The Dig

by John Preston

Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson

The Dig is an understated, convincing novel about the 1939 excavation of the large Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo, England. The mounds at Sutton Hoo, too prominent and regularly shaped to be natural features of the flat coastal plain of east Sussex, had since medieval times been rumored to hold treasure. They were not, however, necessarily intact: rabbits tunneled through the soil, treasure-hunters had dug into the mounds, and centuries of farming had disturbed the site.

Edith Pretty, the wealthy widow who owned the Sutton Hoo property, decided on the eve of World War II to mount an excavation. Archaeology in the 1930s was a scholarly professional discipline, but had not yet developed the technical expertise it would reach in later decades; it existed alongside amateur efforts that might match or exceed the quality of museum-directed excavations. Mrs. Pretty hired a self-taught archaeologist, Basil Brown, released from his employment by the nearby Ipswich Museum to take on the job, and assisted by Mrs. Pretty's gardener and two other workers on her estate.

Instead of telling a glamorous tale of gold and treasure, The Dig focuses on portraying the people who, sometimes carefully, sometimes carelessly, uncovered a remarkable find that revolutionized historians' understanding of seventh-century Anglo-Saxon England. They're distinct individuals: Mrs. Pretty, a woman in her fifties, and her nine-year-old son; the farmer-turned-archaeologist Basil Brown; a Cambridge professor who takes over the dig even though he is too fat to work in the ship's delicate remains; and the mismatched newlyweds he recruits to do the actual work. There's humor here, along with human feelings all the more moving because of the subtlety of their portrayal. Though The Dig is fiction with some unspecified changes made "for dramatic effect," the author has researched his subject deeply and well. Readers interested in the challenges of archaeology in the wet farming country of coastal England will not want to miss this novel. (2007; 259 pages)

More about The Dig at Powell's Books or

Other novels about archaeology:

Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth (2009), about a British archaeologist in Mesopotamia in 1914, as a looming world war makes the area's oil reserves of intense political interest. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Sunbird by Wilbur Smith (1972), about an archaeological dig that uncovers the remains of a 2000-year-old city in Botswana as the dig is threatened by modern terrorism that echoes the violence of the ancient city's destruction. More info

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters (1975), #1 in the Amelia Peabody mystery series about a nineteenth-century spinster who, on inheriting a fortune, indulges her desire to travel to Egypt, where she matches wits with an archaeologist. More info

Nonfiction about the Sutton Hoo burial:

Treasures from Sutton Hoo by Gareth Williams (2011), with color illustrations. More info

Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings by Martin Carver (1998). More info

The Age of Sutton Hoo edited by Martin Carver (1992). More info


Sutton Hoo at the U.K. National Trust website

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