Digging into the Past: Curation and Costume Design in Netflix’s ‘The Dig’

THE DIG. RALPH FIENNES as BASIL BROWN, in THE DIG: Cr. LARRY HORRICKS/NETFLIX © 2021

On January 29th, Netflix debuted The Dig, a movie about the people behind the archaeological excavation of Sutton Hoo, one of the most important archaeological finds in history. I was really pleased to see a movie that tells the less well-known story of the people behind the work. On top of that, I was also really excited to see the role that women behind the scenes made in realizing this lovely movie. I had a chance to talk to Sue Brunning (a curator at the British Museum) and Alice Babidge (The Dig’s costume designer).

Before I quote from these wonderful interviews, let me provide a little background. Sutton Hoo is an Anglo-Saxon ship burial found in Suffolk (England), dating from the early 600s AD. Edith Pretty, a landowner, hired Basil Brown to excavate the mounds on her property, and they end up unearthing the Sutton Hoo hoard just before the start of WWII. Pretty donated the find to the British Museum, where it can be seen today. The movie also shows the work of one of the archaeologists on the dig—Peggy Piggott—who finds the first piece of gold work.

In an interview with FF2, curator Sue Brunning explained that Sutton Hoo is “one of the most significant and spectacular archaeological findings of all time, not just the UK.” Before the find, historians did not have a high opinion of the time (410-1066AD), comparing it “unfavorably” with the Romans who had ruled England before it. Sutton Hoo showed that there were “significant international connections,” such as recent evidence of bitumen from the Middle East, as well as the incredible crafts and artistry evidenced by the helmet, belt buckle, and other pieces.

Brunning provided actor Ralph Fiennes (who plays Basil Brown) — as well as several members of the crew — with access to the British Museum’s extensive Sutton Hoo archive. In 2019, production designer Maria Djurkovic also reached out to Brunning. The two sat looking over hundreds of photographs, and Djurkovic picked out what most interested her.

Djurkovic and other members of The Dig team had lots of questions for Brunning. Instead of the usual questions about the gold buckle and the origin of the garnets, they asked about the dig itself: what actually remained of the ship, the colors of the soil, etc. Brunning also worked with Fiennes, who came to the British Museum twice to check out Basil Brown’s materials including his original diary (that had watercolors and newspaper clippings of ship burials), as well as photo books and notebooks. The questions asked by The Dig team “made me look at the collections in a slightly different way,” Brunning said.

Brunning also learned from the experience as well. She had been curious about why someone would wear white plimsolls (a type of shoe) to a dig. Wouldn’t they quickly get dirty? She learned from people working on the film that white plimsolls were a common shoe of that day.

Going onto the set, Brunning was “not prepared how closely they followed the photos.” She had expected the set to be stylistic but they had “followed images to such a degree.” Having watched the film several times now, she appreciates little touches. For instance, while listening to the movie on headphones, she realized the director cut all the sound except Peggy Piggott’s breathing when she found the first golden pyramid. The film tries to mirror that experience that archaeologists have when finding an important object for the first time; it’s just you and the piece of history. However, Brunning notes that some have taken issue with the film’s portrayal of Peggy Piggott, played by Lily James, who was a significant archaeologist, better known as Margaret Guido, but the film sidelines her into more of a love interest.

Ultimately, Brunning hopes that the film “will interest people in archaeology” especially in Sutton Hoo, and know that the museums like the British Museum have archives about these archaeological digs, about the people and the discoveries themselves. There’s more to the object than just the object itself.

I also had the opportunity to speak with Alice Babidge (the costume designer for the film). I asked her how much she was influenced by the British Museum archive. She said that the “archival images played a huge role,” but she did not feel beholden to the archive for her designs. “Ralph and I were fairly determined to find the right texture in his costume that Basil embodied in the photographs. . . finding the right feeling in the clothesbut not limiting themselves to exactly what Basil Brown actually wore.

One question was whether they should recreate fabrics of the period. Since they had both the time and resources, Babidge said that they worked with fabric mills in rural England to reprint 1910s/1920s fabrics so they could make Edith’s dresses, shirts and other items.

She also spent time with vintage dealers “rummaging through people’s storage lockers… [to] find that jewel that becomes landscape for the characters.” In such a locker two hours outside of London, she found an old Moroccan gown with beautiful burgundy embroidery that she spoke to her. “With my heart in my throat, I hoped that Mulligan liked it as much as I did,” Babidge said. Carey Mulligan, who plays Edith Pretty, wore it in a few scenes in her bedroom. Babidge ended up gifting the gown to the actress after the film wrapped up.

We talked about the role that costume, make-up, hair and other parts of the process help actors realize their characters. Babidge said, “I’m trying to help the actor try to find the best way to communicate [that] sartorially. If through their clothing, that helps give them something else that fades into how they play, that’s great. Being a part of the building of a human is lovely.”

Thank you so much to Brunning and Babidge for giving FF2 readers this behind-the-scenes look at Netflix’s The Dig.

For further information, check out Brunning’s blog post about the film, which inspired this article, as well as Curator’s Corner videos on YouTube about Sutton Hoo.

Photo Credits: LARRY HORRICKS/NETFLIX © 2021 = ALL RIGHTS RESERVED!

Top: Ralph Fiennes (as Basil Brown).

Bottom: Lily James (as Peggy Preston Piggott) with Ben Chaplin (as Stuart Piggott).

Tags: archeology, FF2 Media

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