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The Dig: the real history of the remarkable Sutton Hoo excavation

Sutton Hoo’s seventh-century treasures have fired up the imaginations of history lovers for decades, most recently inspiring new Netflix film The Dig. Professor Martin Carver talks to David Musgrove about the real history of the remarkable 1939 excavation…

The Sutton Hoo excavations are the focus of a new film, 'The Dig'. Carey Mulligan stars as Edith Pretty, and Ralph Fiennes portrays Basil Brown

During the summer before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, a team at Sutton Hoo raced to unearth and record the fabulous – and now globally famous – seventh-century ship burial in rural Suffolk. Now the excavation is the subject of a Netflix film starring Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan and Lily James (available to stream worldwide from 29 January 2021).

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The film is based on the book The Dig (2008), a historical novel by John Preston, which “is a real drama about people. It’s more about the people than it is about the dig,” says Professor Martin Carver, professor emeritus at the University of York and an expert on Sutton Hoo. “I think if you pull back the lens a bit, then the drama is even more exciting than that. It’s a drama of different peoples, and different classes of people in England on the eve of the Second World War, investigating the major monument of the Germans who had invaded a thousand years earlier. And they’re awaiting the beginning of an invasion from modern Germany.”

Here is a brief introduction to the characters involved in the excavations, and the real treasures found at Sutton Hoo in 1939…


Who was Edith Pretty, played by Carey Mulligan?

In 1926 Edith Pretty and her husband, Colonel Frank Pretty, purchased Sutton Hoo House and its estate of sandy heath and woodland. Colonel Pretty died in 1934, survived by Edith and their young son, Robert. The widowed Mrs Pretty decided to investigate the curious cluster of 18 raised earth mounds that she could see from the window of her house. She had travelled to Egypt, and she had watched her father excavate a Cistercian monastery in Cheshire in her youth, so she knew a bit about how archaeology worked.

Carey Mulligan stars as Edith Pretty, and Ralph Fiennes portrays Basil Brown
The Sutton Hoo excavations are the focus of a new film, ‘The Dig’. Carey Mulligan stars as Edith Pretty, and Ralph Fiennes portrays Basil Brown. (Image by LARRY HORRICKS/NETFLIX © 2021)

Who was Basil Brown, played by Ralph Fiennes?

Basil Brown was a self-taught archaeologist, recommended by Ipswich Museum. Mrs Pretty paid him 30 shillings a week and provided two labourers to work with him. In June 1938, Brown began work, and over the course of the summer, he ran trenches into several mounds. He found evidence for a ship burial in Mound 2, demonstrated by the presence of scattered iron rivets of the kind used in early clinker-built ships. He also uncovered artefacts that were indicative of an early medieval date for the mounds, and he found that all of the barrows he looked at had already been subject to excavation.

What’s the backdrop to the Sutton Hoo excavation? When did it happen?

Europe was tensing for war. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain had signed the Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler in September 1938, but the peace deal had already unravelled by March 1939 with Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia.

Nevertheless, Basil Brown was back on site in Sutton Hoo on 8 May 1939.

A view of the excavation of the ship burial site at Sutton Hoo
A view of the excavation of the ship burial site at Sutton Hoo. The archaeological team rushed to complete their investigations before world war was declared. (Image by Alamy)

Who was buried at Sutton Hoo?

What soon became evident during the 1939 excavation was that this was something special, as Brown and his small team discovered the now-famous ship burial in Mound 1. When news broke of the finding, an excavation team led by the Cambridge academic Charles Phillips was sent to Sutton Hoo to take over from Brown. Before the end of the summer, the amazing haul of riches from the ship burial had been successfully excavated in the tense pre-war atmosphere, and it’s this human drama that is re-told in The Dig.

Further excavations took place through the 1960s and into the 1990s, uncovering the richest burial ground ever to have been found in northern Europe. But who was buried there, and why? These questions have kept archaeologists and historians guessing ever since the site was uncovered.

Professor Carver offers his own explanations for the early medieval mounds (and you can find the full interview with Carver in the upcoming February 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine, on sale 21 January 2021)Sutton Hoo is thought to be the burial ground of the early seventh-century rulers of one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, which had grown up in the aftermath of the Roman imperial presence in Britain. Those mounds were, according to Carver, an explosive expression of intent from East Anglia’s pagan rulers against the spreading power of Christianity (Pope Gregory the Great famously sent Augustine as a missionary to England in AD 597). 

“It’s a great burst of activity. I imagine these mounds must have been very demonstrative. The burials are extravagant and very richly furnished. They are strong statements about the wish to continue this particular regime, this dynasty, and in some ways there are signs of anxiety of what’s coming from over the Channel,” Carver says. “In other words, a more obvious Christian union, a kind of re-enactment of the Roman empire, which they really don’t want to be part of. So I think that’s why the investment is so big. People are calling to their gods, if you like, for protection.”

The Sutton Hoo helmet
The Sutton Hoo helmet is arguably the most iconic relic to be found at the site. Sutton Hoo’s treasures have transformed our understanding of early medieval England. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

We can’t be sure of the figure memorialised in the famous ship burial, but the leading candidate – and the man Carver favours – is King Raedwald, who is thought to have died in the 620s. His burial chamber at the centre of the ship was surrounded by objects, both military and domestic, and it was perhaps intended to be a display on view for some time before earth was piled up on top of it. 

“This was like a furnished mini-hall of the man lying in state. He had his personal things with him in the coffin, and on top were his warrior’s uniform and his equipment for hosting a feast [in the afterlife]. At one end of the chamber is cooking equipment, and at the other end is parade gear and regalia. It would have been a tremendous sight,” Carver says. 

“In my imagination, and this is harder to prove,” Carver muses, “I think this spectacle would have been available for several days, perhaps longer, for people to walk round the edge and look in.”

According to Carver, the spectators “would be people who knew the dead man. One imagines this whole funeral was created by his unnamed wife, who seems to be quite a character [her story is referenced in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, where she is said to have “seduced” her converted Christian husband back to paganism]. The people looking on would have recognised the famous objects in the burial chamber and explained what they were seeing to each other and to their children.” 

This was a crucial means of relaying history at the time, as Carver says: “The next generation remembers what the last generation said and so on. So stories were handed down. We’re not dealing with a literate society. And of course, Christianity was a big threshold over which a lot of these stories never crossed, which is why archaeologists love to dig them up.”

Martin Carver is professor emeritus at the University of York and an expert on Sutton Hoo, leading excavations there from 1983 to 1993. His books on the topic include The Sutton Hoo Story: Encounters with Early England (Boydell Press, 2017). David Musgrove is BBC History Magazine’s content director and a doctor of medieval archaeology

An in-depth interview with Professor Martin Carver about the 1938/39 digs and the treasures of Sutton Hoo will be released on our podcast soon

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