In The Dig, Netflix’s hit dramatisation of the 1939 discovery of the Sutton Hoo burial ship and the treasure horde within, the first thing we notice is the sumptuous Suffolk sky (“borrowed from Terrence Malick”, the Financial Times review suggests, loftily). The second is that the film makes scraping about in a mud-filled pit look dreamily desirable.
For the first time in decades, I felt a pang for my counterfactual life and the road not taken. In this version I am an Egyptologist, travelling the world and, like The Dig’s Edith Pretty and Basil Brown, finding astonishing things in pits.
My dreams were fuelled by the Tutankhamun exhibition that reached London in a frenzy of Tut-mania in 1972. I was obsessed but deemed too young to go. I had a tie-in book as a consolation prize and pored over the photographs, not only of the splendid masks and furniture, but the moment when the entrance to the tomb was opened. Inside we see, as Howard Carter did, a room piled chaotically high with extraordinary treasures.
As Pretty (Carey Mulligan) is standing in the first tunnel at Sutton Hoo, she talks to Brown (Ralph Fiennes) about having just read Carter’s account of standing at the threshold of the pharaoh’s burial chamber, the first person to be there for thousands of years. “And he saw finger marks on the paint.”
Brown replies, “He says, ‘time lost its meaning’.” That took me, and probably countless others, back to the roots of our love of the ancient past. We seek connection, and there’s nothing better than a fresh, unmediated find — whether it’s a coin in the mud or a gold-filled tomb. We are probably the same people who love the melancholy BBC comedy Detectorists, again set in the east of England, which follows friends with metal detectors as they seek shiny things under the earth. It is also, of course, about our own lost dreams. (If you enjoyed The Dig, do give it a try.)
By 1977, when an exhibition about Pompeii had arrived at the Royal Academy, I was allowed to go. After four freezing hours in a snaking queue, we finally got inside. But the casts of people in their moment of agonised death were almost too much. I had wanted to see the recreations of the everyday lives of the town’s inhabitants. What I got was a lesson in the cruelty of fate.
Next, I wrote to the TV show Jim’ll Fix It, which made children’s wishes come true, asking to spend a day behind the scenes at the British Museum. Astonishingly (to me) I never heard back.
Later, I sent a letter to the keeper of Egyptian antiquities at the British Museum, TGH James. He wrote back that boys and girls wanting to follow him into Egyptology should ideally first study Latin and ancient Greek.
I was 10. For the next five years I was serious, undeviating — and in a bubble of incredible privilege. The only thing standing between me and my dream was proficiency in the ancient languages. I didn’t have to fret about how I might do that: Latin and ancient Greek were taught at my private school.
I hadn’t thought how out of reach this would have been for most people until I watched The Dig, which shows us all too clearly how the skill of the working class autodidact Basil Brown is disdained by the “experts”.
At 15, with all the attendant distractions, I stopped learning impossible Greek verb declensions. “I think,” said the teacher, “that if you are serious about this you have to give up two other subjects.” I was not serious about Greek.
I didn’t entirely give up on the past. The British Museum has been my solitary haunt for three decades. I know every corridor, every neglected room of old pots. “It speaks, doesn’t it, the past?” says Brown to Pretty about their shared childhood interest in archaeology.
One day soon, we will all be able to head to Great Russell Street, to listen to what the newly re-famous Sutton Hoo treasure has to tell us.