The real story behind Netflix’s archaeological drama ‘The Dig’, and four more artefact-hunting films to uncover

As the discovery of one of Britain’s most important archaeological finds gets given the small screen treatment, we dig up 5 films with excavation at their core

Netflix's latest original, 'The Dig', tells the story of the excavation of Anglo-Saxon burial mounds in eastern England in the 1930s, which yielded one of the country's most fascinating archaeological discoveries. Courtesy Netflix
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When it comes to archaeology, Hollywood has always felt the need to inject plenty of excitement into what is, in real life, a long, laborious job. That's why in The Mummy, we don't just see Rick and his pals scratching about in the soil in the hopes of coming across a papyrus scroll or two, but rather we're treated to pestilence, plagues and the rising up of an undead army hellbent on revenge.

But while Netflix's The Dig doesn't disturb anything untoward beneath the English countryside, the slow burn of the priceless sixth-century treasures to be found while the threat of World War II looms across the Channel, makes for a fascinating insight into how the famous Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon artefacts came to be discovered.

Here are five archaeology-based films to enjoy, from the factual to the flights of fancy…

‘The Dig’

Netflix takes a slow approach to this archaeology drama, which is based on true events. In a very “Best of British” casting move, Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, Lily James and Ben Chaplin all star in this tale of the ancient artefacts that were discovered on the land of the real-life Edith Pretty (played by Mulligan) in the 1930s.

Intrigued by the mounds of land across her country estate in Sutton Hoo, eastern England, Pretty enlists the help of local amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (Fiennes) to excavate them.

Pretty soon, Brown unearths a literal treasure trove from what turned out to be Anglo-Saxon burial mounds dating back to the sixth and seventh centuries. Discovered on the land (and to be found today in the British Museum) are, among other treasures, a ceremonial helmet, gold and gem-inlaid dress fittings, shield, sword, lyre and a silver plate from the Byzantine Empire. And, most impressive of all, a full-size burial ship.

Word soon gets out, and archaeologists from all over the world, including Stuart and Peggy Piggott (Ben Chaplin and Lily James), descend, against the backdrop of the looming Second World War.

‘Indiana Jones’

There's no point picking just one Indiana Jones movie to flag up, because, let's face it, they're all about archaeology. Harrison Ford has so far donned the fedora four times as the moonlighting Marshall College professor, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, Last Crusade and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in the 1930s and 1950s-set franchise.

And no other films have been as responsible for making archaeology – a job largely consists of laying in the dirt brushing aside more dirt – this exciting.

‘Lara Croft’

Lara Croft started life as a video game character and has been portrayed by Angelina Jolie in the original two films, and Alicia Vikander in the 2018 reboot.

Although her first origins story portrayed her as a big-game hunter and master thief, her second backstory, and the one which has stuck, has her as the daughter of famed archaeologist, Lord Richard Croft, Earl of Abingdon.

With archaeology at the heart of all three films – obtaining ancient artefacts from the Illuminati in the first, Pandora’s Box in the second and excavating the chamber of the mythical Queen of Yamatai in the third – Croft’s interest in the art of discovery is due to witnessing her mother vanish after tampering with an ancient sword in a Nepalese temple, at the age of 9.

‘The Mummy’

With many sequels and spin-offs to whet the appetite of archaeology fans and monster hunters, the 1999 film sees Brendon Fraser’s American adventurer, Rick O’Connell, guide British brother and sister Jonathan and Evelyn Carnahan (John Hannah and Rachel Weisz) through ancient Egypt in 1926.

As two competing teams of archaeologists and treasure-hunters battle to be the first to excavate the city of Hamunaptra, as she searches for the golden Book of Amun-R, Evelyn stumbles upon Imhotep's remains, as the American team discover the black Book of the Dead, and jars of Anck-Su-Namun's preserved organs.

Pretty soon, the 10 plagues of Egypt are being rained down again.


From director Richard Donner, the man responsible for the quasi-archaeological treasure hunt classic, The Goonies, this 2003 film follows a group of archaeologists who are whisked back to 1357.

Based on Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton's 1999 novel, the film follows Professor Edward Johnston (Paul Walker) as he leads an archaeological study of the village of Castlegard, near La Roque Castle in Dordogne, France.

He and his team, including Gerard Butler, Billy Connolly and Anna Friel, find a sarcophagus containing the remains of a French knight and his lady.

When Johnson returns to the US, his students discover a pair of his glasses and a note begging for help – the twist being that both are found to be more than 600 years old.

Pretty soon, it's time for the team to get their Outlander heads on and journey back in time to rescue him.


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