only to be drowned out by the roar of a Merlin engine emanating from a Spitfire flying overhead. The threat of war was looming over England at the time. Although no planes ever crashed at Sutton Hoo, late in the Second World War a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, Little Davy II, plummeted into the River Deben not far from the site. Only two survived.
Relations continued to worsen between Charles Phillips and Ipswich Museum, whose involvement had become greatly restricted. Following rainfall, Edith Pretty had requested that no further visitors could stand on the viewing platform for fear of the sandy soil giving way. Guy Maynard led some guests, including the Lord Lieutenant of Suffolk, on to the platform only to be ordered down by Charles Phillips, humiliating Guy Maynard in the process.
On the 26 July the story started to appear in the press. The team now found themselves under increasing pressure with journalists swarming their homes and offices. Guy Maynard had given the full story to the East Anglian Daily Times along with images, without consulting Charles Phillips. Security was heightened until on 31 July the last van bound for the British Museum left Sutton Hoo, shortly followed by Charles Phillips’ excavation team.
The next team to arrive on site were from The Science Museum. In August they surveyed the fossil of the ship. At the same time two amateur photographers, Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff arrived at Sutton Hoo and arrangements were being made for the treasure trove inquest which would determine who was the legal owner of the objects.
The inquest, held at Sutton Village Hall on 14 August, saw the return of all the objects to Suffolk. Evidence was given by Edith Pretty, Charles Phillips, Guy Maynard, Basil Brown and Stuart Piggott. Security was once again provided by PCs Ling and Grimsey. The verdict of the jury was that the items were the property of Edith Pretty. In an outstanding act of generosity, she decided to gift the entire collection to the nation. As war was declared the excavation was wound down and Basil Brown filled the ship imprint with bracken to protect it before leaving Sutton Hoo on 16 September. The first exhibition opened at the British Museum in early 1940 although later in the war items were packed away and stored in tunnels between Aldwych and Holborn underground stations for safe keeping. In recognition of her gift to the nation, Edith Pretty was offered a CBE in December 1940. She declined.
For all of those involved, despite only being brought together for a short space of time, Sutton Hoo remained a special highlight throughout the rest of their careers and many of the relationships that they established continued. Sadly, Guy Maynard and Charles Phillips’ relationship did not improve. Charles Phillips avoided Ipswich Museum until Guy Maynard retired in 1952. Basil Brown revisited the site in 1947 and re-united with William Spooner and John Jacobs. Edith Pretty did not live to see the full impact of her gift. She died in 1942.
The other digs
The Dig covers the story of the 1939 excavations but, as remarkable as the excavations that year were, the Royal Burial Ground has been subject to numerous other archaeological campaigns which have helped to improve our understanding of this special landscape, and the world of the Anglo-Saxons.
A Netflix original
As Sutton Hoo is open all year round sadly it wasn’t possible for the Netflix team to undertake any filming on site. With the key story being the excavation of the Great Ship Burial there was naturally a need to show excavation in action, something not possible on the real-life Royal Burial Ground which is a scheduled monument. However, the team at Netflix went to great lengths to capture the magic of the Sutton Hoo landscape in their recreation of the Royal Burial Ground. Several cast members also visited Sutton Hoo to get a feeling of the place and the story. In return a few lucky members of staff and volunteers were invited to visit the film set. The replica artefacts used in the film were of the highest quality, some of them were made by the same craftspeople who made the replica items on display in our exhibition spaces. Whilst no filming took place at Sutton Hoo, several scenes were filmed locally with locations including Butley, Thorpeness and Snape.
The story continues...
Despite the large number of archaeological campaigns undertaken at Sutton Hoo there are still undoubtedly secrets hidden in the soil. Several areas of the Royal Burial Ground have not been excavated. Excavation, although a proven method of exploring the past, is a destructive process and once something has been completely excavated it is gone forever. By leaving some areas undisturbed it not only means there is something for future generations to discover, it also means we can hold off whilst non-invasive techniques develop.
Several non-invasive archaeological techniques have already been deployed at Sutton Hoo. Their use reflects just how much new techniques have developed since the first excavations took place. None of them existed when Basil Brown was working at Sutton Hoo in the 1930s. The most prominent of these are the various forms of archaeological mapping undertaken using geophysics. Surveys using electrical resistance equipment, magnetometry, ground penetrating radar and lidar have all been partially undertaken at Sutton Hoo building up a picture of what lies beneath our feet. As part of our National Lottery Heritage Funded project, Releasing the Sutton Hoo Story, we have been able to purchase our own electrical resistance meter and a dedicated team of volunteers are now surveying further areas of the site with assistance from visitors.
Other non-invasive techniques have also been used to inform our understanding of this site. Field walking surveys have been undertaken along with metal detecting surveys of key areas. As landscape archaeology emerged as a discipline in the late 20th century it has expanded the story beyond Sutton Hoo placing it into the wider context of Anglo-Saxon England. All these methods are also currently being used to investigate the nearby Anglo-Saxon royal settlement of Rendlesham, as part of the Rendlesham Revealed project, which will further add to our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia.