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The Dig premiers highlighting Sutton Hoo and the Great Burial Ship

The Anglo-Saxon Grave and Treasure

14 January 2021 | T. Russo

Netflex's The Dig (2021)

John Preston’s novel The Dig explores the story of the great excavation before World War II at Sutton Hoo (Suffolk, England) of a burial ship from Anglo-Saxon culture. The novel is inspired by real characters and real events of an important discovery in 1939 that changed the way we understood heroic poetry which included descriptions of burials with ships. The novel has now been adapted for film, starring Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, Ken Stott, and Lily James.

In 1939, Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires a local archeologist-excavator, Mr. Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), who knows the grounds in Suffolk, to dig large mounds on her estate in Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge, England. After a second offer Brown accepts the job rather than work on a Roman villa for his former employer, believing the mounds are Anglo-Saxon burial areas rather than belonging to the age of the Vikings. Brown works on the more promising mound and first discovers iron rivets from a ship, denoting the site a burial for a prominent person. As news of the discovery spreads throughout England, a Cambridge archeologist, Mr. Charles Phillips (Ken Stott), arrives to the site, declaring the area a national project and takes over the dig with orders from the Office of Works.

Philips comes to the site with a large team and demotes Brown to maintaining the work area. But, Edith intervenes and allows Brown to resume the digging. Part of Philips’s team includes Peggy Piggott (Lily James) who declares the site dating to the Anglo-Saxon era as Brown (who is self-taught) had thought initially even before he began digging. Brown, meanwhile, discovers Merovingian tremissis (or small golden coins of Late Antiquity) and the site becomes a major historical significance to the Office of Works. While digging further a major Anglo-Saxon ship and a central chamber filled with treasures is discovered just as the poem, Beowulf describes:

The chief they revered who had long ruled them.

A ring-whorled prow rode in the harbour,

Ice-clad, outbound, a craft for a prince.

They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,

Laid out by the mast, amidships,

The great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures

Were piled upon him, and precious gear.

I never heard before of a ship so well furbished

With battle tackle, bladed weapons

And coats of mail. The massed treasure

Was loaded on top of him: it would travel far

On out into the ocean’s sway.

They decked his body no less bountifully

With offerings than those first ones did

Who cast him away when he was a child

And launched him alone out over the waves.

Beowulf, vv. 31-46; Translation by Seamus Heaney

This ship in the poem sails with all the treasure and chain mail of the King unlike the one uncovered at Sutton Hoo. However, after the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship buried with treasure as described inthe poem, we now understand these verses as describing a custom of the Anglo-Saxon people to bury their king or prominent tribe member with his treasures in his ship. The buried ship at Sutton Hoo represents the most impressive medieval grave to be discovered in Europe.

Photo from the excavation before WWII in The British Museum collection

The findings of Sutton Hoo were rehidden as the war was approaching and concealed during World War II. The treasures are now permanently exhibited at the British Museum where the only copy of the Beowulf poem is also housed. The Museum also provides a skeleton drawing of the ship found in the mound with original photographs from the dig with Brown and Philips. These images and discussion of the event are useful to teach this important discovery in the classroom.

Resources for Teachers

About Edith Pretty:

Images of the tresure and excavations photos:

Sutton Hoo and Europe, exhibit at British Museum (highlighting the reasures found at Sutton Hoo):

Remembering in 2019, Sutton Hoo 80 years later-- blog includes an image of Brown's diary:

Treasures buried with the ship: helmet, coins found by Brown, gold belt buckle;


McDowell, Jeanne Dorin. "Based on a True Story: The True History Behind Netflix’s ‘The Dig’ and Sutton Hoo." Smithsonian Magazine (Feb 2021),

Sykes, R.W. "How accurate is The Dig? What’s true and false in Netflix’s Sutton Hoo film: The archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes looks at what really happened during the 1939 dig in Suffolk and how the movie portrays it." The Times (Jan 2021),

How to cite this blog

Russo, Teresa. "The Dig premiers highlighting Sutton Hoo and the Great Burial Ship: The Anglo-Saxon Grave and Treasure." Teaching the Middle Ages, January 14, 2021; revised August 2022;

How to cite this blog:

Russo, Teresa. "The Dig premiers highlighting Sutton Hoo and the Great Burial Ship: The Anglo-Saxon Grave and Treasure." Teaching the Middle Ages, January 14, 2021; revised August 2022;

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