“The Dig” — Dark and Deep
Archaeology hit the big screen with Indiana Jones, a swashbuckling treasure hunter filling museums with ancient loot in breaks from his day job as a university lecturer. The action rarely stops, the bodies pile up, and the evil Nazis are finally thwarted as Indiana chugs off into the sunset with his beautiful sidekick.
This is the other side of the coin. The most lethal weapons here are arch British one-liners, the temples and crystal caverns are replaced by green fields and mud, and the guy doesn’t get the girl.
The period is the same, with the Nazis threatening and the outlook growing increasingly dim as Hitler masses his army on Poland’s border. And the story is (more or less) true. Unlike Jones’s mythical treasures, one can actually look at the golden hoard in the British Museum.
I’ve admired the intricate Anglo-Saxon metalwork a few times now. Amongst the many iconic displays in the museum, the gleam of gold draws the eye. Here is the ceremonial battle regalia of a great king, dug up after fourteen centuries beneath the green soil of Suffolk. All the more fabulous for being authentically English, here in the heart of England.
These are the grave goods found in the traces of a buried ship, hauled up onto the land, and covered by mounded earth, lying at rest until 1938 when the widow who owned the farm of Sutton Hoo engaged an “excavator” to see what lay inside the enigmatic mounds in her back paddock.
Carey Mulligan plays landed gentlewoman Edith Pretty, who resides in a suitably ancient stone mansion, complete with butler at the door. Ralph Fiennes as the self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown is there ringing the bell, twisting his cap in a suitably working class way, and arguing over the weekly shillings he will receive in return for investigating Mrs Pretty’s mounds.
The action, such as it is, is gloriously British. Green, rustic, literally down to earth, there’s not a real lot happening on the surface beyond shoveling dirt here and there. But a nod, a pause, a word, or a puff on Basil’s ever-present pipe, and the emotional landscape is outlined.
Now, this could have been the story of upper and lower classes finding common ground, and we certainly seem to be heading that way, with lips touching, an encounter in the library, and Brown invited to dinner, until a surprise twist and that narrative path comes to a dead end.
A pity. Mrs Pretty’s son is in need of a father figure, and the childless Basil Brown, taught his trade by his father, who learnt it from his father, is just the right man to pass on his practical philosophy of the world and its place in space and time.
The first discoveries are made, the word gets out, and Basil Brown is shunted aside by the professionals, first from the nearby Ipswich Museum, and then by the big guns from the British Museum.
This is again pretty much as it happened in real life, and there are a few stern glances, a few meaningful sighs, and we are made aware of the new pecking order.
Amongst the new arrivals are Stuart and Peggy Piggott, a husband and wife digging team from the right background. Their relationship is strained; at one point Stuart enters the shared hotel bathroom to discover Peggy has failed to lock the door and is relaxing amongst the suds. “What,” he asks her later, “if it hadn’t been me, but one of the other men staying here?”
One gains the impression that Peggy might not have minded too much if it had been, and there’s a building romance with another member of the digging team for the viewer to enjoy.
Teasing glimpses of unclad archaeologists aside, this is not a romance. Nor is it the story of the dig and discovery of treasure, although one might think so because that’s exactly what we see on the screen.
The golden present
There’s a dispute about ownership of the finds. Mrs Pretty, the local museum, and the big nob from London all dispute over who gets to keep — and lucratively display — the treasure.
It comes down to the fact that this is a burial mound. A coroner is required to sort out the legal status of the notional deceased and his valuable possessions.
Will the gold be carted off to London, facing air raids and destruction, or will it remain safe in Suffolk?
I guess we know the eventual answer, but there are twists along the way.
Throughout the film, there is a constant theme of people in the ground. Edith’s husband, lying under a gravestone. She visits him and updates him on the current events.
Basil Brown, who gets a little too deeply involved in excavation.
The long-dead Anglo-Saxon king, who set this whole story in motion by doing nothing more than peacefully decomposing.
A RAF pilot who manages to crash his Spitfire on his second flight from the nearby airstrip.
Edith Pretty, whose health is decaying as we watch. She doesn’t quite manage to be buried before the film ends, but she is headed that way, to the vast dismay of her son who was instructed to look after his mother when his father died and is frustrated by his inability to carry out his duty.
It is Peggy Piggott who finds the key to it all, just as she is the one to find the first gold. The secret is to seize the moment. Waiting for things to improve in a world on the verge of war is a mug’s game. The here and now is what we have, and one day we won’t have anything. A few glittering fragments to be excavated in centuries to come, but they won’t include thoughts and dreams, joys and delights.
Enjoy the moment
This is a film full of moments. I think that my favourite is when Basil Brown has uncovered the imprint of the ship — the wood has rotted away, but the palimpsest impression in the compacted soil beneath — and is relishing his discovery with a quiet puff of the pipe on the bank of the nearby Deben River.
It is serenity, the events of the world no more than ripples on the water which has flowed steadily since the day the king's men hauled the ship out and rolled it up to sail the king on his final voyage through eternity.
Basil, who has a mind that sees the bigger picture, is turning the thoughts of the ship and its timeless journey over in his mind when along comes a fishing vessel, about as big as the royal ship, and suddenly the past and the present become one.
Just for a moment.
Forget the lightly-drawn love stories. Forget the bickering of the archaeologists. Let the story pass by. Just enjoy each glorious frame of the film. After all, that’s all we have: the here and now that will all too soon be one with the years long vanished.
This is a movie to be relished and savoured over and over. Nuances and details emerge with each fresh view. Like the dig, the treasure lies deep and must be teased out, dusted, and examined.
I enjoyed the care and thoughtfulness of The Dig. Based on a true story, we are told, and yes, that is so, but the characters and events have been rearranged into a more pleasing arrangement. The script, the actors, the production, the cinematography are all exquisite.
This is a philosophical film. It takes us on a voyage through time and space, giving us the chance to open our eyes and see the glory. Spread out a blanket, lie back in the bones of the old ship, and watch the stars roll by.