The story of an archaeological discovery might not immediately seem like the most inspiring idea for a film – even if it is an excavation as well-known as Sutton Hoo. As Simon Stone, director of new Netflix film The Dig, attests, “people often see archaeology as a fairly dry subject.”
And Stone isn’t the only person involved in the project to share that view – speaking to RadioTimes.com ahead of the film’s release, star Carey Mulligan described her first reaction to hearing about the film. “When my agent said roughly what it was about, I thought ‘well, I’m not massively looking to do a period drama and Sutton Hoo – we did that at school’. It’s just a little bit bleurgh.”
But both Stone and Mulligan quickly overcame those preconceptions when they read the script by Moira Buffini, which is adapted from John Preston’s fictionalised retelling of the excavation. “Realising how much archaeology can have to do with the larger and more emotive questions was a great joy for me” Stone explained, with Mulligan adding that the script really surprised her – even making her well up.
But how close to the real story of Sutton Hoo is the account presented in the film? Read on for everything you need to know.
Is The Dig based on a true story?
Well, the short answer is yes – the film is largely a fact-based account of the real Sutton Hoo excavation. Most of the characters featured in the drama are based on real-life figures and most of the events did happen broadly in line with what is seen in the film.
Sutton Hoo is largely considered England’s most significant archaeological discovery in the 20th century, with the events occurring on the eve of the Second World War. And Simon Stone says that the precise time period is key to the story.
“The acknowledgment of our mortality and the transience of our existence is exactly what provokes the characters to go digging for moments of joy and passion and togetherness,” he told RadioTimes.com. “And I think that that dynamic, that paradox, the tension of we know it’s about to disappear and the fervency of the struggle to find connection, that’s how so many people describe the summer of 1939 in the UK – as being like a strange wild party before the inferno.”
Despite the film being broadly a real story, however, there are a number of changes made for dramatic purposes – and we’ve picked out a few of these below.
Edith Pretty’s age
Although 35-year-old Carey Mulligan plays Edith Pretty in the film, in reality, Edith was about 20 years older at the time of the excavation. Indeed the real Edith Pretty was actually five years older than Basil Brown, whereas in the film he is presented as by far the older of the two.
Besides the age difference, though, other aspects of Edith as seen in the film are true to life – she was a widow with a young son and did have a passing interest in archaeology.
Asked about how much research she did prior to filming, Mulligan explained to RadioTimes.com that she read a biography and some of her correspondence, but the most important thing was getting the spirit of the character right.
“I felt that the most important thing was to focus on her core values and what she stood for and try and represent that,” she said.
Basil Brown and the time scale
As is portrayed in the film, Brown was an amateur archaeologist whose work at Sutton Hoo had been overlooked for a long time after the discovery – with Fiennes telling RadioTimes.com that the film is “setting the record straight for Basil.”
But while Basil Brown’s importance to the dig comes across clearly in the film, the actual time scale of the excavation is altered for dramatic purposes.
Whereas in the film the entire excavation takes place in one season in 1939, in reality, it took much longer, starting in June 1938. Brown worked on the site from June to August 1938 before returning in May 1939, after some of the original finds had been on display at Ipswich Museum and the British Museum had been informed, but before Charles Phillips and his team had arrived.
Like in the film, Brown continued excavating the ship before Phillips arrived – despite having been told to stop – but the historical record shows that the pair were respectful towards each other, with some of the tension between them seen in the film likely added for dramatic effect.
Another invention for the film (which actually dates back to John Preston’s book) concerns the scene in which Basil was almost buried alive after a burial mound caves in on him – there is no historical record to suggest that this actually happened.
Peggy Preston and Rory Lomax
One of the biggest changes made for the film concerns the romance between Peggy Preston (Lily James) and Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn). This did not happen in reality – in fact, Rory Lomax is an entirely fictional character (the only one to appear in the film).
Peggy Preston was married to Stuart Piggott, as is the case in the film, and they did eventually divorce – although not until 1954, some 15 years after the events of the film. It’s also not true that they were newlyweds at the time of the dig – they had actually been married three years earlier in 1936, and so they did not arrive straight from their honeymoon as the film suggests.