I’ve been meaning to write another blog for a while now, but my past year has been an incredible mess. As you may know my mother died very suddenly short of a year ago, just as I was starting my PhD in Mainz between two waves of the pandemic. When I gained the courage to return to Germany six months later, I was suddenly rushed back to the Netherlands because my father was on the ICU in critical conditions. The doctor could not promise me that he would still be alive when I arrived that afternoon. Luckily he did and made excellent recovery (it was a bumpy ride), although several health issues came to light including colon cancer.
My father is not a person who easily goes to the doctor, but he now has several specialists and has undergone a variety of treatments, the latest of which is chemotherapy. He has become a very old man in a manner of months, and I am afraid to lose him as well. At some point however I had to decide once more to go back to Germany to salvage the remains of my PhD (only two years left to write ‘the book’). I found this decision incredibly hard, but here we are.
Films, that is what I wanted to talk about.
Recently I have been watching a number of films loosely related to archaeology, or more accurately, ‘digging up the past’. This includes palaeontology (‘Sweet, you’re an archaeologist. What are you digging up, dinosaurs?’) and the more ephemeral digging up of memories. Here goes.
I was a bit afraid to watch the film Luxor (2020), because that is where I always went with my mother, who was thriving pain free in the warm desert climate. She loved it there. She wanted to winter there (which we sort of did, for a month, on our last visit). She wanted her ashes to be scattered there. But that is a story for another time.
In the film, we follow British aid worker Hana taking a break from her work in the Middle East, which seems to have given her a bit of PTSD. She wanders about, seemingly aimlessly, staying at the Winter Palace (someone’s got funds!) and later at the Marsam Hotel on the West Bank (a more affordable, sensible choice). She meets an Old Boyfriend, who for some reason has never maried and produced children (is he really Egyptian?), and hangs out with Salima Ikram, who shows her around the Valley of the Kings. The goal is to go to Abydos, a city north of Luxor where the splendid temple of Seti I stands, and which is often visited by the more ethereal of us. At some point she meets with a local Egyptian soothsayer. Just when she is convinced she indeed needs to go to Abydos, the film ends rather abruptly. I’m waiting for part two, titled ‘Abydos’.
Also last year Ammonite (2020) came out, a film about 19th century palaeontologist Mary Anning, who hunted fossils on the Dorset coast. Against the backdrop of stormy weather and the muddy cliffs of Lyme Regis, Mary (Kate Winslet with a larger nose) is portrayed as a rather masculine character with disregard for decorum (and basic hygiene for that matter), autistic character traits and a loveless mother. At the beginning of the film, Anning’s major discovery of the almost complete skeleton of an Ichthyosaurus was already displayed at the British Museum, however attributed to another, male naturalist.
The story focuses mostly on Mary’s friendship/speculative relationship with Charlotte Murchison (sweet Saoirse Ronan), who stayed in Lyme for a couple of weeks to become a good practical fossilist, by working with the celebrated Mary Anning of that place (her words). Although we do not have clear sources for this part of Mary’s biography, we do know that she was not accepted by the scientific community because of her gender and social background. Retrospectively however she was acknowledged as one of the most influential scientists of her time, contributing to a new understanding of prehistoric life and the history of the earth. She herself died of breast cancer aged 47.
It’s not a very uplifting film but the landscape, soundscape and terrible English coastal weather are visualized very vividly. As are the gruff manners of Mary, the naive sweetness of Charlotte and cold heartlessness (grief, ’tis grief after all) of the mother.
The Dig (2021) came out this year, and is based on the excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial. It follows the shy self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) who digs up the land of Edith Pretty, certain there is something to be found in the mound on her backyard. Indeed it turns out to contain the richest medieval grave in Europe, including a 27m long ship, silverware and the iconic mask. What is nice about the film is that it is not focused on the treasure, but on the digging itself, with collapsing trenches (bad archaeology!), mud and bureaucratic hassle.
It is a pretty, atmospheric, very British films with a few love entanglements, some perhaps more fictional than others, and of course the looming war. In my memory it’s all a bit khaki and sepia.
But my favourite film about ‘digging’ has to be The English Patient (1996), based on the book by Michael Ondaatje. I already enjoyed the book, but that film… With a much younger and darker looking Ralph Fiennes (as flamboyant Hungarian explorer László Almásy), unfortunately deformed by a hideous accident for half of the film, and his larger than life love affair set against sweeping deserts, war-torn Italy and glamorous Cairo. Yes sir. It features desert exploration, early aviation and the incredible Cave of Swimmers, hidden deeply within the Gilf Kebir near the border with Libya. I obviously cried my eyeballs out at the end.
Do you have any favourite films about digging? Leave your suggestions in the comments below!