Backstory in ‘The Dig’: Woman who helped changed history as we knew it

‘The Dig’ a Netflix film, is drawing much attention, and for good reason. The story is based on a novel fictionalizing true events and written by John Preston. The novel arose from an archaeological dig at a site known as Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, the United Kingdom. The story focuses on Basil Brown, a self-taught “excavator” and his key role in unearthing a remarkable discovery. There’s also an interesting backstory, though, related to the female archaeologist who pulled a trinket from the burial site and helped change history as we knew it.

Once word got out about the potential finds on land owned by a woman named Edith Pretty, formally educated archaeology experts descended on her homeplace for obvious reasons. One of those experts  was a young woman who, in the novel, didn’t have a lot of hands on experience, Peggy Piggott. Ms. Piggott unearthed a piece of what is believed to have been jewelry—a gold pyramid with “intricate cloisonne work.” (pg. 153)

Other finds led to a rude real world awakening for many academics. The artifacts found in the mound were part of a burial cache for an obviously important figure. Brown originally believed the site must have honored a Viking chief. The golden pyramid, however, along with other artifacts such as a coin found earlier by Brown, made clear the fact the site dated to the Dark Ages. The coin dated to a period between AD 575 and 625, predating the Vikings.

The ship wasn’t Viking. It was Anglo Saxon. The finds made it obvious the culture was far more advanced at the time of the burial than academics believed. The UK’s National Trust filled in facts on Sutton Hoo’s origins:

“In the 5th Century, when Roman influence was on the wane in Britain, Germanic tribes from continental Europe saw an opportunity. The 5th and 6th Centuries saw people from what are now known as the Netherlands, Germany and southern Scandinavia journeying across the North Sea to settle in Britain. They mingled with the native population, creating a new culture and language – English – and today we know them as the Anglo-Saxons.”

Today governments, including our own, categorize people by complexion. History indicates complexion mattered little when it came to war and conquest.

Simon Stone, who directed the film, shared ideas about multiculturalism with Town and Country magazine:

“There’s an incredibly multicultural past in the United Kingdom. This boat [discovered on Edith Pretty’s property] is from a German king who arrived at the shores of a country that had Celts in it and Britons. They brought the German language to the United Kingdom and it changed everything. Later, the French came, and the Vikings came and so on—all of these influences create who we are, and the language we speak nowadays.”

I read the book and I saw the film. The film is on the whole loyal to the book, except for romantically enhancing an encounter between Mrs. Piggott and Edith Pretty’s cousin Rory. That didn’t happen in the book, and there were also no strong indications in the book that Mrs. Piggott’s husband Stuart was gay. The Piggotts stayed married for more than two decades in real life.

The Daily Mail (UK) provides a list of facts compared to fiction in the novel and in the book. There are spoilers, so if you’re concerned about that impacting your pleasure from the film or book, wait to read that article.

There is a moment in the film I’d like to offer insight on. There’s a scene of an official in a car riding through streets in a practice run warning the public about impending bombs. The novel (and the real dig) occurred shortly before German bombs began to fall in the UK in World War II. The practice run involved officials throwing balls in different colors to educate people on the different types of bombs. As the balls are tossed into the street from the car, citizens began to playfully toss them back at the driver.

There’s also a small amount of narrative in the book about Mrs. Pretty’s penchant for spiritualism. I have to admit that the real Mrs. Pretty must have had some sort of motivation for digging up the mounds on her property in what began as a private endeavor—official institutions had turned down the opportunity. She somehow seemed to know something important was inside the mounds.

As for Mrs. Piggott, she was a very distinguished archaeologist who was also known as Margaret Guido.

The author of the novel The Dig, John Preston, is Mrs. Guido’s nephew.

On a final note, I have to hand it to Ralph Fiennes. He made the character of Basil Brown his own and as you watch the film, you completely forget you’re watching an actor.

I recommend both the book and the film. Both are rare bright spots in today’s cultural wasteland in print and on screen. Some critics have faulted the novelist for his depiction of some characters. The criticism is not appropriate—on the front cover, the book is called a “novel.” That’s about as transparent as an author can get.

(Kay B. Day/February 3, 2021)

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