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AUTHOR: John Preston

PUBLISHER: Other Press

ISBN: 978-1-59051-780-2 Trade Paperback

In 1939, a few months before England was drawn into World War II, a widowed country landowner, Mrs. Pretty of Suffolk, England, decided it was time to finally hire an archeologist to investigate some hillocks on her property that might be ancient burial mounds. She contacted an acquaintance, the administrator of a nearby museum, who recommended a self-taught local, a Mr. Basil Brown, who was reputed to know absolutely everything about Suffolk soil.

Thus begins a curiously compelling fictionalized account of the dig. After reading the book, I looked up the famous Sutton Hoo dig to read about what actually happened. This book uses real names, real personalities, and real events as the basis for a lean, understated, yet fascinating novel that tries to help us know how those days must have felt.

Mr. Brown enlists the aid of Mrs. Pretty’s gamekeeper and gardener and begins the job with a couple of shovels. After several weeks of false starts, Brown finds a rivet, then another six inches away. More rivets appear along a regular line, indicating a structure of some kind. They discover that the mound contains a complete ship, which was hauled up from the nearby sound to provide a crypt for what must have been a very important person. Several other burial ships had been found in England, but none quite as big as this one.

When the scope and importance of this discovery becomes known to the museum people, a rival museum’s archeologist, Charles Phillips of Cambridge, shows up. Soon he has taken over the dig, but allows Brown to remain as an underling. Two other professionals, the newlywed Piggotts, are enlisted, and the dig progresses. They find several magnificent gold artifacts and other items of such importance as to make historians rethink their picture of the Anglo-Saxon culture in the 6th and 7th centuries. Eventually, the government gets involved and takes over the dig. Then all of it is abandoned as hostilities with the Germans commence. The site eventually becomes a military training ground with motorized vehicles, tanks, and trenching practice tearing up all but the most significant parts of the dig site.

All of the above is historical fact. How the author uses these facts to create a story that you’ll want to read makes all the difference.

Given this outline of events, personalities, and conflicts, many authors would be sorely tempted to highlight the drama of clashing personalities and turfs. It would be easy to sensationalize the importance and magnificence of the finds.

None of that happens. The story is told by several characters, starting with Mrs. Pretty as she sets things in motion. Then Basil Brown narrates with his no-nonsense rural expertise, followed by Peggy Piggott, who came in at mid-dig as a neophyte professional working with her professor husband. Never do we see through the eyes of the true professionals, who we suspect are consumed by their rivalries. Mrs. Pretty closes by telling of the inquest that determines who owns all the treasure at the end.

The narrators never descend into heated emotions; instead, we get hints of deeper feelings. We suspect that there may be marital trouble with the Piggotts. We see the autocratic, short-tempered, self-important Phillips show unexpected periods of empathy and calmness. Robbie, Mrs. Pretty’s son, is a child with hinted-at troubles that are never revealed. We are subtly encouraged to wonder about our place in history and what our artifacts may say about us millennia from now.

Although there is no overt drama, no real mystery, and none of the trappings of popular fiction, the book kept me fascinated. I actually put down a best-selling author’s thriller (also in for review) just to glance through this book when it arrived. The next thing I knew, I had finished The Dig without ever wanting to go back to that masterfully mysterious bit of pop fiction I thought I couldn’t put down. This is the real thing: a book with a compelling story, fascinating actual history, and undercurrents of emotion and thoughtfulness that will keep you in quiet contemplation for a long time.