About the author: Joe Stadolnik is a postdoctoral scholar at SIFK, and studies the literature and culture of medieval England. He is working on an academic book about alchemical books, and a biography called The Unsettled Life of Duarte Brandão.
Netflix hit paydirt with The Dig (dir. Simon Stone, 2021), a movie about the discovery and digging up of a ship burial site in rural Suffolk, England in 1939. At time of writing, The Dig is #3 on their Most Watched in the U.S. list. The wealthy, ailing landowner Edith Pretty (played by Carey Mulligan) hires a local man, Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), to dig underneath the ancient mounds on her property. When Edith calls Basil an archaeologist, he rejects such a fancy title: “I’m an excavator,” he says. He’s a farmer’s son, we learn, who left school at twelve and makes a living digging for a local museum. The film is full of shots of the unassuming Basil doing the dirty work of archaeology: swinging his pickaxe, wiping his brow, and scrubbing the soil from his hands at the end of his day. As you can see from the trailer, Stone’s direction gives this hardscrabble work its own kind of glamor. The Dig glows with golden-hour sunlight raking across fields or among the ruins of an old church, toppled long ago.
When a team of archaeological professionals in suits arrive at the dig site, the head honcho looks down his nose at this mere “excavator” in the pit. The film makes us root for Basil to be recognized properly as an expert mind behind the recovery of the early medieval artifacts of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, the greatest trove of them discovered in England in the twentieth century. The invading archaeologists condescend to him—acknowledging that his “excavating services” are “thankfully decent.” When given the opportunity, Basil surprises them with his knowledge of Merovingian coins and his meticulous digging notes. Quiet and thoughtful, the provincial excavator voices a philosophy of his historical work which is as simply expressed as it is evocative: “that’s life, what’s revealed; that’s why we dig,” he tells Edith. The drama, in other words, lies in the jostling over who deserves the credit for uncovering a lost past, revealing its life. Will credit go to the diggers who unearth, clean, and first identify artifacts as worth studying? Or to the capital-A Archaeologists, with all the right degrees and contacts, who catalogue them, write up reports of findings in academic journals, and curate them in museum collections? Having set up its heroes and villains, The Dig proposes a politics of knowing England’s past that is—in its way—more democratic than the historical disciplines, by extending its franchise to those who have known its land and soil through their digging as much as reading. Such a franchise only extends so far, though. The film justifies archaeology—makes it worth doing—as a pursuit of patrimony, as the means to trace out the “line that joins [people] to their forebears.” That may make room for children of the soil like Basil—local, English, “Anglo-Saxon”—in the archaeological field, but what about everyone else?
The Dig dramatizes the unearthing of the Sutton Hoo treasure, and its makers exercise some license in doing so. While it is based on a true story, Moira Buffini’s screenplay adapts a 2007 novel by John Preston rather than render events exactly as they happened. Basil Brown was indeed a self-taught expert of astronomy and archaeology, who in the film shows up to the Pretty estate with his telescope and books in Norwegian. But by 1939, when the film takes place, the real Brown had already contributed a number of learned articles to Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology. He wasn’t quite the anonymous, unheralded excavator who received little credit for his research; he was published and plugged in to the local archaeological scene. He was celebrated enough upon his death to have an obituary published in the Times in 1977.1 Archivists have since preserved and organized his papers at the Suffolk Archives and the British Museum. Brown may be relatively unsung, but his story can at least be known to us through his writing, through the work of archivists, and now, The Dig.
But there have been many other diggers, whose labor and knowledge have opened windows onto the past and done so without any of the “proper recognition” that history has modestly afforded to Basil Brown. The Dig brought to my mind another digger-up of a distant medieval past. Like Brown, Henry J. Briggs was the discoverer of priceless, early medieval artifacts of Britain. But we know next to nothing about him. We know only that he sold dozens and dozens of objects to the British Museum between 1843 and 1867; in the register recording the purchases, he is, once, referred to as “a labourer” by trade. Briggs practiced his archaeology in the mud and raw sewage of the River Thames, scouring its beds and banks alongside the desperate, impoverished people—most of them children—eking out a living there by scavenging and petty theft. Henry Mayhew records something of the overlooked lives of these petty scavengers—known to their Victorian contemporaries as “mudlarks”—in his London Labour and the London Poor (1861). Mudlarks sold coal, rope, and scrap metal back to store clerks by the docks. It was a terrible existence, and Mayhew’s mudlark can’t wait to escape it by going to sea. Briggs was different. He appears to have spent years in the mud, and he developed a discerning eye for objects that would interest the curators over at the British Museum. You can see many of Briggs’s finds, digitally reproduced, here: cups; coins; a tobacco-pipe-stopper.
In 1857, dredging for a bridge had turned over the mud of the Thames, and thrown up weapons and armor spanning two millennia from below the river. Briggs, in his wisdom, apparently knew to be there for the dredging, and capitalized on it, selling the Museum a number of singular artifacts in that year. One of them was the “Thames scramasax.” A scramasax or seax is a blade, its size somewhere between a knife’s and a sword’s. On Briggs’s blade someone had inscribed a “futhorc” (the complete alphabet of the Runic characters). A name, “Beagnoth,” is also inlaid, in the same golden lettering. Such Runic inscriptions are so rare in British archaeology that it seems no one had ever printed the word ‘futhorc’ in English before a description of Briggs’s scramasax required the word in 1861.2
Briggs’s discovery was met with some excitement among archaeologists, while its discoverer passed unnoticed. Instead, a keeper at the British Museum, Augustus W. Franks, made the rounds with the Thames scramasax. Franks, a Cambridge graduate with family money, was a regular at the meetings of the Society of Antiquaries, then a hub of elite English historical study.3 The minutes of the Society meeting on May 21, 1857, record the debut of the scramasax in elite archaeological circles:
- A. W. FRANKS, Esq. F.S.A. exhibited a Sword-blade, a blade of a knife, and a Spear-head, found recently in the Thames. The first resembling in form the Scramasax of the Franks, of which examples are very rare in England; and bears a row of Runic characters inlaid in gold.4
No mention of Briggs, who had pulled all three from the Thames; the items were simply “found recently.” Readers of the ‘Antiquarian Researches’ section of The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review for July-December 1857 got the same report.
An 1859 guide to British antiquities on exhibit in the Museum describes the discovery of the Battersea Shield in the Thames, but again—unsurprisingly—there’s no mention of Henry Briggs. Briggs split the £40 made by its sale to Franks with someone credited as Austin. This was a bargain for Franks and the Museum, and surely a windfall for Briggs and Austin.5 (Visitors to the British Museum can still see this impressive example of Celtic metalwork in Gallery 50.)
Briggs’s archaeological career appears to have ended with the sale of a small, medieval coin in 1867. Now that Basil Brown, excavator, has gotten his due with The Dig, what “proper recognition” can be scrounged up for Briggs? A film of his life could have none of the earthy sentimentality of The Dig, which returns again and again to Basil’s hereditary, almost mystical connection with the soil of Suffolk as a way of knowing the past. It is as if Basil’s knowledge runs in his veins. Not that this is a formula anyone should replicate—we should be wary of the rooted-in-the-soil mystique, with Basil for its avatar, offered by The Dig as a corrective to cosmopolitan archaeology. This corrective is exclusionary in its own ways. The film suggests that really knowing the past of a place (whether England or elsewhere) is partially a matter of lineage, ancestry, and bloodlines, and idealizes history as heritage-seeking as it does so.
Maybe that’s why I am more drawn to the nearly anonymous figure of Henry J. Briggs than to the version of Basil Brown we get in The Dig. The few surviving fragments of his biography are hard to sentimentalize. Briggs was certainly not holding fistfuls of Thames sewage to his nose like a diviner, searching for meaning, as Fiennes’s Basil does at the site of Sutton Hoo. The realities of his life and archaeological labors can be elevated to no sunswept, pastoral scene. Briggs was an ordinary working person with a talent for a peculiar kind of urban archaeology. And that he should keep at his vocation for so long, and with such success, his way of knowing the past feels almost like a radical act. We could recognize Briggs in some of the conventional ways: with a plaque posted by the Battersea Shield (there is currently none); or an admiring, researched blog post (there is now at least one). But we should also remember him as an intruder in the annals of English archaeology. A citydweller, a laborer, a glorified mudlark, there are many reasons that Briggs shouldn’t be there, but there he is anyway, knee-deep in the muck, making his contributions all the same.
Cite this Article:
"Stadolnik, Joe. 2021. Who Unearths the Past?: On the Work of The Dig, February 9, 2021. Formations, The University of Chicago. https://sifk.uchicago.edu/news/who-unearths-the-past-on-the-work-of-the-dig/"
- 1R.L.S. Bruce-Mitford, “Obituary: Mr. Basil Brown; Discovery of Sutton Hoo Ship,” The Times (March 23, 1977), p. 18.
- 2Daniel Henry Haigh, The Conquest of Britons by the Saxons, 1861, p. 46. The runic alphabet begins f, u, þ, o, r, c: hence futhorc. The oldest example cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1868. It may have been borrowed from German, as it appears in an earlier German publication in 1857.
- 3Philippa Levine describes the Victorian development of these disciplines in England in The Amateur and the Professional: Antiquarians, Historians, and Archaeologists in Victorian England, 1838-1886 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
- 4Printed in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, vol. IV, 1859; published in advance of the proceedings in the “Antiquarian Researches” section of The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review, July-December 1857.
- 5T. W. Potter, “Later Prehistory and Roman Britain,” in A. W. Franks: Nineteenth-Century Collecting and the British Museum, ed. Marjorie Caygill and John Cherry (London: British Museum Press, 1997), pp. 132-3. Potter reports the sum without mentioning Briggs as well.