A New Movie for Your Anglo-Saxon Poetry Unit

Netflix’s The Dig is worth a watch

Make a multi-media connection during your Anglo-Saxon poetry unit with The Dig from Netflix. The movie, released in January, recounts the 1939 discovery and excavation of the mammoth Anglo-Saxon archaeology site known as Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, England.

Actor Ralph Fiennes
Ralph Fiennes, and at right, Carey Mulligan | Ralph Fiennes Photo: Siebbi, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Dig, rated PG-13, stars Ralph Fiennes as self-taught archaeologist and astronomer Basil Brown and Carey Mulligan as the wealthy widow who owned the property that held the famous site, including the 90-foot Anglo-Saxon ship, which served as a tomb for a warrior-king… similar to that of King Tutankhamun.

The 1-hour and 52-minute movie is captivating, and builds suspense and excitement around the very culture awash in the elegies The Wanderer and The Seafarer, and even the epic Beowulf.

On the eve of World War Two, as the Sutton Hoo ship’s remains and its treasures were being unearthed on property owned by wealthy landowner Edith Pretty, many archaeologists at the time assumed the finds would date from the Viking era.

However, self-taught archaeologist and astronomer Basil Brown, the site’s excavator hired by Pretty, suspected the artifacts might be older and Anglo-Saxon. He was right… and the rest is history.

I think I’ll show The Dig’s first sixty or so minutes.

I’ve watched The Dig three times (so far) and I plan to use only the first sixty minutes of the movie with students. The film’s storyline does meander significantly from the main plot of the excavation into the “not historically accurate” professional and personal lives and loves of other on-site professional excavators.

I’ve created a viewing guide with key for The Dig. Click here for the guide.

The first sixty-six minutes contains the major moments of discovery without delving into the story’s subplot, which in my opinion, seems a little disjointed and beside-the-point to the movie. In fact, this is where the movie really starts to veer from its historical base. (Don’t you hate it when that happens?!)

Read this Roger Ebert movie review, which makes this same point here, highlighting the film’s best moments:

Told with simplicity and grace, and a sensitivity to the pastoral Suffolk landscape of wide fields and wider skies, “The Dig” is often quite thrilling, particularly in the dig’s initial phases, when it’s just Basil and Edith discussing how to proceed. 

Sheila O’Malley | rogerebert.com
Sutton Hoo helmet
The famous Sutton Hoo helmet found at the site. The Sutton Hoo collection is found in Room 41 at the British Museum. | Photo: Jim Brewin of Pixabay

Need a text as you dive into the film?

Yes, there is the 2007 novel by John Preston (nephew to one of the site’s archaeologists) by the same name that the movie is based on.

And honestly, based on this review, it sounds like a great book to add to my summer reading list, so be watching for a review later this fall.

However, for a shorter text to use in class, use Revisiting Sutton Hoo, Britain’s Mythical Ship Burial from The New Yorker to acquaint your students with the entire Sutton Hoo story.

I used this article to build an Article of the Week assignment last fall (2020) as my students were transitioning from Anglo-Saxon poetry to our Beowulf unit. The article will be a good introduction to Edith Pretty and Basil Brown and will provide your students with more archaeology background before viewing the film.

Side note: This article is an awesome “blended genre” mentor text that weaves narrative with exposition.

After the movie, take a virtual tour of the treasures.

Here’s a quick shot of Room 41 at The British Museum. Students can take a virtual tour.

Have your students visit The British Museum via Google Arts and Culture Street View to tour Room 41, where the Sutton Hoo treasures are displayed. Loads of artifacts, including the famous Sutton Hoo helmet, are presented to further ground the film in history.

Whether you add the movie, the article, or the novel to your Anglo-Saxon poetry unit, know you’ll be helping students make useful connections as they experience the foundational texts of the English language.

This fall, I’m adding more film to Brit Lit.

My goal is to pair each of the texts we study with a quality film adaptation or a film as closely related to the text as The Dig is to Anglo-Saxon poetry.

It’s no secret that adding film can strengthen a text-heavy curriculum.

“Film can be used effectively in almost every English language arts classroom and elective. For example, you can easily pair movies with literature, such as a coming-of-age movie when you’re studying Catcher in the Rye.”

Education Week article by Nancy Barile

Offering a mix of media also meets standards intended to appeal to students with different learning styles. In short, adding quality layers of media (and film is just one) can enhance and strengthen our learning.

Photo: Unsplash

Similar text and movie combos should help me better engage my Brit Lit students in many of the classic texts that have formed the foundation of Western literature.

After all, Anglo-Saxon poetry is far removed from contemporary life.

Whisperings from an ancient seaborn past, the poetry seems inaccessible to many teens. However, when you incorporate contemporary media such as The Dig, you’ll help students make connections to their lives today. As a result, they’ll more likely appreciate the insights these ancient verses offer on universal themes and concerns such as isolation, loss, and grief.

See you at the movies!

Try this new poetry lesson!

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Published by Marilyn Yung

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