I’ve recently had the opportunity of getting to know some wonderful people at St Clement’s Church here in Cambridge. Since the first Covid lockdown in March of last year, they have been publishing a daily newsletter as a way of forging community in spite of being so physically distant from each other. I was honored to contribute a short reflection on the new Netflix film The Dig a few days ago, and have included it here in its entirety.
A few days ago, when I should have been reading Sidney’s sonnets like a Good English Student, I started watching the recently released Netflix film The Dig instead. The film beautifully tells the story of the excavations set in motion by Edith Pretty and led by Basil Brown at Sutton Hoo, the famous burial site in Suffolk that unearthed a treasure of Anglo-Saxon artefacts. I admittedly knew far too little of the story myself, and so for me there was a personal layer of discovery to the experience as well.
There is much to be said about this film, and thankfully there are others doing so who are far more qualified to speak of it than I am. Still, one of the central ideas running through it is the commonality of experience we all share, that as members of the same human family we are all bound up together – not just across neighborhoods, cities and countries, but temporally as well, stretching all the way back to the distant past. And so, I too am invited into this conversation, along with you all.
For me, the film was a powerful experience, unearthing much that I have puzzled over for a long time; questions of our relationship to the past, what Chesterton would refer to as “the democracy of the dead.” And so, what is that relationship? What is it that we owe to the past? What are the many ways we are lashed to it, and we to our distant futures? What, really, are these threads of laughter, joy, suffering, culture, love and war – to name a few – that bind us together across time? These are the kinds of questions that we have all pondered, I suspect, and the film presents them to us once again: questions asked on the verge of a second World War, and asked again in this time of global suffering and disease.
Naturally, the film is concerned with death and what the ending of our own particular lives means to us and those around us. Many of the characters, in one way or another, are forced to reckon with their own mortality. “We die and we decay,” Pretty says through her tears to Brown in one scene, “we don’t live on.” “I’m not sure I agree,” Brown responds in his quiet way. “From the first human handprint on a cave wall, we’re part of something continuous. So, we don’t really die.”
As Brown’s response suggests, one of the more compelling features of this story is not only what it has to say about the past, but what it implies about our future as well. This tension plays out on the screen, coming to life even in the way scenes are edited. At many points we see a particular visual moment, but dialogue and sounds bleed into it from other moments – we wonder briefly whether we are hearing a conversation taking place in the past, or one yet to unfold. Sometimes this remains unresolved. The words and images are perhaps artefacts from the past, or artefacts still to be born. The Dig, in both obvious and hidden ways then, recalls for me a great truth: all is woven together with a thread we cannot comprehend, yet sometimes catch brief glimpses of.
Watching the film reminded me of a day a few weeks ago, when I raced a late afternoon sun across Cambridge on my way to visit Castle Mound, hoping to catch the sun as it set in the west. As an American fascinated by anything older than two hundred years, I had heard much about this mound and its remarkable history. I wanted to watch the sun drop below the horizon from the hilltop, like so many others had done since the time of the Romans. As I began climbing the hill, still unsure of where the mound was precisely, I passed a break in the buildings lining the road – there, suddenly, up and away to my right, was the mound atop the hill. In that brief flash, a jolt of energy, a kind of ancient presence filled with the memory of countless people long forgotten, ran through me with a thrill.