What ‘The Dig’ Understands About Archaeology

Simon Stone’s historical drama steps away from casting its archaeologists as treasure hunters, mirroring the field’s own turn toward the ethical pursuit of information.

By Jenny Lee

Surprising no one who knows me, I buzzed with anticipation for The Dig, Simon Stone’s film about the Sutton Hoo excavations, for weeks beforehand. I am not really a person who needs to watch things the moment they come out, but I kept the evening of January 15th clear, hoping that it would delight me as much as the trailer promised – and remembering my own happy traipse around the site when we could still go places and do things.

Based on John Preston’s book of the same name, The Dig dramatizes the late-1930s excavations at Sutton Hoo, Sussex, which revealed an iconic Anglo-Saxon ship burial in a larger cemetery context. Against this backdrop, landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan, fabulous if unconvincing as a woman in her mid-fifties), her son Robert, archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), and the rest of the dig team, including a late-arriving Lily James as archaeologist Peggy Piggott, play out a slow, emotionally throbbing story about absence, legacy, and the inevitability of death – themes that are, I note, all the stuff of archaeology.

Absence, not miraculous appearances: Mulligan and Fiennes in ‘The Dig’. Photo: Larry Horricks / Netflix.

The Dig is surprisingly restrained on the subject of the Sutton Hoo finds themselves – we get a glimpse of a few objects emerging from the soil and laid in finds boxes, but there are no loving pans over the famous burial outfit, with its stately mask and glowing cloisonne ensemble. What looms large in the movie’s visual language instead is the absence of things: first a growing hole in the barrow, which at one point threatens to consume Brown entirely, then the imprint of a vast wooden ship in the soil, the boards long since rotted away. (Archaeology requires extrapolation, the exploration of what is no longer there using only what remains.)

This is the most interesting thing about the film for me. Virtually all mainstream archaeological media – your Mummy trilogy, your Indiana Jones – is about the stuff, generally what an archaeologist might call “small finds”. Our archaeologist-heroes pursue these things with fetishistic intensity; they must rescue these things and keep them from falling into the wrong hands. The things, after all, belong in a museum!

Small finds: a gold belt buckle from the ship burial at Sutton Hoo. Photo: British Museum.

For dramatic reasons, there is less concern about the meat and potatoes of archaeological excavation: what action hero could thrill to finds like ‘bit of wall’ or ‘patch of dirt that is a noticeably different colour from surrounding dirt’ or – more exciting yet – ‘midden’?

Early archaeology, too, was often interested in ‘the stuff’ (Howard Carter with his eye to the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, seeing – yes, wonderful things), often blasting through strata and losing precious data in its rush for finds, then spiriting goods out of their contexts to be displayed in European museums. The Dig looks back on this era with the perspective of nearly a century of archaeological thought and postcolonial theory, recognizing – as British archaeology was late to do – Basil Brown for his meticulous, thoughtful practice. It purposefully minimizes the small finds, as if to suggest that the dig was not about the things at all, and so sidesteps one problem with archaeological media: its tendency to condone, and so naturalize, the wholesale theft of cultural objects by Western archaeologists and cultural institutions – an entrenched, ongoing issue in the field.

Excavations at Sutton Hoo, 1939. Photo: British Museum

This reframes the story of Sutton Hoo, and maybe of archaeology in general, from the miraculous appearance of objects in a field to the culmination of dedicated work and thought by many minds and hands. It’s a slow pleasure, not an epiphanic one: the moment of truth is not the emergence of treasure from the ground (though this is always exciting) but the confirming of a hypothesis, the accumulation of knowledge.

The film ends on a long take of Brown and his team piling soil back onto the barrow site to cover the delicate ship burial. Much of Sutton Hoo is still unexcavated, reserved – as is common practice – for future archaeologists and their future technologies, in the pursuit of knowing more.

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Mannerisms Maketh Man

Casting choices can define the outcome of historical adaptations. When it comes to issues of appearance and performance, there’s a fine balance in achieving a convincing performance – which factors should be prioritized for authenticity?

By Daniel Rose & Serena Ypelaar

The Mindful Rambler was always going to feature dialogue posts – it was just a matter of time. And now here we are! This article was born halfway into a deep discussion the two of us were having about historical casting choices. Do actors need to look like their historical counterparts to convince an audience, or is it the performance that matters most? We each had some interesting – and mostly opposing – views, and you can read our discussion below. 

SVY: To get straight into our standpoints on this issue, I’ll come right out and say that while performance obviously matters to me, appearance matters just as much, if not more. I’m a very visual learner and I like to be fully absorbed into an adaptation – if an actor doesn’t really look like the person they’re meant to be portraying, I have trouble buying in. It places a bit of a barrier between myself and the film/show. But I know you have a fascinating and absolutely valid perspective on this topic too. 

DR: For the longest time, I shared the belief that actors should physically resemble the historic figures they have been cast to play. This changed with Frank Langella’s fantastic performance as former President Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon (2008). Even though Langella did not particularly look like Nixon, his uncanny portrayal of Nixon’s mannerisms and way of speaking was astonishingly accurate. As a viewer, I felt transported to 1977, with Langella’s performance pulling back the curtain on a person and period that I did not live through. To me, an actor’s ability to convey the intricacies of a figure’s mindset and historical context is just as important as “looking” the part when it comes to selling the viewer on an historic piece.  

Frank Langella (left) as Richard Nixon (right) in Frost/Nixon. Photo: Pinterest

SVY: For sure, I agree that without mannerisms and attention to detail, so much of the person’s essence is lost. I think it’s a fine balance – if an actor doesn’t already look like their subject, makeup is now so sophisticated that a lack of resemblance can be easily remedied. For instance, Christian Bale was transformed completely into Dick Cheney in VICE (2018). Some say heavy prosthetics hamper performance, and the same can be said for screenwriting: if a screenplay does a feeble job of interpreting a real-life person’s temperament, it might not always translate on-screen depending on what the actor has to work with. For instance, I previously wrote about Zac Efron’s uncanny casting as serial killer Ted Bundy; Efron’s performance was excellent but the script was weak. With many variables in historical adaptation and the complexity of human personalities, it’s challenging to get right. But viewing is a passive activity, so it can help when much of the interpretive work is done for me. How do you look past outward appearances when you’re watching things? 

Amy Adams and Christian Bale as Lynne and Dick Cheney in VICE. Photo: Through the Silver Screen

DR: I think you raise some good points – Bale’s transformation in VICE was astonishing, I’ll admit. That said, when I watch a movie about a real-life figure, or even any old period piece, I consider more than just how one character looks. Ideally, the setting and costumes paint a picture (pun intended) of the aesthetic of a time period. By including tiny details such as fashion choices and products that have since been discontinued, films draw on memories and shared experiences on a subconscious level. By creating an environment that “feels” familiar, the viewer is transported into a world that does not reflect the current era. A great example is the film First Man (2018), starring Ryan Gosling. The camera spends a great deal of time showcasing “space age” technology, including analog dials on flat steel machines, alongside more mainstream 1960’s design choices, such as wood panelling and garish wallpaper. I could almost feel some of the costumes through the screen, as actors eschewed polyester blend for scratchy wool and one-hundred percent cotton. I honestly could not tell you if any of the actors resembled the real-life Apollo 11 crew – but I was utterly convinced by how the film framed them. 

Colin Firth (left) and Jared Harris (right) respectively, both as King George VI. Photo: Slate

SVY: That’s worth noting too. Our familiarity with the figure being portrayed will influence our convictions in terms of whether the likeness and portrayal seems authentic. I’ll now bring in an example of a key struggle I face when I’ve seen a lot of pictures and/or constructed an aura of a historical figure in my mind. There have been a couple of portrayals of King George VI lately, in The King’s Speech (2010) and television series The Crown (2016-). Both actors, Colin Firth and Jared Harris respectively, look nothing like the late British monarch. Both conveyed aspects of his character through their performance, but to me their visual appearance separates me from complete absorption in the portrayal because I know irrevocably how Bertie actually looked. Similarly, I’ve delved so far into Jane Austen’s biography and world that seeing Anne Hathaway play her in Becoming Jane (2007) seemed a bit beyond belief. I can definitely still enjoy a production on these occasions, but I just can’t fully embrace the actor as a true embodiment of the figure. Perhaps it’s because I’m a highly visual learner, but something holds me back!

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in Becoming Jane. Photo: Film Affinity

DR: I think we’ve identified some ways in which an actor looking or not looking like an historic figure can either help or hinder an audience member’s engagement with the subject matter. Regarding my stance, I want to echo the sentiments of Chernobyl (2019) stars Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård. Flummoxed that they were cast to play figures they bore no resemblance to, both actors concluded that stripping the focus away from physical similarities allowed director Johan Renck to hire performers whose talents could help construct a portrait of life as it was in the Soviet Union. The success of the series changed my entire perspective, and allowed me to re-evaluate how other historic films draw the viewer into the paradigm on display. All that said, as someone who agreed with you until recently, Serena, I respect your position!

SVY: Same to you, Dan! It’s been fun bandying about, and I can definitely say that while I’m attached to the idea of resemblance, I do agree that poor acting is by no means a satisfactory trade-off for the elusive goal of physical likeness. In terms of historical interpretation, I’m looking forward to seeing what Hollywood does next so we can keep discussing these principles.