A few years ago, when we visited London, we spent a day at the British Museum. After our visit I came away with the opinion that if any indigenous peoples, anywhere in the world, were ever missing any of their valuable cultural artifacts, the British Museum would good be a good place to begin looking for them. However, one of the museum’s most valued artifacts was not looted from some faraway land, but was discovered less than a hundred miles distant, in neighboring Suffolk, England. During the summer of 1939, on the eve of World War II, an amazing archeological find was made. An Angle-Saxon hoard was discovered, beneath a mound, on the country estate of Edith Pretty, nestled in the remains of a ninety-foot long boat. The most famous item from that hoard is the pictured Sutton Hoo helmet. A replica of this helmet was later fashioned by the Royal Armory that gives one a better idea of how it originally looked.
Netflix has just dropped a new movie that portrays the events of 1939 at Sutton Hoo. Called The Dig, it stars Ralph Fiennes, who plays the middleclass Basil Brown, an amateur archeologist who unearthed this treasure. Ms. Pretty held a life-long fascination for archelogy, in particular for the mounds that dotted her estate. She hired Brown to excavate them. Pictured below is a contemporary photograph of the dig. After more than a thousand years, the pictured outline of the long ship is little more than an impression in the sand, but Brown was able to uncover it and bring it once more to light.
The initial part of the movie covers the initial discovery of the long ship and is primarily fueled by the mystery of the unknown and the excitement involved in piercing it. After the boat is unearthed the British Museum catches wind of this find, arrives onsite and proceeds to take over things. In the movie Brown is initially pushed aside by these professionals, but an account of the events of that summer on the official Sutton Hoo website offers a more nuanced description of their relationship. It is in this portion of the movie that the hoard is found. The rivalry between the local Ipswich museum and the British museum is accurate. This conflict came to head at an inquest that held that the hoard was the property of Ms. Pretty. This rivalry became moot when Pretty decided to donate all to the British Museum. Rising above all of these petty professional jealousy’s are the twin themes of the panorama of history and an individual’s place in that picture. Set on the eve of war, these people are trying to find their place in the world.