Whilst on maternity leave, NAS Education Manager Peta Knott is taking a break from work and enjoying the many archaeological lectures, workshops and most recently – movies – that are currently available online. Here she reviews ‘The Dig’.


Watch the trailer for 'The Dig' on YouTube by clicking the image above.

Normally, when I watch movies or TV shows claiming to have an archaeological bent, my viewing companions know that they are more likely to be entertained by my cries of shock or disgust at the characters’ methodology or techniques than by the actual movie. But the early promotional material for ‘The Dig’ gave me high hopes of a credible production and I was keen to see how Netflix would represent this significant archaeological discovery on screen. On Friday night, with popcorn at the ready, my family settled in to watch ‘The Dig’. My husband knew he was going to be entertained one way or the other!

Fortunately, my hopes were proved correct. ‘The Dig’ is an excellent example of how significant archaeological discoveries make excellent viewing, with no Hollywood sensationalism necessary. Before I go any further, I should get the spoilers out of the way – the main focus of the movie is the discovery of an early 7th century AD Anglo-Saxon ship burial that changes our understanding of the Dark Ages. And as is typical with many archaeological sites - there’s a motley crew of archaeologists, excavators and interested locals to add another dimension to the story. Now on to why this movie is so important for our archaeological cause.

It was so refreshing to see a well-told story laid out with a factual basis, allowing the historical events and (mostly accurate) characters to keep the viewers transfixed rather than any excessive drama caused by out-of-control boulders, treacherous Nazis or damsels in distress.

While the majority of the movie is factually correct, it is based on a book that took artistic licence with some of the characters to make for more gripping reading. It is unfortunate that some of the ensemble cast characters have been omitted or their roles changed but for those who want to find out more, Wikipedia gives a well referenced summary of how the film characters differed from the real people. The main events of the discovery have also been compressed for ease of story-telling. But it really is the little details that give the movie its authenticity, such as the final scenes reburying the ship to protect it during the impending WWII.


Carey Mulligan, Archie Barnes and Ralph Fiennes in the The Dig: ‘charm to spare’. Photograph: Larry Horricks/Netflix © 2021


One of the major discoveries at Sutton Hoo was a considerable number of artefacts made of gold and precious stones. One might be forgiven (but not by me!) for making this golden hoard the focus of the movie, to entice the punters in with promises of treasures. Thankfully, this is not the case with this production. These items of intrinsic monetary value and historical significance are kept in context both on the archaeological site and within the movie storyline. It’s interesting to note that the artefacts used in the movie were made by the same craftspeople that made the replicas for museum display.

While I might be a little biased when it comes to archaeological movies, I am not the only one that has taken notice of this remarkable story, told in such an idyllic setting. ‘The Dig’ has received very favourable numbers on the movie rating websites Rotten Tomatoes (87%) and IMDb (7.3/10). The buzz on social media shows that the movie has reached a wide audience and revived interest in an intrinsically interesting archaeological discovery.

Since the movies’ release at the end of January, a number of key UK institutions have been sharing online their connections with Sutton Hoo and ‘The Dig’, showing just how much this discovery has become a part of British life.

The site of the ship burial is part of a larger Royal Burial Ground that is now under the custodianship of the National Trust. On their website is a very interesting article explaining all the different historical characters’ roles in the movie and their real archaeological lives.


The Sutton Hoo ship excavation in 1939, early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century, Suffolk, England © Trustees of the British Museum


The precious finds were given to the British Museum to ensure that they were visible to as many people as possible, and for free. In their recent online article Inside ‘The Dig’: how the star-studded film squares with reality of Sutton Hoo the British Museum’s Curator of Early Medieval European Collections, Sue Brunning, wrote about her involvement with the making of the movie and the lengths the production crew went to get it accurate. Due to the production teams’ research, the curator gained a new insight into their extensive archive of documents and photos relating to the dig based on the questions asked by the set designers. Other museum staff members were also challenged by questions from the actors who wanted to make their portrayals as accurate as possible. The curator was also extremely impressed by the opportunity to visit the set allowed her to get a sense of what the real iconic dig was like.

While the discovery and excavation at Sutton Hoo commenced over eighty years ago, there has been a recent resurgence in interest – even before the movie. The Sutton Hoo Ships Company was established in 2016 with the aim to build a full sized replica of the buried ship, using traditional methods. Despite the challenges faced by Covid, they are persevering to build a replica of the vessel based on the incredibly detailed records of the ship remains made by the original excavators.

One of the reasons why this replica is possible is because of the detailed study of the ship lines and digital reconstruction of the vessel completed by experts from the Sutton Hoo Ships Company and the University of Southampton. You can read about this research in NAS’s International Journal of Nautical Archaeology

To further prove the ongoing importance of Sutton Hoo, even before the announcement of the movie, NAS was planning a members’ trip to the recently redeveloped National Trust Sutton Hoo site. Sadly, the pandemic prevented that from happening. But hopefully the movie mania will continue and we can all go and see for ourselves - the amazing archaeological discovery at Sutton Hoo.

Have your own story to tell? See your report on our Members Stories page by writing for us. Find out more here.