The Dig

The Dig by John Preston is a character driven gem of a novel. Here’s what I said about it on my Goodreads page:

In the summer of 1939, on the eve of WWII, an astonishing archaeological find is made on a farm in Suffolk, England. This is a fictional recreation of the Sutton Hoo dig, and my personal archaeologist assures me that the details Preston uses to describe the dig are credible. But really, the book is a character study, the story being told thru different viewpoints and it is done very, very well. Not for those who want a thrilling, fast-moving plot, but I loved this one.

I was aware that the Sutton Hoo dig and ship burial was a real thing, but this book didn’t leave me feeling like I knew any more facts after reading it than before. I actually wasn’t even curious about it until I started writing this post. I checked it out on google and Wikipedia, mostly just to see if the characters in the book were real people. Not only were the people real, but the author is the nephew of Peggy Piggott, one of the archaeologists on the dig and one of the “voices” of the book. Wikipedia was a far better source of information about Sutton Hoo than The Dig.

The Sutton Hoo Helmet, photo from Wikipedia.

Here’s the thing. I can only assume that Preston wasn’t trying to write a Wikipedia entry on the Sutton Hoo ship burial, that he was trying to write about people. And what an interesting group of people! Basil Brown was a local, self-taught archaeologist who first undertook the excavations on the property of Edith Pretty. Pretty was a widow with a young son named Robert. She and her late husband had often wondered about the mounds on their property, but it was the threat of war that made Edith decide to hire someone to investigate. When word of the findings got out, a more professional team of archaeologists was brought in, including Stuart Piggott and his new wife. Peggy Piggott was trying to prove herself in a profession dominated by men and well as embracing her life as a woman and wife.

The book wasn’t a lot of things. It wasn’t a scholarly work about the Sutton Hoo ship burial. It wasn’t a biography. It didn’t even really read as historical fiction. It wasn’t an adventure or a mystery or anything more than a simple story. Still, if you don’t ask this book to be all those things that it isn’t, it is sure to exceed your expectations. What can I say? This is my kind of book and I gave it 5 stars.

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