Why does Netflix’s The Dig exclude the women who photographed Sutton Hoo?

The filmmakers’ massaging of the facts tells us a lot about how middle-aged women are regarded by Hollywood

March 05, 2021
Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes in 'The Dig' Credit: Alamy
Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes in 'The Dig' Credit: Alamy

The Dig, starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, has been one of the shared cultural experiences of lockdown: it has provided a golden-lit relief from early 2021’s Covid-infested wintry reality. Based on John Preston’s novel about his own family, this warm cinematic elegy to Suffolk tells the story of Basil Brown and Edith Pretty’s archaeological excavation at Sutton Hoo, which in 1938-39 uncovered an astonishing Anglo-Saxon hoard that now lives in the British Museum. 

The film celebrates self-taught archaeologist Brown, played by Fiennes, who in earlier narratives had been shoved aside by the Oxbridge cohorts who stampeded in his wake. It is ironic, then, that the success of the film has resulted in a backlash from viewers who were moved by their enjoyment of the film to find out more about the real Sutton Hoo dig. There is a sense of pandering unnecessarily to conservative instincts at the expense of the facts—something begun by the author but continued with alacrity by the filmmakers

Mulligan, 35, is cast as the 56-year-old landowner Edith Pretty—something made vanishingly implausible given Pretty’s ill-health. Meanwhile Fiennes, 58, is cast as Brown, 51 at the time of the dig. Ben Chaplin, 51, is 29-year-old Stuart Piggot, while his wife, Peggy, in reality a doughty trailblazer for female historians, becomes a simpering ingenue defined by her relationships with men, played by Lily James. Preston recalls collapsing into helpless laughter when he saw James playing his great-aunt because, in his words, “For all her many qualities, my aunt was, by general consent, a remarkably plain-looking woman.” 

The most striking piece of revisionism, though, has been the complete erasure of Sutton Hoo’s groundbreaking photographers, Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff, responsible for around 60 per cent of the dig’s surviving photographic record—including what is believed to be UK archaeology’s earliest surviving colour photography (useful for recording crucial differences in sediment layers). In both book and film, Lack and Wagstaff are replaced by one male character: the fictional Rory Lomax, played by Johnny Flynn. This becomes even more surprising when you realise that the only other records of this section of the dig were, according to Laura Howarth at the National Trust’s Sutton Hoo unit, destroyed during the war. So what we see of the dig itself in the film—its visual impression—is based nearly entirely on Lack and Wagstaff’s work. 

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The long boat discovered at Sutton Hoo as shot by Barbara Wagstaff. Credit: The British Museum

“During the war the burial ground briefly—unbelievably, really, considering its significance—became a tank training ground, so it was never the same again,” says Howarth. “Mercie Lack referred to [the Sutton Hoo treasure] as the ‘ghost ship’ because it was there for so fleeting a moment of time, then gone. Lack and Wagstaff were good friends and schoolmistresses. They’d also by that stage taken photos of Anglo-Saxon stone sculptures for the British Museum.” Howarth tells me that Lack was a meticulous recorder and observer. Her level of note-taking provided us with so much detail that otherwise would have been lost. Wagstaff was in quite a few of the pictures. Both were very skilled photographers. 

As a result of their work at Sutton Hoo, both women became associates at the Royal Photographic Society (RPS). Michael Pritchard, today’s Director, Education and Public Affairs at the RPS, has been updating their Wikipedia pages as a result of the flurry of interest in their stories. “I’m not sure [replacing Lack and Wagstaff] makes for a better film,” says Pritchard. “Why would you want to downplay these characters, particularly when they were doing something so interesting? I think they deserve more recognition.” He is not alone.

So why “fix” something that did not appear to be broken? 

For the average consumer of British costume drama, the fact that the Sutton Hoo dig started in 1938 imbues it with significance beyond mere archaeology. The canny writer connects the story heroically to the Second World War. Without Lomax—who dives into a river to fetch the body of a drowned airman and then joins up himself—the cast of aging and female characters would simply be a bunch of bystanders to the glorious tragedy that is to come.  

All this suits the now-cosy narrative of national sacrifice that a generation of Brexit voters understands—how could it fail to after a lifetime of watching BBC costume dramas and Dad’s Army?—and which the UK entertainment industry relentlessly commoditises. “We do this sort of thing so well,” purr English cultural commentators. Why let facts intrude? 

Then follows the relentless logic of cinematic cliché: how can a handsome young hero offer himself up in the service of his country without a sweetheart? So the film magics away Preston’s real aunt, replacing her with a more typically attractive version to act as a love interest. And yet, because according to this same set of conservative expectations a young woman may not have an extra-marital affair and remain narratively sympathetic, her husband is made gay and in the closet—for which there is apparently no real-life evidence. The surprise here is that the film’s screenwriter, Moira Buffini—known for her feminist storylines—went along with it

What has been produced as a result is a by-the-numbers piece of English cinema, trimming reality for the sake of Brexit-scented conservatism. But if we learn anything from archaeology, and in particular Lack and Wagstaff’s colour photography of Sutton Hoo, it is surely that in the end we are nothing but the stories we tell each other—and so wherever possible, we really should be truthful.