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  • Writer's pictureMme Vanessa Williamson

'The Dig' – Hiding Sutton Hoo's women.

Updated: Nov 25, 2021


With my archaeologist hat on I review the new film The Dig.

Revelations today confirm young male photographer depicted in the new

hot film The Dig, was in fact, two women!

I eagerly awaited the release of the film The Dig, on Netflix, set against the story of the Sutton Hoo Excavation. I watched on the first day it was released. It washed over me with a humble beauty, gentleness, and quiet. A stark contrast to the pace, violence, and noise permeating film & TV. Now several days later I feel compelled as an archaeologist to speak out after reading a piece on FB and Twitter by Paul Blinkhorn. The eminent British Anglo-Saxon archaeologist drew his followers attention to the true story of the Sutton Hoo photographer. The storyline of the photos forms a strong literary theme in the film. What I learnt today is, it is in fact fiction. Blinkhorn reveals the photographer was not a man, but two women, Mercie Lack ARPS and Barbara Wagstaff ARPS. After the war, they both successfully submit for membership to the Royal Photographers Society as Associate Members, using their photo essays of the excavation at Sutton Hoo. From 1948 they provided ongoing contributions to research projects with additional prints of their photographs for publication by the Sutton Hoo research projects. Their photographs now form part of the Britsih Museum Sutton Hoo archive.

Miss Lack and Wagstaff photographed in 1938 as they recorded the Sutton Hoo ship excavation.

Mercie Lack & BarbaraWagstaff's work in documenting the excavation was vitally important. The archive of 447 photographs taken on Leica cameras, 72 Agfa 35mm colour slides and film of Basil Brown excavating captured on a 16mm cine-camera, today forms a critical component of the excavation record. Their work at Sutton Hoo included some of the first colour images in British archaeology. What happened to their story in the film? An important part of my enjoyment of British TV and films has been the balance of gender and diverse inclusive ensemble casts. This film is a standout for stripping the female and some male characters of their character & achievements.

The films fictional account is based on the novel ‘The Dig’ by John Preston, yet I argue the filmmaker's decision to follow a storyline to re gender two women to a male is problematic and flawed. It throws a troubling light in 2021 on the overt sexism that I see permeating the female roles in the film. Lack and Wagstaff were important members of the archaeological ensemble closely associated with the excavation. I can’t imagine what could possibly motivate a screenwriter or author to turn two women into a male character. My immediate conclusion was middle-aged ordinary women with cameras are not good enough for a feature film in 2021. Age, gender, and sex appeal of a romance are more important to this film’s maker. What the hell is wrong with middle-aged women I protest out loud, as I now surprisingly find myself in that category. Or god forbid there would be too many women in the film! The argument the plotline of the photographer is true to the novel is a valid, adaption of novels to film is just about always made by filmmakers and in this instance, the failure to swap empty fiction for the real story has undermined the integrity of the film.

My immediate impression after watching the film was to question why the three female leads were presented as a vulnerable, passive, with a dull ongoing focus on their fictional problems, not their achievements. I had a bad taste of the filmmaker misogyny, outdated even in 1938. The women as we met them in the film are Dorothy May Brown (Centre) presented as neglected lonely wife; this was not so, Mrs Edith Pretty (right) spends the film fighting Illness. She was a fascinating well-educated woman, who travelled the world and visited her own fathers Abbey archaeological excavations. The Peggie Piggott, (left) we meet is naive, inexperienced, and in every way a slip of a girl. In fact, she was a highly qualified and experienced field Archaeologist. The absence of character development of the women sent me straight to the internet to learn more about them.

What I discovered shocked me. The women’s true drive, skills, and successes were not only ignored but deliberately covered up. Wasted opportunities in scene after scene focused on vulnerability, weakness, in empty scenes, where were their triumphs? After all the triumph for all concerned is the central theme of this story. Peggie Piggott when she arrived on site had a 1934 diploma (equivalent to a degree, which women were excluded from at the time) from the University of Cambridge and a 1936 Institute of Archaeology postgraduate diploma. She had been Archaeology project leader and lead archaeologist on an excavation of an Iron Age barrow. The real fantastic lives of the women are revealed in an expose article by the National Trust on the Sutton Hoo web site- ‘The True Story behind the ‘The Dig’. The National Trust I see were highly motivated to have ready, by the day the film was released, corrections with a suite of bios for the people misrepresented in the film.

My other frustration was wasted screen time on the novel's subplot of archaeologists Stuart Piggott’s fictional preference for a fellow male chum over his new wife! A back story, echoing the film the Imitation Game in which the plotline was a fact. The dominance of screen time allocated to this relationship and Edith Pretty's illness resulted in dull screen time, and neglect of ‘The Dig’s- archaeology, the finds, excavation, British archaeology politics. The film was called The Dig! The film marketing established an expectation as a story of the greatest archaeological find in Britain in 20thc. The expectation is everything in marketing and hitting the right note is important to audience satisfaction. Audiences have been naturally confused in thinking the film followed history and the true-life experiences of the individuals portrayed. Yet the novel was followed create a romantic storyline. So unlike film the ‘The Imitation Game’ which told a dramatized true story of the real people. The Dig replaced most characters lives with a new fictional story. In doing so has done a great disservice to the individuals portrayed. The true story of the Sutton Hoo excavation and its team is fantastic, the vision and drive of Edith Pretty, and Basil Brown a wonderful inspiration achieved in spite of the 1930s British academic establishment.

The film The Dig has many merits; beautiful cinematography, great sets and locations, talented cast. Where it disappoints is the poor choices of plot resulting in the weak screenplay, standout misogynist treatment of all female characters, and poor storyline editing. It was the story of the ‘The Dig’ that suffered, a missed opportunity by the producers who failed to understand the significance of women’s stories, the recent history, and the importance of the Sutton Hoo archaeology. Audiences have a nice film, rather than a film classic of the future.

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Vanessa and her husband Matt are the owners of c.1720 L’Hotel de Hercé in Mayenne France catering to guests staying in on French Holidays in Pays de Loire France, Photo of Vanessa on her Private Guided Tour of DDay Beaches Normandy

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