New Sutton Hoo Movie Rights the Wrongs of Archaeological Snobbery
The new Sutton Hoo movie, called The Dig, that is due to be released on Netflix is going to tell the real story behind one of Britain’s greatest archaeological discoveries. It dramatizes the excavation at Sutton Hoo in England that changed our understanding of the history of Europe in the Dark Ages. It will also address a decades-old injustice and finally gives credit to the amateur archaeologist who was behind the historic discovery.
The movie focuses on the discoveries made at Sutton Hoo in Eastern England, by a self-taught archaeologist, Basil Brown, who was born near Ipswich in 1888. He had been a farmer, milkman and woodcutter, before securing a job with Ipswich Museum. Brown was poor and had no formal education in archaeology, but he had made some important historical finds in previous years. Brown was a simple country fellow and often used string to hold up his work pants.
Sutton Hoo Movie Tells Story of Eccentric Genius
In 1938 a local widow by the name of Edith Pretty asked Ipswich Museum to excavate some 18 mounds on her land. These were well-known to locals and were the source of many legends. The museum sent out Brown, who was the only person available to investigate the site and he was later helped by Mrs. Pretty’s gardener and gamekeeper.
Photo of the Mound 2 at the Sutton Hoo site. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Brown was something of an eccentric and he was certainly no orthodox archaeologist. According to The Daily Mail, “he would sniff and taste the soil to try to find out what lay beneath and was known for sleeping under hedgerows to feel better connected to the land.” During the first season, he found a looted Anglo-Saxon ship burial. However, what he found in one mound the following year amazed the world.
Brown and his colleagues began working on a mound overlooking the River Deben in 1939. The DissMercury reports that “within a few weeks they came across ancient iron rivets. Patient work uncovered an impression of an Anglo-Saxon ship that would turn out to be 27 m (85ft) long.” Brown had found a boat-burial, but mysteriously, no human remains have ever been found at Sutton Hoo.
1939 excavation of burial ship, which the Sutton Hoo movie is based on. (Harold John Phillips / Public domain)
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The ship dates to the 6 th or early 7 th century AD, when the Anglo-Saxons were establishing kingdoms in England. The long-boat was “bigger than anything found before,” reports The Daily Mail. Inside the ship, they found a treasure trove including an ornate helmet with a metal mask in the form of a human face.
The Anglo-Saxon helmet is one of the most important finds from Sutton Hoo. (Usernameunique / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Also uncovered according to The Daily Mail, “was a jewelry set with Sri Lankan garnets, silverware from Byzantium and enameled bronze feasting pots.” Amazingly the burial had avoided being looted by robbers despite at least one recorded attempt.
The British newspapers hailed the finds and one would expect that Brown would have been hailed as a hero. However, Britain in the 1930s had a rigid class system and the amateur archaeologist would have been considered lower class. As a result Brown was “sidelined by the archaeological establishment,” the The Daily Mail reports.
Charles Phillips, one of Britain’s then leading archaeologists took over the project and Brown was eventually relegated to shoveling earth. This is even though the amateur had previously conducted a very systematic and methodical investigation of the mounds.
Nevertheless, still Brown did not receive any reward or recognition for his role in the unearthing of the Anglo-Saxon treasures and boat-burial. He returned to work at the local museum and his name was written out of all accounts of this remarkable discovery. Instead, the credit for his work went to others.
Brown retired in 1961 and continued to make archaeological discoveries in his local area, including a Norman era chapel.
Righting a Wrong
The Dig sets out not only to tell the story of the eccentric archaeologist, but also to right the wrong done to Brown, who was the victim of class prejudice. Ralph Fiennes, best known for Schindler’s List, will play Brown in the movie.
Right: Ralph Fiennes who will play Basil Brown in the Sutton Hoo movie, The Dig. (Dick Thomas Johnson / CC BY 2.0). Left: Carey Mulligan who will play Edith Pretty. (Foreign and Commonwealth Office / CC BY 2.0)
Initially, Nicole Kidman was going to play Edith Pretty, but that role has now been taken by acclaimed actress Carey Mulligan. The motion picture “will focus on the partnership between the landowner and the archaeologist who first propelled the legendary excavation into existence and will be a tale of love, loss and hope,” according to the DissMercury.
The relationship between Brown and Edith Pretty was an eccentric one. It is possible that the self-taught archaeologist was autistic, and the widow was interested in the mounds as a result of her belief in spiritualism. The Daily Mail quotes Richard Morris, author of a new biography on the man who found Sutton Hoo, saying that “there was idle village gossip about a brief love affair between Brown and Edith, but I found no evidence of that.” It seemed that their relationship was based on a shared passion for the work at Sutton Hoo.
The true story of Brown and the discovery at Sutton Hoo were first publicized in a novel by John Preston in 2007. The movie is based on this book. It is believed that The Dig will be released in the coming months on Netflix. Most of the treasure found by Brown are on display in the British Museum.
Top Image: The Sutton Hoo movie that will tell the story of the famous Anglo-Saxon treasure is due to come out on Netflix soon. Right: A replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet produced for the British Museum by the Royal Armouries. (CC BY-SA 2.5). Left: The original Sutton Hoo helmet. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
By Ed Whelan