While pursuing an anthropology minor in college—because if the whole journalism thing doesn’t work out, why not fall back on an industry with even fewer job prospects?—I ended up taking an archaeology course. The professor, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Larry David, was a bit of a curmudgeon, and he wasted no time dispelling our pop-culture-inspired ideas of what archaeologists do in the field. On the first day, he repeatedly stressed that real archaeologists don’t live out their days like Indiana Jones, and, well, no shit. If archaeologists were constantly hunting down the Holy Grail or discovering ancient alien civilizations, it’d probably make the news.
But in the professor’s defense, the Indiana Jones effect is tangible: Since the 1980s, the franchise has been a boon for real-world interest in the field of archaeology. Indy’s ability to find adventures around the globe—while somehow also juggling his duties as an archaeology professor—is an undeniable part of the character and the franchise’s appeal. But there’s also the simple fact that Indiana Jones is hot. Through a combination of Harrison Ford’s innate movie-star charm, his legal obligation to expose part of his chest, and the fact that he spends a good amount of screentime punching Nazis in the face, Indy doesn’t just make archaeology seem cool: he makes it sexy. And he’s not alone. If there’s a throughline in pop culture’s interpretation of archaeologists, it’s that it’s apparently the sexiest profession on the planet.
Indy aside, we also have the 1999 The Mummy reboot’s Evelyn Carnahan, the impetus for countless millennial crushes on Rachel Weisz; the subtly named Benjamin Franklin Gates in the National Treasure franchise, played by a dialed-down but still winsome Nicolas Cage (if thinking Nic Cage is attractive is wrong, I don’t wanna be right!); multiple big-screen incarnations of Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider video games, courtesy of Angelina Jolie and the physical embodiment of CrossFit, Alicia Vikander; and even sticking to video games proper, there’s the Nathan Fillion-esque Nathan Drake of the Uncharted series, a character who’s a whip away from being Indiana Jones copyright infringement. (Nathan Drake will soon be getting his own long-awaited movie adaptation, with Tom Holland taking on the lead role.) If the history of on-screen archaeologists is anything to go by, then the new Netflix film The Dig would be a swashbuckling adventure that confirms digging for artifacts is apparently nature’s Viagra. (More on that in a second.)
While it isn’t necessarily surprising that Hollywood has made all these characters appealing—the entertainment industry is largely filled with conventionally attractive people—the feeling is heightened because archaeology in the hands of filmmakers is as fictitious as it is thrilling. The aforementioned characters have defeated Nazis, taken on ancient mummies, stolen the Declaration of Independence, and know how to handle themselves in a fight and/or shootout. It’s a recipe that forms into a unified theory for pop-culture archaeologists: there’s no way they can’t be sexy. If you based everything you know about the field from what you saw on the big-screen, then you’d assume all actual archaeologists are hot.
But as far as archaeology-related cinema goes, The Dig seems downright ambitious because it’s so understated. For starters, the movie’s archaeological pursuits are rooted in actual history. Adapted from John Preston’s 2007 novel of the same name, The Dig begins near the precipice of World War II and tells the true story of Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), a wealthy widow in Suffolk, England, who hires local excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to investigate the raised mounds on her property. (Basil is so blue-collar that he prefers to be called an excavator instead of an archaeologist.) The dig ultimately leads to the discovery of a 7th century Anglo-Saxan burial ship, a significant breakthrough in understanding cultural practices during the Dark Ages.
Hopefully it goes without saying, but there’s no shootouts or ancient cursed artifacts to be found in The Dig—the closest thing there is to a moment of peril is when Basil briefly gets submerged in a bunch of dirt. (Which still looks terrifying, mind you.) Fiennes certainly imbues Basil with some rugged charm, but his dynamic with Edith isn’t romantic so much as two like-minded individuals forming a kinship that transcends antiquated barriers of class and gender. The most inaccurate thing about the setup is the fact that Mulligan, 35, is playing a woman who was in her 50s at the time of the discovery.
The Hollywood-y embellishments of The Dig don’t really kick into gear until the second half of the movie, when Basil and Edith’s findings gain national interest and an archaeological team from the British Museum is dispatched to the site. That team includes a newly married couple, Stuart (Ben Chaplin) and Peggy Piggott (Lily James), whose relationship is deprived of physical affection. Peggy then forms a romantic attachment with Edith’s cousin, Rory (Johnny Flynn), who’s photographing the excavation and will soon be joining the Royal Air Force to take on the Germans. If you’re wondering whether the Peggy-Rory romance fits the traditional Sexy Pop-Culture Archaeologist archetype, I’ll remind you that Lily James has literally played Cinderella.
But by the standards of Hollywood’s past archaeologists, The Dig might as well belong on the History Channel—and that’s not a bad thing. Besides, the romantic entanglements in the film do serve a larger purpose. The excavation of the ship shows how an ancient civilization preserved and commemorated the life of someone who was clearly an important figure. Life is fleeting—Rory is heading off to war and may never return; Edith suffers from a vague but terminal illness—and not all our memories and experiences will be left to be discovered in the dirt.
For the most part, Hollywood is gonna keep doing what Hollywood does best: sensationalize the profession with archaeologists uncovering tombs and stopping convoluted schemes of global domination, and looking damn good while doing it. Why fix what isn’t broken? (The Indiana Jones trilogy is perfect, and we’re so thankful they never made a fourth co-starring the kid from Even Stevens.) But The Dig is still worth admiring, and its wistful message is one I expect would make my curmudgeonly former professor breathe a sigh of relief: finally, a movie that digs into what archaeology can really be about.