I really enjoyed watching the new film The Dig in March, so I thought I would read the book it was based on – The Dig by John Preston. It is about the discovery of the Anglo-Saxon ship and treasure at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, in the summer of 1939, just before the outbreak of war. It was nice to see that the film is largely faithful to the book, and all 230 pages were a pleasure to read.
The novel is told through Basil Brown, the local self-taught archaeologist who made the discovery, Edith Pretty, the landowner of the site, and Peggy Piggott, who cuts her honeymoon short and comes with her new husband to help, when summoned by the British Museum. Basil knows Suffolk soil inside out and upside down, and advises Mrs Pretty where he should begin digging. But it turns out that her hunch that the biggest mound is the one to focus on is correct, as historical gravediggers had missed what turns out to be the centre of the ship. Basil carefully works the site, nearly suffocating in the process at one point, and then makes the magnificent discovery of the ship itself. Just when he is ready to uncover the burial chamber, the trained archeologists descend and he is forced to stop.
Edith Pretty is loyal to Basil, who has been kind to her son Robert and who clearly knows what he is doing, but she is forced to let the officials from the British Museum intervene. She is a widow with failing health and worried for the future of her son with war about to break out. Peggy, meanwhile, is beginning to realise that her marriage might have been a mistake, as her new husband shows no romantic interest in her at all, and she finds herself attracted to Edith’s nephew, who has arrived to take photographs of the excavation.
This is a book that captures the marvel and excitement of uncovering a site that re-writes the history of the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, and a summer when the world is teetering on the brink of war. Reading it was as enjoyable as watching the film, and it has now put Sutton Hoo on my post-Covid travel list.