Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Dig by John Preston

Paperback, 272 pages Published April 5th 2016 by Other Press (first published May 3rd 2007)

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.

I read the novel not knowing of the truth of the matter, and was completely captivated by Preston’s characterizations and narrative arc. The pace of his story allows us to meditate on themes he does not explicitly state: the impermanence of life and the pathos inherent in missed opportunities for a long and life-giving love.

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.

As a novel, this is an exquisite gem. As a fictionalized version of an important archeological discovery, it is a must-read. At the time, the discovery was hailed as 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:
Encyclopedia Britannica
Archeology Society of Sutton Hoo
Sutton Hoo page of The National Trust

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  1. A wonderful docent was so excited to show us this magnificent mask and other finds at the British Museum last year! If Val and I take another UK study abroad in '17, this book would be a great read for students (would covers some history/culture of both antiquity/classical and 20th C.) before we toured this exhibit again.

    1. Well, this book does not go into the history, but it does give one some of the excitement of discovery. One becomes interested in the history when one realizes how representatives of different groups strove to take over the dig so as to get recognition for their own organizations. It is a small story about a big event.