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Netflix’s The Dig

The very thought of this new film thrilled me, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The story of the discovery and excavation in 1939 of the 7th-century Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk is brilliantly told in Robert Preston’s novel, The Dig (2007). Preston is the nephew of one of the lead characters in the celebrated excavation, Peggy Piggott. The film, not surprisingly, weaves in more drama than was perhaps true at the time but does great justice to the main personalities in the excavation. Above all, Ralph Fiennes is a wonderfully convincing Basil Brown, the local excavator who first discovered the ship in the great tumulus at the owner, Mrs Pretty’s behest. Brown, for so long the unsung hero of the story, was awarded his rightful place by Netflix not only as a diligent excavator but as an engaging and genuinely decent soul. His notes and diaries provide the platform for the immense research ever since devoted to Sutton Hoo and its European significance.

Netflix's The Dig. Mrs Pretty, Basil Brown and Peggy Piggott

But it was Peggy Piggott I wanted to see. Lily James conveyed her well, as best I could tell. Peggy was one of Tessa Verney Wheeler’s young women. She didn’t come to Sutton Hoo as a novice excavator, as the film suggested. Quite the contrary, she had participated in Mortimer and Tessa Wheelers’ celebrated excavations at Verulamium (St. Albans) and Maiden Castle – the greatest British research projects of the era. She married the young, cherubic-looking prehistorian, Stuart Piggott, after they met at Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s Institute of Archaeology. It was very much as a couple of proficient excavators – with Wheeler himself then being in Northern France excavating hillforts – that they were summoned to Sutton Hoo.

It is fifty years exactly since I had the chance to meet Peggy Piggott or rather, Peggy Guido, as she was by 1971. Piggott and she had divorced in the ‘fifties and she had married a Sicilian. That marriage had ended by the time she came to lecture on prehistoric glass beads to our Box Archaeological and Natural History Society. Far from grand, now nearing sixty, she charmed us. So it was, afterwards, my mother invited her to our house for coffee and biscuits. She was living in Bath, and being close to home, willingly agreed.

Lily James as Peggy Piggott

Sat on our settee, I asked her about many great archaeologists. How I wish I had recorded her gentle reminiscences. Why was she at Sutton Hoo? Simple, she replied, ‘I was small and light and C.W. Phillips [played officiously by Ken Stott in the film] needed someone to excavate in the remains of the burial chamber that was packed with the royal treasure’. She laughed at her own memories. It had all been so hurried with the advent of the war. A once in a lifetime archaeological experience.

I remember her describing Vere Gordon Childe with huge admiration. Often, she recalled, she had dripping egg stains from his tie. Of all the great archaeologists, he was the one whose ideas and thinking, she most admired. Seeing the film, I bitterly regret, thinking of her fond thoughts on Childe’s shy personality, that I forgot to ask about Basil Brown. But then, only now, do we appreciate how important his role was in creating what has become a canonical chapter in the making of England.


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