Excavating justice

I don’t come from Suffolk, but I’ve lived here the vast majority of my adult life, and I have family roots across Suffolk and Norfolk. If I feel a sense of belonging to anywhere, it’s here. The green, gentle hills, the un-British lack of rainfall, the distinctive speech patterns of its inhabitants… this place belongs to me, and I belong to it. If ever it gets a mention in the national press it is usually misrepresented as a remote rural backwater—by broadsheet journalists who probably have holiday homes in Aldeburgh or Southwold—and if it features in TV or cinema drama then its denizens speak thick Mummerset. As Charlie Haylock, who served as dialect coach to Ralph Fiennes and other cast members of The Dig put it, they usually sound like West Country pirates, so although it’s not my own dialect, I felt a tremendous sense of validation watching Fiennes’s portrayal of Basil Brown.

Brown was the archaeologist who discovered and began the excavation of the world famous ship burial at Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge. He was an autodidact from an ordinary rural Suffolk family, without any of the benefits of wealth or formal education that his contemporaries possessed, and as the film has it, he was consistently referred to as an ‘excavator’ rather than by the high status professional title used by his university-trained colleagues. He was however one of the most highly skilled archaeologists then practising, and his detailed knowledge of Suffolk soils was key to the excavation at Sutton Hoo, where the organic elements of the burial had long since decomposed, leaving a ghostly image of the ship inscribed in soil-type boundaries. Brown was not credited when the finds were announced, or after the Second World War when the recovered artifacts were first displayed—in fact his leading role in the dig wasn’t properly acknowledged until after his death in 1977.

Of course, by the time I moved to Suffolk, Brown’s role had been admitted. The last period of his employment at Ipswich Museum had been as an attendant, occasionally released to excavation duties, and you might suppose that such treatment, such class-inspired discrimination would have been eliminated subsequently, but I have to say it endured there until recently, and probably continues. Spouse worked at Ipswich Museum for several decades, and during her time there one of the gallery attendants was a similar figure to Brown, although he didn’t make any discoveries as spectacular as Sutton Hoo (although he did find a major Roman villa). He was however extremely knowledgeable about archaeology, geology, palaeontology, numismatics, and other topics. He once assembled a whole museum-in-a-box for Spawn from his personal collection, containing fossils, Roman coins, and a spectacular array of finds, all from his excursions to the Suffolk countryside—for which he refused anything more than a nominal payment. He was given a small display space in the museum shop, and after one of the regular rounds of redundancies deprived the museum service of most of its subject specialist curators, he was probably the most knowledgeable individual in the building, and the most qualified to respond to public queries. His expertise wasn’t valued, though, just the opposite—he was repeatedly disciplined for using it, until he eventually gave up in disgust and became a coin valuer for a major international auction house.

Brown’s story then is not simply one of inter-war class prejudice, but one of ongoing professional jealousy within the heritage industry, and although Spouse has now retired from Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service, it’s pretty apparent that the curatorial staff (who latterly have little or no training in the subjects with which the collections are associated) continue to guard their ill-deserved disciplinary privilege with the same kind of jealousy. Nothing’s as well-calculated to piss off a ‘museum professional’ as real expertise in the absence of paper qualifications… For these reasons I feel a certain satisfaction that this kind of experience has been represented in a film with an A-list star; people like Brown, and like the attendant who showered Spawn with finds, are to be found in every county, on the fringes of every provincial museum service, their expertise unrecognised because the core skill of recognising expertise has never been a part of museum leadership’s knowledge base.

Fiennes does justice to Brown as a member of that largely unrecognised group, and also as a Suffolk native. It’s not just the phonology of Suffolk dialect that he nails, but the stress patterns, the timing and pacing of his speech, the mannerisms and the body-language. His Brown is absolutely recognisable as a Suffolk man. The generations born since around 1960 have a less distinctive way about them, having grown up with a much greater exposure to national and international cultural norms, although there is still much of the same manner to be found in Suffolk and Norfolk people. There’s a quietness, a modesty and gentleness about Fiennes’s portrayal of Brown, but also a strength, all of which are absolutely recognisable—Spouse saw her grandfather in him. I saw generations of my own family, who came from agricultural labouring stock like Brown, although the oldest generations I knew were already middle-class, thanks to the grammar school system, and to the other opportunities for betterment campaigned for by figures like my great-great uncle, the North Norfolk MP and trade unionist Edwin Gooch. Fiennes’s representation of their reserved pride, unassuming but easily wounded by a perceived injustice, is bang on the nail.

I was so taken by Fiennes’s performance, and by the value of director Simon Stone’s decision to represent these neglected areas, that I was always going to love The Dig irrespective of its other merits. It’s a good story, but it’s hard for me to judge objectively whether its narrative is as strong as these other elements. It has an unnecessary romantic sub-plot involving unnecessary minor characters, which serves to rob it somewhat of narrative momentum, although this story is perfectly well-told in itself. I enjoyed Stone’s technique of playing a dialogue audio track over footage of the actors doing other things (there’s probably a name for that, which I’d know if I was a proper cinéaste). I absolutely loved Stefan Gregory’s understated score. The period detail was realised with precision and panache.

I’ll leave questions of accuracy to others—whether regarding the archaeology or the portrayals of the people involved—but I’ll stick my neck out far enough to say that justice was done to Basil Brown. He’s had his name put on a few plaques, and his role has been acknowledged, but this fictional account of the dig is an important contribution to the recognition of his legacy. Of course real justice could only be the social justice that sees expertise accorded respect irrespective of the class or status of the expert. The increasing credentialism of our society (and the corresponding decoupling of credentials from practical knowledge) makes it unlikelier than ever that the next Basil Brown will get the recognition he or she deserves.

I’ve entirely neglected to mention Carey Mulligan’s excellent performance as Edith Pretty, the landowner in whose fields the Sutton Hoo burial mounds stood, and on whose instigation the dig was conducted in 1939. This is not because her work in the film is unworthy of mention, or because Pretty is not a figure of historical interest, but just because Basil Brown’s neglect, and the working class East Anglian voices of people like him, are of such interest to me that they more or less dominate my response to the film. I don’t think The Dig will be remembered as one of the great movies of the twenties, but in its quiet, modest way, it has something of great interest to say about a topic that, while it may not be of overwhelming interest to a huge number of people, is an important one. It’s amazing what you can turn up if you stick your shovel in the soil.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Oli! I really enjoyed your review of The Dig. I always loved Sutton Hoo treasures and Woodbridge was close to my heart with Johnny Skepper’s farm. I think Ralph Fiennes is a rare actor of great talent. Saw him on stage as Richard 2nd. Saw him in Soho Square when I worked at Fox walking on air very slowly like a very intelligent being. Or a superstar. Anyway look forward to seeing it soon! Xx

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