Look Away Now

If you’ve not already seen the film ‘The Dig’ (currently available on Netflix) and would like to come to it fresh and with an open mind, then don’t read on.

Views of the River Alde were used in the film although the actual ship burial was overlooking the River Deben.

Where to begin? The disciplines of archaeology and history are concerned with the substance and interpretation of the past, but interpretation of our past is not the preserve of the academic. This stuff, this substance of the past, provides material for the work of writers, artists and filmmakers to make their own reinterpretations as they create offerings that enrich our lives and entertain us.

However, there is a confidence bordering on audaciousness in taking past events, particularly people’s lives, and re-presenting them in a manner that distinctly departs from the factual, historical record. The question is how far does an interpreter go with invention to bring a history to life? Does it really matter if a film, that in no way suggests itself as documentary, changes the maturity and physicality of a central character. This is the primary difficulty for me with the film, ‘The Dig’. It is a film that retells the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial by Basil Brown and his working relationship with the landowner, Edith Pretty, who commissioned his excavations.

Portrait of Mrs Pretty painted in 1939 and newspaper clipping showing Mr Brown in 1939.

‘The Dig’ has made no claims for historical accuracy and itself is a film drama based on a historical novel (‘The Dig’, John Preston, 2007) which itself is a dramatised retelling of the actual events of the discovery of the ship burial in 1939. For example, in the novel a fictionalised RAF officer, Rory Lomax, photographs the dig replacing the original amateur photographers Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack, who were two visiting school teachers on holiday in the Woodbridge area during the excavations of September 1939.

Literary licence is sanctioned in historical fiction to bring a story to life and when a book is made into a film that licence is often expanded to accommodate other constraints such as, let’s say, a film’s marketability. The long held view from the film industry seems to be that for commercial success well-known stars are required. The brilliant casting of Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown (with the best Suffolk accent I’ve ever heard from a screen actor) is met with the odd casting of Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty.

Portrait of Edith Pretty painted in 1939. Still shot of Carey Mulligan playing Edith Pretty in ‘The Dig’, 2021.

My response to the whole film is coloured by this choice. Casting Carey Mulligan (35 years old) as Edith Pretty (56 years old and unwell at the time of the excavations) was possibly a choice for marketability at the expense of any vague nod to the lives of the real people in this historical drama. The sidelining of twenty years of a woman’s life and experience is seemingly of no consequence. In fact this woman, Edith Pretty, had had an unusual life for her class and times; she had travelled extensively, married late at 43 years old and had her only son, Robert, at 47 years old. However, this (dialogue below) is how her full and colourful backstory is summarised in the film. Using one scene Mrs Lyons (the housekeeper and cook), describes Mrs Pretty’s life for the benefit of Mr Brown:

She’s only been here 12 year. Came down from Cheshire. Then she married the Colonel. He first met with Edith when she was still at school. And then on her 17th birthday he asked her to marry him. She turn him down. She say she can’t possibly leave her father. She care for her father another 13 year, until he died. She finally accepted the Colonel’s proposal. He’d been asking every year on her birthday. Just after they had Robert her husband went and died too. Imagine that.

Mrs Lyons, Cook & Housekeeper. Film ‘The Dig’, 2021.

During the course of the film there were also a couple of scenes where Edith Pretty experiences episodes of illness and a trip to a London physician for her to receive a diagnosis of serious heart disease. The film gave no indication of her previous adventurous life at all and sadly, all the melancholic staring across the Suffolk landscape together with make-up to both age and make Ms Mulligan look poorly, still did not make her interpretation a believable Edith Pretty. Perhaps actors such as Saskia Reeves (59), Helen McCrory (52) or Tamsin Greig (54) could have brought some depth and drive to the role of Edith. This was after all a woman who had visited excavations in the Nile Valley, served with the French Red Cross at Vitry le Francois in 1917, became one of the first women magistrates and turned down a marriage proposal over 25 times.

Modern times and the River Deben not far from the Sutton Hoo ship burial site.

If filmmakers are going to paint a watercolour of a central character rather than give us the oil painting and thus alter the dynamics at the centre of a story why not just make a different film. This film is based on the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial where the word ‘based’ is doing the heavy lifting, particularly where the female characters are concerned.

Still from ‘The Dig’ showing Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown watching Thames Barge Cygnet from Snape on the marshy waterways of the River Alde.

The best part of the film was the gorgeous shots of Suffolk’s coastal waterways. The most surprising and unexpectedly disappointing aspect of the film was there was no grand reveal at the very end showing the treasure found on the Anglo-Saxon boat which is now on display at the British Museum thanks to the generous gift of Edith Pretty.

Sutton Hoo – A Very Special Place

Tomorrow Netflix is showing ‘The Dig’, a film featuring the discovery of the early seventh-century, Anglo Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. The original dig was begun on 20th June 1938 when the owner of Tranmer House and Estate, Edith Pretty, invited a local, gifted yet amateur archaeologist, Basil Brown, to investigate the earth mounds on her property. The film stars Ralph Fiennes (incidentally born in Ipswich) as Basil Brown and Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty.

The Mounds with Tranmer House, home to Mrs Edith Pretty in the distance.
Mrs Pretty (1883-1942) by Cor Visser (1903-1982) Oil on canvas, 1939. Basil Brown from local newspaper clipping.

The following year, in September 1939, the ship burial and inhumation were discovered and found to be intact as the excavation proceeded.

A hand watercolour photographic panorama of the Sutton Hoo ship by Mercie Lack in 1939. From display on ground floor of Tranmer House.

When Basil Brown began digging Mound One he had no idea that the excavation would turn into one of the most dramatic events in British Archaeology.

Angela Care Evans ‘The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial’ (revised edition 1994)

The discovery of the ship burial and a magnificent collection of grave goods is considered to be one of the most significant finds of Anglo-Saxon art to date in Europe.

The Sutton Hoo Helmet. (Now on display in the lighter, brighter Room 41, but it was so busy when I last visited I was unable to get a better shot than this one from 2013 when it was in a temporary location!)

In a startling symbolic composition, a snake body provides the protective rim across the crown. Its beady garnet eyes and gaping mouth meet the beak of a fierce bird, whose wings make the eye-brows, whose body forms the nose and whose tail forms the moustache of the implacable human armoured face.

Martin Carver, ‘Sutton Hoo Burial Ground of Kings?'(1998)
Left. Polychrome jewellery hinged shoulder-clasps. Gold decorated with garnets, millefiore glass and gold wire filigree. Length: 12.7 cm, width: 5.4 cm, length: 5.1 cm (chain) length: 5.7 cm (pin). Centre and right. Purse lid. Gold frame set with cloisonné garnets and millefiori glass encloses a modern lid containing the original gold, garnet and millefiori plaques. Length 19 cm (frame). Mound 1, Sutton Hoo. British Museum, London.

Since 1997 the site at Sutton Hoo has belonged to the National Trust and is open to the public. Recently, in August 2019 a £4 million Visitor Centre was opened to mark the 80th year anniversary of the discovery. The site now includes a cafe/restaurant and shop joining the purpose-built High Hall, exhibition space.

The full size 27 metre long rusted steel sculpture of the Anglo-Saxon ship of Sutton Hoo.
Ship sculpture with the restaurant-cafe section of the new complex behind.

Last September, when Covid restrictions eased and visitors were allowed inside public spaces, my daughter and I went for a look. Of course, she remembered her first visit when we came down from Norwich in 2005 and it had been much, much quieter.

Visiting Sutton Hoo in 2005, and visiting again in 2020. New observation tower in background not open due to Covid.

After walking round the mounds we queued briefly, donned masks and signed in (Covid protocol) to see inside Mrs Pretty’s home, Tranmer House.

Edith May Dempster marries Lt. Colonel Frank Pretty in 1926.

Only parts of the ground floor were open and the space where 15 years ago my daughter and I enjoyed a delightful and memorable retelling of Beowulf (with puppets), is now a small exhibition space. A few photographs of Edith Pretty’s life and many photographs of the 1939 dig are on display.

Not just the great and the good had the opportunity to visit the dig. This photograph shows a party of young naval cadets at Sutton Hoo.

Before leaving, we noticed the queue for the High Hall had disappeared so following the same mask and signing-in routine we entered the exhibition to be greeted by a representation of an Anglo-Saxon, highborn warrior swooping down from the ceiling.

Left. Replica Sutton Hoo helmet by Ivor Lawton. Bronze, silver and tin. Right. The suspended welcoming exhibit.

As you progress through the exhibition many of the exhibits are high quality replicas such as the complete helmet of bronze, silver and tin by Ivor Lawton. There are a few early finds from Mound 17 (the warrior horseman and horse burial site) on display. These are similar to some of the artefacts excavated from Mound One.

Horse harness made of gilded bronze decorated with human faces and patterns of interlacing animals.
Left. Byzantine bucket. Bronze. 330 AD – 900 AD. Excavated from Mound 17, but made over 2000 miles away in a Mediterranean Byzantine workshop. The decoration depicts a hunting scene somewhere in North Africa with lions and a hunting dog. Right. Modern replica of the Byzantine bucket.

A look round Tranmer House and the displays in High Hall are interesting, but all the significant finds are in the British Museum in London. However, that’s not really the point of visiting Sutton Hoo. It is about experiencing the site, knowing the history and seeing the strange Burial Mounds set within the Suffolk countryside.

As I write only the estate walks are open due to the current lockdown restrictions.

Birds for inspiration

Bird-inspiration-mandarin-duckScrolling through a selection of recents photographs I noticed how often birds have been used as a source of creative inspiration. Using creatures symbolically is as old as human culture and even if a bird or animal representation is purely decorative, the work still offers an insight into how the maker viewed their natural environment.

There is this fierce goose-like bird from the Anglo Saxons. It is part of the metal helmet (circa CE625) found amongst the treasures of the Sutton Hoo ship burial discovered in Suffolk, East Anglia. The bird design works as part of the structure of the helmet too with the wings shielding the eyebrows, the body of the bird protecting the nose and the tail fashioned into a metal moustache above the wearer’s mouth.

Then we have a simple, stylised bird on this French jug from about 1300. French pottery was popular during the 13th century when shipped as part of the wine trade to the English royal court from Aquitaine to England. Despite its age this bird motif has a contemporary ‘now’ feel.
French-earthenware-jug-bird-decoration-c1300-Saintonge-France

Birds often featured in hunting scenes as shown in these paintings which decorated the late-fifteenth-century East Anglian parish rood screens.

And, birds have often alluded to the unworldly or exotic as shown by this needlework representation of  ‘A Byrd of America’ from about 1570. This textile was embroidered either by Mary, Queen of Scots, or, Elizabeth, Countess of Hardwick and forms part of the Oxburgh hangings.

Oxburgh Hanging Byrd

Then we have my recent photograph taken in North Norfolk of a black stork and the beginnings of its translation into the design for a silk scarf.

The Vikings – but I’m an Anglo-Saxon

Purse-lid-detailLiving in East Anglia we are well aware that over a 1000 years ago Scandinavian longboats could be sighted rowing up the marshy waterways to invade our islands.

Sutton Hoo
Introducing my daughter to our Anglo-Saxon heritage at Sutton Hoo,
Nr Woodbridge, Suffolk.
Ship mound in the background.

I grew up in a village called Danbury, and went to the local school in the nearby town of Maldon (Maeldune) on the River Blackwater. “Maeldune” is the Saxon spelling of Maldon and means “a cross on the hill”. At school we learnt about the local area’s Saxon heritage supported by archaeological finds and the ‘Battle of Maldon‘ as recounted in the ‘Anglo Saxon Chronicles’ and the Anglo Saxon poem ‘The Battle of Maldon’. The battle took place in AD991 between the Saxons living around the River Blackwater and the Vikings who raided in their famous longboats.

River Deben Sutton Hoo
View down to the River Deben from the Sutton Hoo ship burial site. Yes, that’s correct the Anglo-Saxons dragged the king’s longboat from the river and up the hill before burying it in a mound.

Last week I went to the British Museums’s Exhibition about the Vikings. Known as a ‘blockbuster’ exhibition with all the accompanying publicity we knew it would be busy even with the ‘timed’ entry (vigorously policed by the staff) – and it was. The first two rooms were dark and overcrowded with tiny pieces mounted in minimal, sparse arrangements. I know one of the agendas pursued by the curators was to dampen down the ‘Vikings as raiders’ legacy and present a more rounded version of Viking culture, but once you’ve seen a couple of oversized brooches they really aren’t that exciting. And, there wasn’t a single example of jewellery to compare with the Anglo-Saxon pieces found at the early 7th-century ship burial at Sutton Hoo. (Incidentally available to see for free in a new gallery display in the main part of the BM.)

Sutton Hoo shoulder clasps
Polychrome jewellery hinged shoulder-clasp from Mound 1, Sutton Hoo.
Gold decorated with garnets, millefiore glass and gold wire filigree. 48 mm

Nevertheless, I quickly glanced my way through these rooms until I opened the door into the main new exhibition hall. And, there it was, the boat, Roskilde 6 (archaeologists’ site nomenclature). Firstly, none of the press photos do it justice. The ship’s size (37 metres long) is the longest longboat discovered so far and the metal re-construction is beautiful encouraging you to mentally extend the few original surviving wooden planks of the Roskilde 6.

Press photograph © Rebecca Reid, The London Evening Standard.
Press photograph © Rebecca Reid, The London Evening Standard.

But most stunning and evocative was the way you could stand at one end and see the whole boat stretching away across the North Sea as the wave filled view gradually changed from dark and menacing into a gentle evening sunset. I was quite transfixed by the arrangement and the clever use of video. It wasn’t like a fairground trick, but a gentle prompt to your historical imagination. All of a sudden I was considerably impressed by the Vikings’ skill and energy for exploration.

Sutton Hoo purse lid
Sutton Hoo – the purse lid. The gold frame is set with cloisonné garnets and millefiori glass and encloses a modern lid containing the original gold, garnet and millefiori plaques. Length 19.0 cm

Sorry – I did ask – but it was strictly no photography, but here’s the magnificent purse lid from the early 7th century, Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. (Smaller longboat than the Viking one, only 27 metres, but you can see it’s all part of the Northern European cultural continuum.)