MYSTERY WIRE — The tale of the 1939 discovery of an Anglo-Saxon royal burial at Sutton Hoo is having the Hollywood treatment.
“The Dig” tells the true story of widowed landowner Edith Pretty, who hired local excavator Basil Brown to explore the mysterious mounds in her estate in the summer before World War II began.
The original thought was they possibly contained some Viking remnants. But what was unearthed in the mounds was far more significant than they could have imagined.
Beneath the grounds of Sutton Hoo was a wooden burial ship that would end up providing a deeper understanding of the early Anglo-Saxon period.
The film, made by Netflix, is a romantic adaptation of the John Preston novel and stars Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes.
“This is the most amazing and the biggest archaeological discovery ever made in Britain, and one of the biggest in Europe,” says National Trust archaeologist Angus Wainwright.
“The comparison was made in the newspapers at the time with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, which actually, you know, wasn’t that long before Sutton Hoo. So, it was considered to be the kind of Tutankhamen of Great Britain.”
Many artefacts were discovered in the remains of the 90-foot burial ship. Treasures uncovered included a warrior’s helmet and shield, along with gold ornaments, and Byzantine silver.
The findings have been a huge influence on historical thinking surrounding the Dark Ages. Yet it’s still not known who was buried at the site, although it’s assumed to be King Raedwald of East Anglia.
The treasures have been housed in London’s British Museum since their discovery.
“We’d all have loved to have been involved in that excavation. I mean, that would have been the high point of any archaeologist’s career,” says Wainwright.
Nowadays, the whole site, including what remains of the mounds and Edith Pretty’s Sutton Hoo House, are in the care of Britain’s National Trust.
No filming of the movie was conducted at the site. The film was shot in the nearby southern English county of Surrey.
A scale metal sculpture of the burial ship sits outside an exhibition centre, currently closed along with all the site’s buildings, due to current UK coronavirus restrictions.
“It’s tough and it’s really sad to have been opening and closing so often,” says property operations manager Allison Girling.
“At the moment, we’re back to estate walks only.”
Last November, the National Trust said the coronavirus pandemic was having a “crippling effect” on the charity’s finances, forcing spending cuts and redundancies.
Girling hopes “The Dig” may cause a spike in interest, boosting visitor numbers, once they’re allowed to return safely.
“We hope that 2021 will mean that we can open up more of the site for our visitors,” she says.
“And as people have watched the film, hopefully that will encourage more people to come and visit.”
Sutton Hoo was excavated in 1938, in the late 1960s, and again in the 1980s. Another cemetery was found during construction of the exhibition centre in 2000.
Still, several areas of the burial ground have not been excavated.
Wainwright believes there may be further discoveries lurking beneath Sutton Hoo’s sandy soil. He’s planning to use techniques not available in the 1930s, including high-tech archaeological mapping.
“There’s still information and new techniques of archaeology which will reveal more. We’re just about to do some geophysics on this site and on another Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Sutton Hoo, which hopefully will reveal even more about Sutton Hoo,” he says.
“So, Sutton Hoo’s got lots of stories still to tell.”
“The Dig” hits Netflix worldwide on January 29.