Thursday, March 31, 2016
The Dig by John Preston
This beautifully composed short novel by John Preston may be most notable for its simplicity and understatement. In restrained tones that recall J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, we are treated to Edith Pretty, aged and wealthy owner of Sutton Hoo estate, who determines to discover if there is anything inside the earthwork mounds that dot her riverside Suffolk property. It is 1939 and the threat of a German invasion is everywhere discussed.
Preston’s fiction would be wonderful even if it didn’t describe a real event: the discovery in 1939 of an Anglo-Saxon burial ship for a king, long turned to sand, containing jewels and helmets, coins and gold trinkets, silver bowls and implements. When it was discovered, the find redefined Britain’s Dark Ages for what it showed of human capability and development.
That the author John Preston is rumored to be related to at least one of the characters in the real-life drama just makes the novel more intriguing. The Epilogue of the novel gives the viewpoint of the heir to Sutton Hoo estate many years later, who at the time of the discoveries was a young boy. He has the distance of many years from which to view events at that time and his thoughts on the “fragile shell” of a turned-to-sand body discovered in a pit nearby the hull of the ship makes us feel the churn of history, even the personal histories of individuals, very keenly.
Britain’s Tutankhamun. Many historical societies and university departments vied for the opportunity to manage the dig, shouldering one another aside until a court decision put ownership of the find squarely in Edith Pretty’s hands.
Just two weeks before British involvement in World War II, Edith Pretty donated the find to the British Museum, making her the largest donor in history. Now artifacts from the find are beautifully displayed in the British Museum, giving resonance and meaning to life at the time of Beowulf.
Further information on the find can be found in the these links:
Archeology Society of Sutton Hoo
Sutton Hoo page of The National Trust
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