‘The Dig’: Yet Another Film Re-Writing Women Out Of History?

In Netflix’s latest release, The Dig, Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan star in an account of the historic 1939 excavation at Sutton Hoo. But does the film take liberties with the truth, worryingly erasing the women behind the discovery? Yasmin Rapley investigates.

Directed by Simon Stone, The Dig was released on 29 January and quickly shot to to No. 1 in Netflix’s Top 10. Based on the 2007 novel of the same name by John Preston, it explores the true story of the 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo. Local archeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) is hired by Edith Pretty (Carrey Mulligan) to begin excavating the dubious large mounds on her land. This dig, which took place in the weeks leading up to the start of World War II, unearthed extremely significant archaeological findings: an Anglo-Saxon ship-burial. The artefacts found are now held in The British Museum.

This film is the perfect embodiment of the English pastoral genre. It has stunning cinematography, showing the sweeping Suffolk landscapes with its bright sunrises as well as brooding heavy rain. The highlight, though, is Ralph Fiennes’ spot-on Suffolk accent, transforming his characterization of Basil Brown: a character that exudes quiet intellect and understated humility. This film transforms this historic archaeological dig into a beautiful story of the meeting of minds between Edith and Basil, within the solitude of a life in the countryside. It is such a shame, then, that the film has failed in one key aspect of its history—its presentation of women.

A key character we are introduced to in the film is 27-year-old Peggy Piggott (Lily James). We first meet Peggy when she joins the dig site with her husband, Stuart Piggot. One of her first lines in the film is to warn the leader of the dig that she was still relatively inexperienced and hadn’t “done much fieldwork yet.” Shortly after this we see Lily James tactlessly losing her balance and crushing her foot through what we discover to be the roof of the ship’s burial chamber. In many ways, the presentation of Peggy is of a clumsy, inexperienced woman who is simply playing second fiddle to her archaeologist husband. 

The truth of Peggy Piggot, however, seems to be far from this portrayal. Historical correspondent, Mark Bridge, revealed in an article in The Times that Peggy was in fact an extremely experienced excavator. He quotes Rebecca Wragg Sykes, who explains that Peggy “was awarded a diploma at Cambridge” (as women were unable to be awarded degrees at this time) and then extended her studies in London. Sykes highlights that Peggy’s presentation seems to be a missed opportunity to represent female archaeologists of the time. She indicates that 1939 was a decade that was “a golden age” for female archeologists. Indeed, Peggy’s story could have been told without reducing her professionalism, intellect and skill for laughs.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only aspect of historical revisionism. Rory Lomax, the excavator-turned-photographer played by Johnny Flynn, is an invented character. It seems Flynn’s main purpose in the film is to create a romantic sub-plot. Rory Lomax catches the attention of Peggy, following her dismay with her relationship with her husband—this romantic narrative is endearing, but ultimately adds little to the film. In many ways, it only demonstrates the age-old tradition of having a female character defined by her romantic plot line, rather than her actual merit. The most disappointing fact is that Lomax’s invented character has erased the real-life photographers that were involved on the dig: two women named Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff. These women have simply been replaced for the purpose of showing a fanciful romance. Artistic license is one thing, but in a film already so dominated by men it would have been nice to see these few women represented, rather than removed. 

Netflix drama The Dig unfair on Sutton Hoo archaeologist Peggy Piggott |  News | The Times

It is not uncommon for women to be the ones who face the brunt of creative license. This revisionism is reminiscent of another true-story historical film: The Imitation Game. Released in 2014 and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as renowned code-breaker Alan Turing, this film documents his work at Bletchley Park. Women also take the back seat in this film, with male characters dominating screen time. However, this is actually historically inaccurate. In fact, the number of women outweighed men at Bletchley Park, and were instrumental in the process of code-breaking and deciphering messages. Keira Knightley, who plays Joan Clarke, is the only key female character in The Imitation Game; although she is characterised as feisty, she is still consistently over-shadowed by her male counterparts. Indeed, women are shown interpreting messages in the backdrop of many scenes, but it is only Knightley that has a significant speaking role. Once again, the contributions of so many valuable women have been left unmentioned and ignored. 

Surely it is time that we understand the importance of telling the female narratives of these historic moments. For too long now, women have been left out, reduced, or their stories simply not deemed interesting enough to be told. While we continuously see war films like Dunkirk and 1917 exploring war from the male perspective, there are few big studio movies discussing the role of women in war. Time after time directors are choosing to tell male stories, despite the backlog of interesting stories that include the crucial role that many women played during eras. Examples are few and far between that tell the female narrative: Their Finest starring Gemma Arterton and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, also starring Lily James, are scant examples.

It is saddening, then, that the The Dig did not take the opportunity to celebrate and heighten the women that were involved at Sutton Hoo. This otherwise marvelous film has one key flaw: it has ended up on the wrong side of history, leaving out women, and leaving the legacy of Peggy Piggot in a clumsy and bumbling Lily James. Who, I’m sure, would have shone far more had she been able to present the strong, intelligent and experienced woman Peggy truly was. 

The Dig is streaming now on Netflix.

Word by Yasmin Rapley


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