It is one of the most important archaeological finds in British history, and it was made right here in East Anglia.
The 1939 excavation of the Anglo-Saxon burial ship at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk filled the Dark Ages with light and brought a previously little known chapter in our history into sharp relief.
The story of the discovery is told in a new Netflix film called The Dig, to be released on January 29.
It stars Ralph Fiennes – who does an impressive East Anglian accent in the role of excavator Basil Brown; Carey Mulligan as owner of the Sutton Hoo land, Edith Pretty, and Lily James as archaeology student Peggy Preston.
Although Ms James and co-star Ben Chaplin visited Norfolk to film Peggy’s honeymoon on Cromer beach, pier and at the Hotel de Paris, those scenes unfortunately did not make it into the film.
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Simon Stone, director, said it was a shame the Cromer sequence ended up on the cutting room floor.
He said: “The Cromer scenes are some of the most beautiful in the film and I’m incredible proud of them.
“It’s an astonishing thing that sometimes you have to get rid of some of the best scenes, because you have to slim down the narrative and keep the momentum going forward.
“Unfortunately one of the ways to do that was to have the refreshing surprise of Lily James and Ben Chaplin’s characters turn up half way through the film rather than be present from the very beginning.
“And that meant that their entire – as scripted – honeymoon, disappeared from the film. It’s a real shame because I had so much fun being there.
“I’m sure at some point when the deleted scenes are revealed to the world you’ll see what I mean.”
Mr Stone said what he loved about Cromer was its sense of timelessness, and how it harked back to a golden era of British seaside holidays, which in post-Covid times could well be repeated.
Almost all of the film’s main characters are based on real people who were involved in the Sutton Hoo discovery.
Mr Fiennes, who was born and raised in Suffolk until he was six, said he felt “moved” when delving into the history after first reading the script for The Dig.
He said: “The whole story feels, not amateur, but accidental. A lady of means decides to excavate some burial mounds in her garden, and uses a self-taught archaeologist to see what might be there.
“Basil left school at 12, he was an incredibly intelligent, incredibly dedicated self-taught man. His life is an amazing story.”
Ms James’ character was the aunt of John Preston, who wrote a 2007 book from which The Dig was adapted.
She said: “[Peggy Preston] was a fascinating person. Most of what I learned about her was through the book. At the National Trust in Suffolk where Sutton Hoo is there was an amazing exhibition with photographs of her down in the mud, surrounded by men.”
The Dig meditates on the evolving story of humankind – how we are but chapters in the same volume that stretches from antiquity to the Second World War and beyond. But individual lives are fleeting and chances must be seized – as Peggy discovers.
Mr Stone said he could see some parallels between the film’s wartime backdrop and how society is today dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
He said: “[The film] has a strong message of the importance of solidarity in times of crisis. You can feel that uncertainty and fear bringing people together in the movie rather than driving them apart.
“I think that’s a great lesson for us right now, and it’s a hopeful message that what we do in moments like this will echo through history.”
Sutton who? The king behind the legend
The burial ship found at Sutton Hoo is believed to be the final resting place of East Anglian king Rædwald, who ruled over Norfolk and Suffolk from about 599 until 624.
The iconic helmet and some treasures believed to have belonged to him are – in normal times – on show at the British Museum.
Rædwald was the most powerful English king south of the Humber during his reign and was also the first East Anglian king to covert to Christianity.
He once fought a fierce battle on the River Idle against the Northumbrians, in which he is said to have stormed the enemy lines and killed the opposing king, Æthelfrith, after his own son was slain.
For centuries it was unknown what lay under his burial mound until Mrs Pretty employed the self-taught Mr Brown to excavate the site. A British Museum-led team joined the dig after its huge significance was established.
Mrs Pretty later donated the treasure found at Sutton Hoo to the museum, making her one of its all-time biggest benefactors.