“The Dig” brings the story of the British Museum’s Sutton Hoo Treasure

Today, Friday 29th January, a new film “The Dig” will be released on Netflix starring Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, and Carey Mulligan. It tells the story of the reimagined series of events of the 1939 discovery and excavation of Sutton Hoo in the east of England.

The site is known as the “Valley of the Kings for England” and shocked the world when it was unearthed. The discovery of the Sutton Hoo Treasure radically altered our view of the Anglo-Saxon world, transforming our understanding of dark age Europe and establishing that the early English kingdoms were, in fact, flourishing artistically and connected to the outside world. Some of the metal artworks found in the Sutton Hoo graves were once remarked as a “work of the highest quality, not only in English but in European terms”, and their originals are on display in London’s British Museum, organised in a fantastic collection that still marvels visitors from all around the world.

The Sutton Hoo archaeological site is a series of burial mounds sitting above the River Deben, in Suffolk. It was here in 1939 that the local Archaeologist Basil Brown would excavate the mounds on the request of the local landowner Edith Pretty. As you walk around the site you realise that there is a whole series of these burial mounds – such mounds are found across the British Isles and are usually called barrows – and date from the Bronze age. The World Heritage Neolithic Stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury are surrounded by such mounds that tend to occur in western areas if Britain. As Basil dug down into one of the mounds, he was to find out these particular ones are rather different and found evidence that somebody else over 1000 years ago had tried to dig into the mound to see if something could be found in the centre. However, they had clearly not succeeded as he would then expose a remarkable complete ship burial.

Blue Badge Guide Aaron Hunter and his Sutton Hoo Helmet (not the original, we must clarify!). ImageÇ Aaron Hunter

The interesting this is in the word “burial”: no body was found at the site, so there was early speculation that the ship-burial was actually a cenotaph. However, further analysis showed that the acidic soil had dissolved the wood remains and the entire body of the occupant that was the inhabitant of his wooden tomb. But the metalwork had survived, showing the creative fusion of earlier techniques and motifs that only could be done by a master goldsmith, and mixing Irish, Pictish, Anglo-Saxon, native British and Mediterranean artistic sources.

And while the movie allows us to travel in time to witness the findings and a visit to the Sutton Hoo site helps us to see the outline of the ship and the position of all the finds, the original treasure is in the British Museum – and it indeed is worth the visit. The body (never found) was surrounded with Roman silver as well as a sword, shield, belt buckle, purse full of coins. These finds would be brought to the British Museum, where the helmet turned out to be like a jigsaw puzzle with lots of the pieces missing. After several attempts, it was reconstructed, revealing the face of a warrior, and more: it was now clear that this was not a Roman but an Anglo Saxon one. His helmet consists of a series of panels showing battle scenes and his nose, moustache and eyebrows formed the shape of an eagle, while along the top of his head was a snake. Similar animal patterns are also found on his gold belt buckle, while on the helmet and the purse lid there was the gemstones garnet. The find revealed how Sutton Hoo was connected to the world beyond the shores of Anglo-Saxon England: the gold could have come from Wales or Ireland while the Garnets from the near east or perhaps even further.

Shoulder-clasps from Sutton Hoo, British Museum. Image by RobRoyAus is licensed under CC BY 2.0

An interesting curiosity is that the early Anglo-Saxon settlers who laid the foundations of the Kingdom of England had very few written records, as their tradition, much like their Nordic cousins, was for oral literature passed from father to son. As a consequence, we had little idea of their artist traditions other than the literature published at towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period. This is why the Sutton Hoo discovery has switched a light over the dark ages; but a question remains unanswered: who was the man buried inside the ship? Well, within the warrior’s purse was a series of coins that date the find to the 6th Century AD, and the high status of the burial lead archaeologists to believe that this was a king. A strong possibility is that it is likely to be king Rædwald of East Anglia, and this could be the earliest royal burial in the British Isles. It is believed that when this king was laid to rest in his ship for a journey to the afterlife.

Now, when you watch the scenes of the movie “The Dig”, try to imagine as well to witness the scene as the Kings subjects lift the ship from the river and then bury it within the mound over 1400 years ago. That is what is most fascinating about archaeology: to realise that the best stories are yet to be told, and each finding we excavate from the ground, however big or small, can shed a light in centuries in the past.


About the Author:

Dr Aaron Hunter is a scientist with the University of Cambridge and a qualified Blue Badge Tourist Guide for London. He is a Palaeontologist who gained his PhD from the University of London on the Jurassic rocks and fossils of Bath, the Cotswolds and the Jurassic Coast. He very much likes guiding all ages but especially families and specializes in guiding the Natural History Museum, the British Museum, and the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs. You can check his virtual tour on the treasuries of Ancient Britain: From Stonehenge to Saxons.