I’ll admit I was both rather excited and a bit unsure about the Green Knight movie when I saw the first trailers. The legend of Gawain and the Green Knight is one of my favourites of the Arthurian cannon, in fact Gawain is one of my favourite knights of the round table, which is why two of his legends ended up in my own novel ‘The Mystery of St. Arondight’s’. However, reviews of the film were good and I do rather like Dev Patel as an actor. Unfortunately, with work commitments, an ongoing pandemic and no open local cinema I missed the film’s initial shot on the big screen (it appears that some cinemas are currently showing it, though not many). Trawling for something to watch on Saturday night though, I spotted that it was now available to watch on Amazon Prime.
A little background first for those who do not know the story of the Green Knight, this is a tale of the honour of Gawain, a story in the Arthurian mythology to highlight the qualities of this, the best and most loyal of Arthur’s knights. At least that is the case in the anonymous poem Gawain and the Green Knight and its subsequent inclusion in the Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory in the 15th century. It is possible that the story has much older roots and relates to old Welsh tales, however, there is no time to go into all that now as I want to concentrate on the film.
I was initially very curious as to how a two hour film (run time 2hr 10) would be made of a story that can be summarised in a few lines, so for the sake of argument I’ll do it here. Arthur and his knights are at court for Christmas, the Green Knight bursts in and issues a challenge, ‘a blow for a blow,’ meaning a knight can strike him today and meet him in the green chapel a year hence for the return strike. All seems well, Gawain gets up and thinking to outsmart the Green Knight lops his head off. End of the story you might think, but the jolly Green Knight picks up his head and demands Gawain meet him in one year so that he can return the strike. One year passes at Camelot and Gawain heads off to seek out the Green Knight, stopping at a castle along the way where he enjoys the company of a hunter and his wife. As long as Gawain stays with the hunter they agree to a gift exchange, the hunter will give Gawain anything he kills in the forest that day if Gawain gives the hunter in return anything that came to him in the castle. Unfortunately for Gawain, the lady of the castle tries to seduce him, and he rebuffs her, although allows her to kiss him, then of course having to pass these kisses on to the hunter when he returns, as per the deal. On the final day the lady gives Gawain an enchanted sash, claiming that whilst he is wearing it he will not be harmed. As our hero reckons the Green Knight will chop his head off he accepts this and fails to give it to the hunter when he returns. Then Gawain heads off to the Green Knight to complete his challenge. Gawain flinches at the first swing of the Green Knight’s axe and the Green Knight chastises him for it saying that this attempt does not count as he never flinched when Gawain struck him. Gawain does not flinch the second time but the Green Knight holds back his swing, this makes Gawain angry and he demands that the knight play the game properly, which he does, leaving a cut on Gawain’s neck and revealing himself to be the hunter (cursed to appear as the Green Knight and issue this challenge. The cut that Gawain received is because he hid the enchanted sash, however he is declared the most honourable knight of the realm, (which may say more about the rest of Arthur’s knights than it does about Gawain). He returns to Camelot triumphant, but wears the sash always to remind him of his failure and to always behave with honesty and honour.
So, a relatively short and simple story to turn into a long film. ‘The Green Knight’ keeps the bones of the original story, and actually sticks much closer to the original text than previous films, such as ‘Sword of the Valliant’ (1984) did. Of course the film makes some alterations and additions to the story (as has every storyteller through the ages), but this is a good retelling of the traditional Green Knight legend. Our hero is not yet a knight, this is the tale about how he became a knight. He is flawed, a far cry from Malory’s shining medieval knight in armour Gawain, but this is what makes the character interesting, (also I learned within minutes of the film starting that I may have been pronouncing Gawain wrong all my life, I tend towards Ga-Wayne, whereas the film calls him Ger-win). We also see a different portrayal of King Arthur, he is barely present within the story (he doesn’t need to be) but he is old, wise and clearly troubled by his history. Merlin too lurks on the sidelines, never referred to by name but obvious in his actions. There are witches and magic too, the film does not ignore the magic of the Arthurian legends it embraces it. This world is one where magic and humanity live side by side in a grubby early medieval style world, full of sweeping open landscapes and dense woodlands.
The tale unfolds much as the legend usually does with Christmas eve at Camelot – although Gawain has to be dragged from the bed of a harlot first (not something Malory’s Gawain, that gleaming scion of propriety, would be caught doing), but a realistic enough portrayal of a young man with nothing better to do and a way of showing us that this Gawain is a bit of a deadbeat. The Green Knight himself is beautifully done, part man, part tree; he appears as if kin to the tree folk of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (indeed Tolkein himself wrote a version of the Green Knight myth and his LOTR characters draw a lot from the Arthurian cycles).
The film is well shot with gorgeous panning scenes and soft lighting, although a large portion of it takes place in darkened scenes where subtle gestures and symbolism was not always easy to see on the small screen. There are also several characters and plots through the film that are never clearly defined and can be interpreted in many ways. For example, the fox that travels with Gawain for a time could be a magic guide from his mother (a witch), or a manifestation of Gawain’s fears as he faces his destiny. Alternately it could be a spirit guide like Homer’s chili space Coyote in The Simpsons. I feel a second watch of the film will bring the reasoning for the fox and a few other elements to light a little more. Gawain’s fear of destiny and the results of his potential choices are shown several times throughout the film too, which lead to some non-linear sequences that may throw off viewers who are not paying attention.
I feel that the film may have missed a trick with another legend of Gawain that could have fitted well into the story. Gawain and the lady Ragnell is another of the more famous Arthurian tales. A hideous lady comes to court looking for a husband, an unmarried Gawain accepts her hand as per his honour and they are married that afternoon. He later discovers her to be cursed, she will be ugly for 12 hours and beautiful for 12 hours and Gawain must choose which 12 hours is which. Feeling unequal to this task Gawain hands the decision to the lady, lifting the curse.
I think there are changes that could have been made to this tale that would have fitted into the film with the characters who were already there. The lady need not have transformed from ugly to beauty as both characteristics are in the eye of the beholder but, the tale could have been moulded to fit the character of the harlot woman who seemed to play a large role in our hero’s life only to be shunned later in the film. Though on second thought, perhaps this legend was there all along but with a little more subtly as Alicia Vikander brilliantly plays both the harlot girl and the wife of the hunter, or perhaps I’m reading more into her duel role than is really there.
The film is perhaps definitely more of a work of art than an easily watchable piece of entertainment but for those who appreciate good cinematography, lighting effects and complex story, it will be an interesting diversion for an evening. Similar in style and pacing to the 2015 version of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender. For those who know their Arthurian mythology it should be possible to notice the scattered messages and fragments of Arthuriana throughout. However if action is more to your taste, then another fairly recent film ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,’ may be the more entertaining film (you can read my review of that film here) and Monty Python’s Holy Grail is always worth going back to for the sheer slapstick silliness and eminently quotable dialogue (there are often conversations about coconuts and the speed velocity of swallows on site – usually when debating the requirement of a hard hat in an open field with no operational machinery). Or if reading your mythology is preferable there are many versions of the Green Knight Story, The original anonymous poem, the chapter in Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, For younger readers Roger Lancelyn Green’s version of the Arthurian tales has an excellent retelling, and I will of course recommend my own retelling of the Green Knight story in ‘The Mystery of St. Arondight’s’ where Gawain takes on the role of the Green Knight with the feckless teenager Jerry Llewellyn in Gawain’s traditional role, trying desperately to prove his honour and not lose his head.
I think the film deserves a second watch in order to really appreciate some of the subtler elements and perhaps to make sense of those bits that on first viewing I found myself a little confused by. I actually only realised this morning that I had wholly missed the character of Morgan Le Fay when she was right in front of my eyes.
I was entertained and curious throughout and would rate the film a 7/10
The full trailer can be found here.
In looking at aerial photography and archaeology there is one question that we should ask ourselves and that is why? What exactly is the purpose in viewing a site from the air? The simple answer is that it allows us to take a new perspective, to see the site as a whole, something which can be difficult or near impossible on the ground. It can also help us to discover new sites. A great example of a known site which can be better viewed and understood from the air is Stonehenge. Another great example of perspective change on a known site is the Nazca lines, which whilst to varying degrees visible on the ground are viewed much better from the air.
Aerial photography as a means of observing archaeological sites has been appreciated since the 1850s, although the first recorded aerial shots for archaeological recording did not occur until the early 1900s when an aerial survey of the Roman port of Ostia was undertaken. These earliest aerial photos were taken from tethered balloon, box kites or scaffold towers, in the UK it was not until the extensive aerial survey undertaken in the 1940s by the RAF that planes were used. Most of the photos taken by the RAF are available to view as part of the National Monuments Record, however most, if not all of these shots were taken vertically (straight down) which is not always the best angle for the identification of archaeological remains. In fact, in the final years of WWII most intelligence units had at least one archaeologist on board to interpret aerial photos (who says archaeological training isn’t useful – we can do almost anything!).
There are three ways in which an archaeological site can be observed through aerial photography, as Shadows, crop/parch marks and as soil marks.
Visible or known sites show up best as shadow sites and can look pretty spectacular. As the sites are already known about and sometimes have standing remains they are easy to locate for aerial survey and so photographs can be planned accordingly. Sites are best photographed at either the start or the end of the day when the sun is low and shadows are long, causing minor variations in the ground to cast long shadows highlighting details like walls and ditches. Sites that show up well as shadow sites can also be well photographed in the winter after heavy frost or light snowfall where differential melting patterns can be observed in a similar way.
Crop and/or parch marks are best seen at certain times of year. Crop marks are reliant on the growing season and can sometimes only be visible for a day or two as the crop ripens and so very careful planning is needed to obtain the aerial photographs. Crops will grow well over ditches and deep pits and are likely to be greener for longer due to moisture retention in the deeper features, over walls the crop will be shorter and may be yellow or ripe much earlier. The type of crop overlying the archaeological remains is also an important factor, cereal crops tend to highlight these changes best while crops such as beans may not show any variation in growth at all.
Parch marks occur over long hot summers for similar reasons. Grass overlying walls has less soil beneath it and will dry out and turn yellow much faster than grass overlying a ditch which retains moisture. New archaeological sites are often recorded in periods of drought when swathes of green across an otherwise yellow and dry field indicate the location of old ditches.
The down side to crop and parch marks is that modern drains and geological features such as gaults can also show up in this way.
Soil marks appear after ploughing, when the turnover of the soil reveals a contrast between the topsoil and underlying soils and anything else below. Ditches cut through a chalky geology can show up this way as can old walls, like Roman villa foundations lying just below the topsoil. Unfortunately, however, sites that show up in this way though are being eroded and a series of successive aerial photos can show how bad the erosion is.
How to take aerial photos
Aerial photos, like all field work should be planned and systematic to ensure the best outcome. It is important to include fixed reference points in the photographs to aid with interpretation and location of features on the ground. In general archaeological shots tend to be taken at oblique angles, which may distort the image in terms of mapping, but makes the remains easier to see and interpret. Vertical shots though have their uses and are better for direct mapping of sites. Successive aerial photography sessions can also be used to monitor a site over time and English Heritage has a large bank of photos which capture changes at Stonehenge and other sites.
The rise of cheap, remote control aerial vehicles with high resolution cameras – drones, has reduced the cost of aerial photography massively – no need to hire a helicopter or hope the RAF come by. As a result a number of active excavation sites now also use drones to capture overviews of complete sites and to document the excavation process. Drones can be used to great extent to either capture details of the site in complex areas, such as intercutting ditch systems, or to obtain a complete footprint of a structure, or to stitch together a large number of photos to create and orthomosaic of an entire site for publication purposes.
Remote Sensing, Lidar and Space Archaeology
New technology allows us a greater field of view in aerial photography – When I was studying, drones were a figment of the imagination, Lidar didn’t really exist, and satellites did not produce good enough photos. These new(ish) methods of aerial survey really deserve a complete blog post to themselves (which means I need to go and do some research!), but I’ll try and give a brief overview here. If anyone knows better how these new techniques work please comment and share your expertise and experience!
Using photos taken by Satellites (Remote sensing) is not a completely new phenomenon although the quality of the photos has greatly improved. In 1938 Nasa worked with archaeologists to map Mayan settlements in the Yucatan using photos taken from orbiting satellites. In more recent history Space Archaeologist Sarah Parcak has been undertaking a detailed study of Egypt and to date has located 17 additional pyramids, documented a number of new settlement sites and tentatively mapped the city of Tanis (Where Indiana Jones finds the Ark in Raiders). The mapping of the city is truly amazing, although I think it came as a bit of a blow to the French team who had been carefully uncovering it for 10 years or so. However, now they can use her mapping to target their excavations and better answer archaeological questions.
Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging or Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging) is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure variable distances to earth. Basically, 3D laser scanning. It can be used to produce high resolution topographical maps for a whole range of purposes including archaeology. Due to its ability to map features under tree canopy and features almost indistinguishable from the ground, it has been used to great effect. In 2016 a total of 17 elevated roads were recorded during a survey of Mayan sites in Guatemala. Further use of Lidar has led to discovery and mapping of a number of Mayan settlements that were previously unknown.
Aerial surveys have changed a lot in the past 20 years and as technology continues to improve and we continue to discover new sites the aerial perspective will remain important to the archaeological process. But I’m personally not going to be hanging up my trowel just yet.
There’s no such thing as a typical day in archaeology really. I suppose the closest you might get to typical one is on a long running open area site where you turn up every day at 8am, dig all day, and head home at 4. But even these are changeable. The following account details a day on a large open area site that I was running a while back in Oxfordshire, and was originally published in July 2020 on the Festival of Archaeology website, however, it is currently unavailable there as the site undergoes changes ready for this year’s Festival, so I have updated it a bit and put it here for everyone to read.
I’ve been running a large sites like this for several years now and each one throws us its own unique problems and presents us with differing types of archaeology and levels of preservation. Typically, large scale excavations like this are referred to as strip, map and sample, and usually follow on from geophysical survey and archaeological trial trenching, so we know roughly what we might be expecting when we strip a whole field ahead of construction development. We finished the machine stripping last week, so, now that the excavator and two massive dump trucks are off site, I can give my full attention to the archaeology that we have exposed. My team have already been working away on it, each member having been assigned their own 10-meter grid square to work through.
The day starts with admin, we have a daily briefing, a daily covid reminder/briefing (hopefully one day we can stop the covid briefings) and I detail a daily assessment of the condition of the site, today everything is fine but a few weeks ago we had a breech in the fence that needed reporting and fixing. If I have new members of staff on site this morning briefing is usually when I’ll give the inductions, so morning admin can keep me busy for ages and it can be past 9am before I even set foot on site.
As the Lead Archaeologist, my job on these large-scale sites doesn’t involve a lot of digging. I act as more of a co-ordinator - ensuring that the site runs smoothly, the features get dug and the paperwork is done. Don’t get me wrong through, if I see the chance to dig a pit I’ll be in there with both hands! But not today. Today we have our burial licence so we can remove the skeleton that surprised us a few weeks ago. I hate it when they do that, one of the team was working in a ring ditch and a pair of legs jumped out at him. Well they didn’t literally jump, but none of us were expecting them to be there. With no licence we covered everything up (covered the exposed remains with plastic and backfilled the slot) and temporarily abandoned the slot. Today’s task is to get the remains fully exposed, recorded and lifted without exposing them to public view (fortunately we have a panelled gazebo as we are working alongside a public footpath). It would be nice if we could leave the unfortunate chap where he’s been resting for so long, however, as the site is about to be bulldozed and a substantial number of houses built, I’m sure our mysterious Iron Age fellow would prefer us to carefully lift him out, making sure that we have all of him (and the pottery fragment in his mouth, and white pebble clutched in his hand), rather than end up in bits on a spoil heap crushed and pounded by a bulldozer that didn’t notice him. He’ll be well looked after although it may be a while before he gets to rest in the ground again.
Elsewhere another member of the team has discovered a coin - only one so far, so it’s not technically treasure just yet! But it is exciting, I’ve not had many Iron Age coins come through my hands and this is a nice one. Another two team members are digging slots through the same ditch, competing to see who can do it faster. I’ll keep an eye on that, make sure neither of them overdo it, a little competition is fine but not if it breaks people or upsets the archaeology. I point out the excess stores of water we have and make sure they keep up their fluid intake. Another team member has a near complete pot – this is an interesting day! Like with our skeleton, we want to document how the pot is exposed and see if we can lift it today. We pinch some bandages from the first aid kit to wrap it in the hope of being able to lift it as a complete item, but no such luck. It is too fragile and reluctantly it is packed, in pieces, into finds bags and labelled.
My afternoons are also often given over to admin on sites like this. Archaeology generates a lot of paperwork and it’s my job to ensure that all the records are in order. After all, once the site is done, the records are the only evidence for what was here. Archaeology by its very nature is a destructive science and our records are all that remain of what was once here. It is these records that I will use to write up the report and a big site like this can take a year or more to write up. Each record not only has the context number, but the location of the feature on site, the contexts that it is related to, the section drawing number, and photograph numbers all of which have to be fully checked and cross referenced. Mistakes are best caught now whilst on site, when the team can amend their own records or we can discuss any changes or questions whilst looking at the feature in question. It can be done later with photos and sections but it is so much easier to catch mistakes or changes in interpretation in the field.
If I’m not record checking I’m most likely to be found updating the site plan, our visual record of the site detailing the relationships between features and the key evidence in interpreting the site as a landscape. It’s a lot to deal with and the days can fly by, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The last thing I do before calling a half for the day, is check in with everyone on site and what they are currently working on, ensuring that we have a plan for tomorrow and that I know what is going on should anyone be off sick or reassigned to another site without finishing their current task. It’s a chance to update everyone on key finds and features for the day too. And tomorrow, we’ll be back on site to do it all again. Who knows what the archaeology will surprise us with next time.
*Update: - it surprised us all right, two more skeletons, and the parallel ditches that we thought were the flanking ditches to an Iron Age / Roman trackway turned out to have very different dates, one full of late Iron Age material the other medieval. We are currently working on the theory that whilst both may have been open as a trackway in the late Iron Age, at some point the western one was filled in, whilst the eastern one remained in use until eventually being backfilled in the medieval period.
I know I’m late to the party, but this week I finally got around to watching Netflix’s “The Dig”, a fictionalised retelling of the discovery of the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk. Honestly, I enjoyed it, it wasn’t Indiana Jones (few things are) nor was it “The Body” or “Altamira” (both of which star Antonio Banderas and are a good look at the real politics in the case of Altamira, and theological politics (the Body) behind archaeological finds), but it was a fair romp as period dramas go, with a sprinkle of historical accuracy here and some creative licencing there. Entertaining.
*Spoilers below* read at your own risk if you’ve not seen it
Now, I’m not going to sit here and go through what’s wrong with it, plenty of folks have done that and I’m sure everyone is bored of hearing that the photographer is an invented character and was really two women, Edith Pretty was older and Peggy’s marriage, whilst it did break up, did not break during the excavations, nor for a while after. And of course, let’s not forget the historically inaccurate trowels (seriously, do we have nothing better to do than pick holes in things!). No, ignore all that stuff, it’s artistic freedom and fine for storytelling. What I want to talk about is what The Dig did right in terms of real archaeological practice.
Firstly, it has to be said, I loved Basil’s (Ralph Fiennes) reference to not being paid enough in one of the early scenes – this is one of the most commonly heard complaints from archaeologists at every level, even in 2021. It’s a well-known fact that archaeologists do the job for love, not for money. Those who were doing it for the money tend to grow a modicum of common sense and move on. The rest of us continue to gripe about it, but continue doing what we love, because we love it, and I liked that obvious passion from the character of Basil Brown. He complained about the pay, (though agreed to do it for £2 a week), but you could see the dedication to exploring the site, learning what was there and following the discovery through. Which leads me to another thing that I noticed which rang true to life, the display of possessiveness over his site when the museum tried to muscle in. Most archaeologists do become fiercely possessive of their site, even if it’s an evaluation in someone’s back garden where the only thing they’re likely to find is a bit of old drain. Why? Because we love the job, we are invested in the site, and if you hand it over to someone else then obviously they are going to discover the cool, awesome thing that was lurking just in the next bit that you were going to look at. Plus, when you spend time on the site, you get to know it, you have a feel for how it fits together. In excavating a site, whoever is running it is usually looking at the bigger picture, pulling the story of the site together, and it’s really hard to pass on your work to someone when you’ve put so much into it, (also most of us will agree that writing up someone else’s site is a nightmare because half the information is in their head!). So, I very much liked this relatable trait.
I cheered when Mrs Pretty (Carey Mulligan) had the shepherd’s hut brought over for him to use as a tea hut too! Basil had site welfare facilities! Forgive my enthusiasm, but believe me, it’s more than some archaeologists get, even today. I’ve worked sites where I’ve had no welfare but the back of a van for weeks (thankfully this is becoming much less common and whilst working for my current employer I have always had decent welfare).
I liked the character of Basil, he referred to himself as an excavator rather than an archaeologist, but he clearly knew what he was doing (the site would not have been nearly so spectacular had he not). I think I drove my other-half nuts pointing out the use of a string line to keep the section neat (something I still have to yell at some of my team about). I liked also that he made the point of telling Mrs Pretty that she shouldn’t be in the trench alone as it was unsafe – a point proved to be true when the thing collapsed on Basil moments later. We see photographs of so many antiquarian sections that are just immense and wholly devoid of any kind of health and safety, they look amazing but wow were they dangerous! We used to work to a rule of thumb that anything over 1.20m needed stepping or shoring, but now it is much more dependent on the geology and site conditions. Basil also mentioned the involvement of the Coroner in the event that they found human remains, this is still true. We require a burial licence to be in place before we can touch anything even vaguely suspected of being human remains. If we expect to encounter remains than it will be applied for and acquired before excavation starts, but when burials surprise us it can take a long while to obtain coroners (Ministry of Justice) permission to disturb them.
I do want to point out one very poor bit of archaeological practice that was shown in The Dig. Smoking in the trench. I’ll give old Basil Brown a pass, as radiocarbon dating was not a thing in the 1930s. But if you smoke in my trench now, expect to be very quickly kicked off site. Cigarette and pipe smoke contaminate the ground which in turn affects any radiocarbon samples that we may submit, making dating evidence unreliable.
There are things that I wish had been a little clearer in the film though. For instance, the excavation technique itself. Yes, I was happy to see the boards in place with archaeologists sprawled along them keeping their weight off the ground, but it would have been nice to have a little more description about how the outline of the boat was preserved. The wood was gone, the ground conditions at Sutton Hoo are such that organic remains (including wood and bone) will simply not survive the sandy consistency of the ground as it is too acidic. As such, the shape of the wooden boat was only visible in changes in the colour and texture of the ground and the presence of the iron rivets, and this would have been easy to miss as the boat was not physically there. What Basil did was find the ghost in the soil, it’s tough to do. When looking at settlement sites we usually extract the colour changes as they indicate the fill(s) within a feature like a ditch or pit, but to show the Sutton Hoo ship in all its glory, those excavating it had to be very careful not to remove the dark stains which were the only remaining evidence of the long rotted away timbers. It is truly remarkable, and I would have loved to see the excavation technique explained a little more.
I think it would also have gone some way towards explaining why getting the tarpaulin down when it was raining was so important. In that sandy geology heavy rain could have washed away the outline of the ship like waves on a beach. I did wonder though why they didn’t pull the tarp over it every night, it would have saved poor Ralph Fiennes rushing out into the rain without a coat, to fumble around in the dark, trying not to get great clomping boot marks all over the thing whilst he struggled to get it covered up. I suppose we all make mistakes, one of my team once managed to leave the whole file of site records in a trench for the weekend, we found it floating around on Monday morning, fortunately it was salvageable and we lost nothing.
There have also been a fair few complaints about the lack of treasures in The Dig. I can only assume that this is because people were hoping to see the famous helmet, because I was gleefully jumping up and down pointing things out to my other-half (who just wanted to peacefully watch the film). But the shoulder clasps were shown clearly, the golden purse lid, the red and gold sword pyramids and the wonderful golden belt buckle (The British Museum has this but for some reason it’s not on display with the rest), there was treasure aplenty!
The problem with the helmet was that when it was found, it didn’t particularly look like a helmet. In Basil’s excavation it was basically 100 fragments of corroded metal. I like to think that it’s what Peggy (Lilly James) accidentally put her foot in as that would also be true to real archaeology, so many of us have found that near complete pot (or even bodies) by putting a foot, or a mattock into it. There is a distinctive ‘pop’ sound that all archaeologists accept with the same sinking feeling as they know they just broke something hollow and probably complete. But back to the helmet, Basil’s 100 pieces were corroded and incomplete, the rest of the helmet (in 1000 or so pieces) was not found until the site was re-excavated in the 1960-70s and even then no one knew it was a helmet until the conservation team at the museum began piecing it together around 1975.
Although all the finds (except the golden buckle) are on display at the British Museum, I fully recommend a visit to the Sutton Hoo site. Most of the mounds are gone or barely visible, although one has been reconstructed, but the little museum contains a well done replica of what the burial may have looked like, along with photos of the excavation(s) and a reconstructed sand mummy, (later excavations did find human remains, but like the remains at Pompeii they were shadows only and required special techniques to excavate).
So, ultimately what did I think? I enjoyed it. At the end of the day it was entertainment and if some stuff wasn’t totally accurate so what, accuracy was not its primary purpose, (although cutting two real women out of the story for the supposed ‘eye candy’ male photographer is not ideal, I can see why it was done). Hopefully what the film achieved was to highlight one of the greatest archaeological finds in Britain and get people talking about archaeology at a time where budget funding is being cut for university courses and new government planning for housing development contains potential threats to the heritage sector. We may not have the gold of ancient Egypt, the standing remains of Rome of the mythological allure of Turkey’s (probable) site of Troy, but we do have some spectacular archaeological remains in this country, of which the Sutton Hoo ship burial is just one example.
The Dig is currently streaming on Netflix and stars Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown and Carey Mulligan as Mrs Pretty, all picture credits to Netflix unless otherwise stated and you can read more about the real excavations here: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo/features/digging-the-dirt-the-true-story-behind-the-dig
Warning: This post includes descriptions and images of excavated human remains from archaeological sites.
The world is full of mystery. It seems a strange thing to say in this day and age, where information is at our fingertips 24/7 and we can turn our home heating on from the office, but it’s true. Mysteries prevail and this is where stories thrive, where conspiracy theories are hatched and where the imagination can stretch its wings and fill in the blanks. It is these blank spaces, these gaps in our knowledge, that make history so fascinating and so well suited to fictionalisation.
Even for events within our collective living memory we are able to create mysteries and conspiracies; recently we marked the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, yet many choose to believe that it never happened, citing a lack of stars in photographs and a rippled flag as evidence of fakery. Such theories are easily debunked; the stars are present but the image is focussed on the astronauts not the background and in the low light the stars are simply not bright enough to be seen, as for the flag, well the fabric was moved as they stuck it in the ground and as space is a vacuum it remains rippled. However, conspiracy theories and alternate histories abound - just look at the many strange conspiracy theories popping up about vaccines and Donald Trump. If this is the state we find ourselves in with televised and well documented events within living memory, just imagine how much scope for imaginative adaptation there is when we go further back in time? Especially if we are only looking at the little physical evidence that remains.
As a professional archaeologist, it is my job to put forward the most rational explanation for what I see in the ground, to explain my evidence and not embellish more than our knowledge of a culture will allow. Although there are some cases where what I see in the ground is just plain weird. For instance, I dug a site a few years ago (currently unpublished) where we found several wells, all of which contained a horse skull. Not only that but roughly in the centre of the site was a complete horse burial accompanied by three small dogs (or cats - I’m still waiting on a full analysis). All were of broadly similar date and likely to be contemporary. So, what was going on here? Perhaps some kind of ritual cult to the Goddess Epona, which demanded the removal of horses’ heads? (horses being sacred to Epona). Or perhaps the heads were used to close the well when it ran dry, although if they all ran dry at the same time that seems like a waste of horses. A different theory; could it have been a raid, with raiders killing the horses and throwing their heads in the wells to contaminate drinking water? This is plausible, but does not explain the complete burial with dogs, so we end up back at the loose and somewhat undesirable interpretation of ritual activity, or at a stretch, a horse stud where a favoured stallion was buried and the heads in the wells were … I honestly have no idea.
The facts are simply that there was a complete horse burial and several horses’ heads in wells, all of a similar deposition date, the story of the site is whatever fiction based on fact I chose to make it until someone challenges it with a better theory. Though I imagine the story of a raid on a wealthy horse stud, where the attackers decapitate horses and stuff their heads into the wells as some form of punishment to the landowner, would make a dramatic scene in a gritty historical drama. Especially if we were to set some surrounding structures on fire and frame the whole event on a dark stormy night in the sleet and wind. But such flights of fancy do not belong in the archaeological report.
A second example; several years ago, a colleague and I were excavating a prehistoric watering hole on a quarry site. This was exciting as the clay layer towards the base had created a condition in which organic remains had been preserved, meaning we could see the wood wattle-work of the steps that allowed access to the water. A little further down, we found something else. Buried facedown was a human skull, the lower mandible was missing but otherwise the skull was complete. When we lifted it, very carefully, we discovered something else, a strip of leather covering the eyes and below the leather two white stones within the eye sockets. As we lifted it, it also began to rain. – These are the facts as they stood on the day.
Now, from an archaeologically interpretive point of view, our skull is most likely one of two things. Either a revered ancestor whose skull, having been kept by family or tribal group, was placed lovingly in the watering hole as it ceased to function as a watering hole. Or, a very naughty fellow who had been executed and hurled into the watering hole. Both are plausible scenarios within the established facts that we know about our prehistoric cultures, so how can we narrow our factual interpretation and give a reason for the skull to be in the watering hole?
The fact that the leather blindfold survived and the flesh did not, would suggest that the blindfold was placed on a skull rather than a flesh covered head. This, coupled with the missing mandible and the fact that we know, or assume, an ancestor cult involved the living interacting with the dead, (whether entering a tomb or bringing the remains to a feast or event), indicated that our best interpretation here would be that the individual was an ancestor rather than a criminal, and was perhaps lovingly placed in the watering hole when the group moved on, or when the hole ran dry – for cultural reasons that we could debate all day. Essentially this leads us to the fiction of facts as my archaeological report listed this skull as a likely revered ancestor from which we can further extrapolate ritual or settlement activity on the site.
As a writer of fiction however, this skull and its discovery lends the writer a thousand ideas. Lifting the skull caused it to rain: could it be that we had, in our ignorance, stumbled across a buried rain god? Was the skull cursed? (I tell you it did feel like it was – every time we had to move him it rained, although I guess that’s not so uncommon in the UK), was he an offering to the rain god? Was he a sacrifice? An outsider? Was he planted in the ground to claim ownership of the land? Is he evidence for a battle between two local groups and an instance of biological warfare in the ancient world (the contamination of the enemies drinking water) – the stories we can imaginatively attach to a single artefact are endless. From the simple fact of a skull in a watering hole I can create a vast amount of fiction yet retain the original fact.
History, paradoxically then, is not set in stone. Certainly, we cannot physically change it, everything has already happened and cannot be changed. What can be changed is our understanding. History evolves as we discover more evidence that either supports or disproves theories. Look at Pompeii for example; it has long been established that Vesuvius erupted and destroyed the city in August, Pliny tells us so and he was there, he should know. However, the archaeological evidence for an October eruption grows stronger every year as new artefacts are discovered and new analytical techniques are used to interpret. The historic event remains the same, the eruption happened, yet the established August date now begins to seem inaccurate or fictitious. Did Pliny forget that it had been October and not August when he wrote his account, is the August date a typo made by later copyists? Was it August to Pliny and October to us as our Gregorian calendar and the Julian calendar are out of sync? Pliny’s messed up date could be a story in itself.
We will never, I think, fully understand history, as we will never understand the true motives that drove people to act as they did, and no matter how hard we try not to, we will always project our own thoughts and concepts back. In order to interpret an excavation site we have to give it a story, so my horses’ heads therefore must indicate a society with a vested interest in horses and likely wealthy enough that they can afford to offer up horses’ heads and one complete horse as sacrificial objects. My human head in a watering hole is a lovingly placed ancestor whose time for burial had finally come as the watering hole dried up and the social group moved on. Both interpretations are my own, using the facts to inform a history, but this is just one version of the story and beyond the hard facts lies a blank page ready for an alternate, yet equally plausible story to be told.
When I don't have my professional hard-hat on I like indulging in the speculative fiction side of archaeology - you can check out archaeological adventure novels by clicking on the image below!
S. M. Porter
Professional archaeologist and author, S. M. Porter loves history, adventure and digging in the mud. Her career is in ruins - just where she wanted it to be.