Sutton Hoo: the story behind Netflix’s new film The Dig

The Dig is in select cinemas from 15 January, and available on Netflix from 29 January. The film stars Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty, Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown. Cr. LARRY HORRICKS/NETFLIX © 2021 

In a sleepy corner of Suffolk, one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time took place

WORDS: Richard Ginger

A major new film from Netflix shines the spotlight on one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time – the discovery of the Anglo-Saxon burial ship at Sutton Hoo, known as “Britain’s Tutankhamun”. As the storm clouds of the Second World War gathered ominously over Europe, in the peaceful, rolling countryside of Suffolk an amateur archaeologist unearthed the final resting place of an ancient warrior king, rewriting the story of English history.

The Sutton Hoo helmet. Credit: Jim Brewin from Pixabay

Overlooking the quaint market town of Woodbridge, two hours northeast of London, the unassuming landscape of Sutton Hoo rises up from the banks of the picturesque River Deben which winds its way inland from its mouth at Felixstowe Ferry on the Suffolk coast. For decades, the mysterious mounds that cover the area had inspired folkloric local legends, capturing the imagination of Sutton Hoo’s landowner and keen spiritualist Edith Pretty. During the 1930s, she invited Basil Brown, an excavation assistant at nearby Ipswich Museum, to undertake a series of archaeological investigations on the site.

While the initial digs revealed that Sutton Hoo’s barrows had been largely plundered by 16th-century grave robbers, when work began on Mound One in the early summer of 1939 it led to a discovery comparable to that of the celebrated tomb of King Tutankhamun.

Painstaking excavation by Brown and his team of volunteers revealed the ghostly, but distinct, imprint of a grand burial ship visible in the regular latticework of rust-coloured lines staining the sandy soil. While the ship had all but disappeared, a veritable treasure trove of over 260 intact items, ranging from a fragmented full-face helmet and shield, to bejewelled weapons, a gold buckle and Byzantine silver bowls, signalled the tomb had once housed a high-born member of Anglo-Saxon society. Later research led to today’s widely accepted theory that the occupant was Kind Raedwald of East Anglia who had died around AD625, coinciding with the site’s timelines.

Mrs Pretty at 1939 dig © British Museum
Mrs Pretty at 1939 dig © British Museum

The remarkable discovery overturned preconceptions that the historic era, in the wake of the Roman Empire’s decline, was culturally stagnant and disorderly. Instead, it showed an outward-looking society, boasting established international trade routes and a burgeoning artistic tradition evidenced by the ornate imagery on many of the artefacts.

Today, Sutton Hoo is managed by the National Trust, which has recently undertaken a £4 million project to transform the visitor experience. Upon arrival, visitors are greeted by the stunning spectacle of a full-size replica sculpture of Raedwald’s burial ship in the renovated courtyard. Measuring some 27 metres long, the skeletal structure demonstrates the sheer scale of the original vessel. Resting on concrete staging to represent the River Deben, the artfully rusted sculpture has an etched slab at its centre to mark the location of the burial chamber and its contents.

The sense of timelessness that pervades Sutton Hoo invests the landscape with a suitably eerie quality, and a new walking route, the River View Walk, allows visitors to follow in the footsteps of the venerable funeral procession of 1400 years ago. Winding its way through wooded areas not previously accessible, the walk offers key vantage points to savour the beauty of the river and gain an understanding of the waterway’s connection to the landscape.

It’s worth stopping from time to time to imagine the unfolding scene of devotion from centuries ago, picturing the ancient king’s brawny followers as they laboriously hauled the huge ship out of the water, onto the shore, then upwards along the valley to the highest point.

Sunset over the famous burial mounds at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk © National Trust Images/Justin Minns
Sunset over the famous burial mounds at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk © National Trust Images/Justin Minns

If you’re feeling adventurous and want an uninterrupted birds-eye view of the burial ground and its surroundings, then head for the observation tower. Sympathetically constructed to sit harmoniously in the landscape, this 17-metre-tall structure has a stairway leading up to different viewing platforms. The climb to the top tier rewards you with a clear sense of just how impressive a feat it was to move the funereal ship over such a distance without the aid of machinery.

Sutton Hoo’s rejuvenated exhibition centre has been rechristened the High Hall, reflecting the name given to an Anglo-Saxon ceremonial communal space. Venture inside and you enter an intentionally subdued atmosphere, designed to help you depart the modern world and be transported back to the 7th century.

The Hall has a range of guided tours, installations and immersive activities that focus on the lives of individual Anglo-Saxons, such as a wise woman and shop-keeper, alongside more about King Raedwald and the wondrous treasures chosen for his burial. Perhaps the most popular exhibit is the hand-crafted, intricate replica of the iconic helmet – widely considered the symbolic face of the Anglo-Saxon period.

The home of Sutton Hoo’s former owner, Edith Pretty, has undergone a similarly sympathetic renovation in time for the summer. Built in the early 20th century and offering commanding views across the river to Woodbridge, Tranmer House is now the setting of a new exhibition recounting the fascinating story of the historic discovery and the parts played by Edith, archaeologist Basil Brown and his team of volunteers. The property also retains many original architectural features, such as the wood-panelled walls that still bear the tiny holes made during the games of darts played by wartime Land Army girls when barracked there.

It’s another tantalising glimpse into history and the many stories woven into Sutton Hoo’s unique fabric of warriors and wars.