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Digging the dirt at Sutton Hoo: The true story behind The Dig

Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty and Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown
Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty and Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown | © Netflix

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, The Dig, 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.

The main characters behind the story of The Dig

Edith Pretty at Sutton Hoo
Edith Pretty at Sutton Hoo | © Original photography from the National Trust collection, with thanks to the Pretty family

Edith Pretty (née Dempster, 1883-1942)

Edith Pretty was the owner of the estate and instigated the excavation. Born into a wealthy family, she spent her youth touring the world and witnessed several excavations which gave her a life-long interest in archaeology. She married her husband, Major Frank Pretty, and moved to Sutton Hoo in 1926. In 1930 she gave birth to a son, Robert. Their happiness as a family was short lived as Frank Pretty passed away in 1934, aged 56. In 1937 Edith Pretty turned her attentions towards the curious mounds on her estate, enlisting help from Ipswich Museum.

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‘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.’

– Carey Mulligan on Edith Pretty

Excavation of Sutton Hoo begins

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. In spring 1938 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.

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 items including a corroded iron axe-head and fragments of pottery. 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. A second season of excavation was arranged to commence on 8 May 1939.

Meet the other archaeologists involved the 1939 excavation.

Here are the stories of three archaeologists who assisted Basil Brown on the 1939 excavation and who are featured in The Dig

Peggy Piggott (centre) excavating the burial chamber
Peggy Piggott (centre) excavating the burial chamber | © Trustees of the British Museum

Peggy Piggott (née Preston, 1912-1994)

Peggy Piggott, born Cecily Margaret Preston and later Margaret Guido, became involved in archaeology at an early age. She went on to gain a diploma (equivalent to a degree, which women at some universities were excluded from at the time) from the University of Cambridge in 1934 and a postgraduate diploma in 1936. In 1936 she also married her first husband, Stuart. Peggy Piggott became a highly skilled archaeologist and published works on numerous sites spanning the Iron Age and the Bronze Age. She was the first of the team to discover gold at the site. Peggy and Stuart Piggott divorced in 1956.

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The 1939 dig

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.

Charles Phillips first visited the Sutton Hoo site on 6 June 1939 and was astonished by what he saw, suggesting that the sheer size of the ship could mean it was a royal burial. The British Museum was contacted and 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.

Treasures emerge

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. These were quickly followed by more and more gold and precious objects.

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. 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.

News spreads

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.

Mercie Lack at Sutton Hoo showing the excavation team at Sutton Hoo some early prints
Mercie Lack at Sutton Hoo showing the excavation team some early prints | © Original photograph by Barbara Wagstaff ARPS © Trustees of the British Museum; digital image © National Trust

Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff

In the novel and the film, the photographer at Sutton Hoo is the fictional Rory Lomax. The real key photographers of the excavation were Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff. They were teachers and close friends, on holiday in the area, with a keen interest in both archaeology and photography. Between the 8 and 25 August they captured 400 images and an 8mm cine film. Their images were generously given to the National Trust by Mercie Lack’s great nephew, Andrew Lack, and have recently been conserved and digitised.

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The inquest

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. 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.

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.

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