“Archaeology doesn’t have a great history of being a milieu people return to over and over again throughout the history of cinema,” Simon Stone says. It is not that the director of The Dig is forgetting the thrills and spills of the Indiana Jones and Lara Croft series, in which these treasure-seeking heroes spend more time up to their necks in fisticuffs and truck chases than meticulously sifting granules of earth. It is just that he, like the characters in his film, is chasing authentic goods, and viewing archaeologists at their painstaking work perhaps does not scream Friday-night entertainment.

Based on John Preston’s 2007 novel The Dig, the film focuses on the most famous archaeological excavation in Britain in modern times — the unearthing of an Anglo-Saxon burial ship at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, in 1939. Preston began to think of writing up an account in 2005, when he discovered he had a personal attachment to this moment in history.

“I was the television critic for The Sunday Telegraph and I got this letter from this woman,” he recalls. “She said she was my second cousin, once removed. I just assumed she was mad. I wrote back this rather high-handed letter, saying, ‘Well, what on earth makes you think that?’ She then wrote back an eminently reasonable letter, saying, ‘Well, because of this, this and that.’ And I thought, ‘Oh Christ, maybe she’s right.’ I met her. We got on really well, and as I was leaving her flat, she said, kind of in passing, ‘I assume you know your aunt found the first gold at Sutton Hoo?’”

From left, director of photography Mike Eley, Fiennes, and director Simon Stone on the set of The Dig.

The aunt in question was Peggy Piggott. She died in 1994, meaning no meeting was possible, but Preston was intrigued enough to research the Sutton Hoo excavation and its principal participants. What he discovered was “a treasure story for grown-ups” with a rich seam of themes: class, legacy and how the past shapes the present. He would apply a sprinkling of artistic license, truncating the timeline of the dig and adding the character of Rory Lomax, played in the film by Johnny Flynn, to offer a romantic subplot for Peggy, but “there was a good enough story there that I didn’t want to monkey around any more than I had to”.

Based on John Preston’s 2007 novel The Dig, the film focuses on the unearthing of an Anglo-Saxon burial ship at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, in 1939.

Stone’s film follows the book, which in turn adheres to real life by introducing us to Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), the wealthy widow in failing health on whose 526-acre estate the dig took place. It was Pretty who hired the self-taught Suffolk archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate the mounds that stood 500 yards from her home, Tranmer House. Although the excavation was subsequently taken over by the British Museum, Brown continued to play a key part, for which he is now recognized.

Mulligan joined the production just two weeks before shooting began, stepping in to replace Nicole Kidman when reshoots for the Fox News drama Bombshell cluttered the Australian actress’s schedule.

“The script was poetic and moving,” Mulligan tells me in a December Zoom call, a line of Christmas cards straddling a string pinned across her living room. “Edith lived this magical, adventurous, privileged upbringing. She got to travel a lot and she was very interested in archaeology from a young age. I think the dig for her represented all of that stuff that she had and that she lost, all the travel and the possibility. She can’t do that now because she has a son, and she has property and staff, and also because her body is failing her.”

The mold of the burial ship unearthed on a Suffolk hilltop, in Sutton Hoo, 1939.

Fiennes’s research included reading Basil’s notebooks, studying photos and silent archive footage, and visiting Sutton Hoo, which now possesses the infrastructure to support a roaring tourist trade, meaning the film had to be shot in Surrey. He even completed Basil’s daily 30-mile bicycle ride between the village of Rickinghall and Sutton Hoo. “On an old-fashioned bicycle it’s a five-hour cycle ride,” he says.

It was a journey of discovery through which he arrived at a humble, intelligent, diligently disciplined man, whose gift was such that it has become somewhat mythologized. “He could look at the line of a field, or could put his hand in the soil, and start to give you the history,” Fiennes says with a smile.

Playing Peggy is another British star, Lily James. “Peggy was a trailblazer,” she says. “After graduating from Cambridge [she received a diploma; women were first awarded degrees in 1948] she worked in what is still a very male-dominated field. She published countless works and worked as an archaeologist her whole life. There are brilliant photos of her, the only woman down in the mud, surrounded by men.”

Fiennes, Mulligan and even James, at 31, are all veterans of the British period drama and stand united in their admiration of The Dig because it refuses to be trapped in amber. “We were adamant from the word go that we didn’t want to make another of those supremely tasteful, rather bloodless slices of English heritage cinema,” Preston says. He feels Stone has done “a fantastic job of making a bold, resonant and affecting” adaptation of his book — to be expected, perhaps, given that he directed the 2017 production of Yerma at the Young Vic in London, starring Billie Piper, a radical reimagining that left audiences bruised and breathless.

Lily James as Peggy.

“In the original development, one of the things I pushed hardest for was it to feel like the film was about the attempt to save a part of civilization on the brink of some kind of apocalyptic moment,” Stone says. “You get the feeling that the unknowingness, the lack of any form of certainty for the future, makes people dig deeper into the past and try to hold on to some notion of the through line of how civilization has risen and fallen through moments of crisis.”

Fiennes, Mulligan and even James, at 31, are all veterans of the British period drama and stand united in their admiration of The Dig because it refuses to be trapped in amber.

In 1939 it was the Second World War; now it is the pandemic. “This is the first moment in the history of the privileged western powers since the Second World War, probably, that you can think, ‘I don’t know what the world is going to look like in ten years’ time.’”

The cast agree. “There’s great tension in the film and a sense of impending doom as the war looms ever closer,” James says. “I found it very moving, as you watch these characters clutching at life and trying to take hold of something meaningful in their personal lives and through their work before it’s too late.”

The notion of legacy chimed with Mulligan. It is there in her career choices (“I’m extremely fortunate to be in a position where I don’t have to work all the time, so I can do things I really feel passionate about”) and in how she chooses to spend time with her family.

Johnny Flynn as Rory Lomax.

“We live in the country and we planted some trees,” she says, smiling. “And a couple of years ago I was walking in the woods with my husband and I said, ‘These trees are looking great. They’re going to be massive soon.’ He went, ‘Well, we won’t ever see them fully grown, but the kids will.’ That for sure resonated, and a huge amount of Edith’s journey is figuring out what world she’ll leave behind her, because she knows she’s on the way out.”

“I was terribly moved [by the script] because it transcended social divisions,” Fiennes says, pointing out that England is still “very badly hobbled” by its obsession with class. “I mean, their common purpose was excavating this ship. You could write an essay that it’s a symbol of the nation, or it’s a symbol of the life that had gone before. We are drawn to these emblems of the past. They help us to have a sense of purpose, a sense of existence.”

A sense of purpose that viewing The Dig might also kindle, according to Preston. “I would hope so. I mean, the message of the film is very much: there is a continuity between our own most distant ancestors and ourselves, and it’s the same with humanity. Whether we like it or not we are a part of that. People might take some consolation from that — the sense that we are perhaps not quite as alone as we may think we are.”

The Riches of Sutton Hoo

In the British Museum you can see cases full of the treasures found in the Sutton Hoo ship burial. These were items designed to confirm the status and wealth of the departed one, thought to be the 7th-century leader Raedwald of East Anglia. Some are practical — bowls, drinking horns, spoons, a lyre, coins, a cooking pot and its chain — but there are also beautifully crafted ones, such as the ringmail coat, shield bosses and a helmet.

An Anglo-Saxon helmet from the ship burial site discovered at Sutton Hoo. From the British Museum.

The latter was found in many pieces, but its shards were used to recreate a new version for the British Museum displays. Perhaps the loveliest items are the ornamental ones — belt hasps, a purse lid — worked in intricate cloisonné from gold and blood-red garnet, and patterned with the familiar intertwined snake designs of the Celtic tradition. All is of the highest quality, made by a master craftsman.

The ship’s oak timbers — and its occupant — had long since rotted by 1938-39, but a “ghost ship” could be discerned from imprints in the soil and the original was reconstructed. It was almost 90 feet long, and 14 feet across at its widest, with room for some 40 men at the oars. It is reckoned the shape of the mound it created, under tons of earth, would have been an imposing sight to anybody who sailed into Woodbridge.

For the world of the Sutton Hoo ship burial at its most accessible, try Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, the great 8th-century epic poem about the leader from over the seas in Geatland (part of Sweden), who defeats the monster Grendel and his equally terrifying mother, but falls foul of a dragon and ends up under another such burial mound.

Jamie Graham is a film writer, and is an editor at large for Total Film

The Dig is on Netflix beginning January 29