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Brighton and The Dig

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A new film on Netflix, The Dig, tells the story of the excavation of the Great Ship Burial at Sutton Hoo. The film is based on the novel of the same title by John Preston, the nephew of Peggy Piggott, one of the archaeologists who worked on the excavation.

Although The Dig is set in Suffolk, at least three of the characters depicted in the movie had strong links with Brighton. Local History & Archaeology curator Dan Robertson explains more.

Who’s who

Postcard image of school buildings on hill

Roedean School, early 1900s

Edith Pretty (née Dempster) (1883-1942) is played by Carey Mulligan. As reported in The Argus, Edith went to Roedean School between 1894 and 1899. I like to think that some school trips were made to Brighton Museum back then. The lumps and bumps on the surrounding Downs might have inspired some interest in archaeology too. A few skeletons were excavated from the vicinity in the 1920s and 30s.

Peggy Piggott (née Preston, later Guido) (1912-1994) is played by Lily James. A student of the archaeologist Dr Mortimer Wheeler (1890-1976), Peggy assisted Dr Eliot Cecil Curwen (1865-1950) on the third season of excavations at Whitehawk Camp in 1935 alongside her peers Miss Leslie Scott, Miss V Seton-Williams and Mr Bernard Sturdy.

Peggy was pictured in the the Brighton Herald newspaper on 30 November 1935. The accompanying article mentions that sherds from the excavation ‘are now being examined by an expert, Miss Preston, at the Brighton Library, in the hope that out of the hundreds of small pieces complete vessels may be reassembled.’ (see Brighton & Hove Archaeological Club’s cuttings scrapbook (1928-1939), p10).

Peggy’s ‘valuable service’ is also noted by Dr Curwen in his report on the excavations. The library at the time was located across parts of Brighton Museum and the Dome. It is quite likely that the vessels acquired by Brighton Museum were reconstructed by Peggy. In 1949, Peggy published a report on the Late Bronze Age hoard from Black Rock in Brighton. The hoard is on display in the Elaine Evans Archaeology Gallery.

Stuart Piggott (1910-1996) is played by Ben Chaplin. According to Roger Mercer’s paper on Stuart published by the British Academy, Dr Eliot Curwen (1865-1950) was an ‘important figure of the old school who was to influence Piggott’. Stuart’s ‘interest and energetic expertise in the analysis of Neolithic pottery’ saw Dr Curwen and his son, Eliot Cecil Curwen, invite him to participate in their excavation of The Trundle near Goodwood in 1928. Stuart and Peggy met on this excavation and crossed paths again while studying at the Institute of Archaeology from 1935 to 1936. Stuart reviewed the pottery from the second and third seasons of excavations at Whitehawk. The two were married on 12 November 1936.

Dan Robertson, Curator of Local History & Archaeology