Fixing moments in time

Raven from Sutton Hoo shield

John Preston: The Dig
Penguin 2008 (2007)

“Why don’t you tell me what made you become interested in photography?”
“I suppose it seemed a way of trying to fix moments as they went past. To try to capture them and give them some physical existence. Stop them from being lost for ever. Not that it necessarily works like that.”

Summer, 1939. Eight decades ago, with the prospect of war in the offing, a dig at the site of some mysterious mounds in Suffolk was under way. We now know that Sutton Hoo was the site of the largest ever ship burial in Britain, with the most unimaginably magnificent treasure forming the grave goods of a king of the East Angles. But when landowner Edith Pretty asked for an archaeologist to excavate the mounds nobody was prepared for what was to emerge from inside one of them, known as Mound 1.

What John Preston aimed for here was an imaginative reconstruction of those momentous events. While taking some major liberties with the timeline — sequences are occasionally telescoped — and inventing the odd individual he has nevertheless managed to conjure up a believable series of fictional accounts by key players for the novel’s backbone. In fact Diggers would be just as apt a title as The Dig has proved to be.

Why does this novel work so well? I think it comes from Preston choosing sympathetic characters to tell his story. We have Basil Brown, the part-time archaeologist who meticulously uncovered the bare bones of the ship despite the original material having rotted away. There is Mrs Pretty — a widow with spiritualist leanings — who, having initiated the dig, struggles with ill-health, with a young son born unexpectedly when she was in her late forties, and with the professional jealousies of career archaeologists when they realise Sutton Hoo’s international significance.

We also hear from Peggy, a former student and now wife of upcoming archaeologist Stuart Piggott, confused about her husband’s attitude to her but passionate about and committed to the dig. She it is who uncovers the first piece of the treasure, to her husband’s chagrin. And finally a 1965 epilogue comes from Robert Pretty who, following his mother’s death in 1942, is the one to give permission for further excavations and provide an update on all the personnel we’ve grown to know.

This is a beautifully crafted novel, drawing the reader in and allowing them to share in the ups and downs of the participants, the excitement of discoveries, the dismay when the big boys muscle in, the anxiety engendered by the crescendo of war drums. Underlying all is the sense of history, literally, being made.

Also evident, despite the apparent immediacy of the fictional first-person accounts, is a sense of transience. It’s apparent in the conversation Peggy Piggott — Margaret Guido, after her divorce and remarriage — has with Edith Pretty’s photographer nephew (who may or may not be the author’s invention) about trying to ‘fix’ moments as they go past. Preston’s novel is just such an attempt, of course, and just as unreliable as photographs can be when it comes to interpreting reality: for the camera can and does lie, whatever is said to the contrary.

And yet, as Peggy wistfully remarks, “So much of life just slips by, and with so little to show for it.” It’s what archaeology too aims to do, show a little of past life, however insubstantial that may be. And at Sutton Hoo the two ship burials (another was under Mound 2) no longer have substance: damaged by rabbits and ploughing before the dig, then — shockingly — by military training and finally, in the 1960s, by ‘total archaeology’, which removed the ghost outline to see what lay underneath.

Luckily, much has survived, due to conservation, partial reconstruction and inherent immutability: the treasures we can still see in the British Museum. These days archaeology at the site is less invasive and proceeds without the urgency brought about by war preparations. Preston’s lyrical reconstruction beautifully captures a fleeting summer before the world changed forever in September 1939.


Sutton Hoo is now owned by the National Trust: an article in Current Archaeology conveniently summarises what’s on offer for visitors at this historic site. https://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/whats-new-at-sutton-hoo.htm

18 thoughts on “Fixing moments in time

  1. Pingback: Fixing moments in time — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  2. This sounds a fascinating read. I have visited Sutton Hoo and found the family and various people involved intriguing and although a work of fiction I think this may fill some of the gaps for me. Another for my lengthy list…

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    1. Although heavily fictionalised I thought this account gave an insight into the personalities involved — accurate or not — which I found hugely engaging. I’ve read up a lot about Sutton Hoo but never been, though I have explored Ipswich and visited Snape and Aldeburgh so have an impression of the landscape. Some time…

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  3. I find that a fictionalised account of history is often the best way in for me: enough to give me context and pegs to hang facts on later and opportunities to compare the factual accounts with whatever poetic licence/liberties the novelist may have taken. This novel sounds right up my street. Noted. For a future date!

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    1. That works for me sometimes, Sandra, though sometimes I spend ages trying to track down an historical figure only to find they’re fictional, or discover that a crucial turning point in the narrative was a minor incident and had no bearing on the outcome; either, having lodged in my brain, then becomes a stumbling block for me in terms of any appreciation of the facts. But I don’t deny that fiction can greatly illuminate our understanding of the past! Still, this was a beautifully rralised novel, despite my caveats.

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  4. I remember visiting Sutton Hoo – it must have been early 1990s. There were local volunteers on hand to tell us all about the history of the dig and finds, and you could get up close to watch the archaeologists at work. Although there wasn’t actually much to see, it was fascinating.

    I really enjoyed Preston’s book when it was first published. It may be heavily fictionalised, but I found that he evoked the era so well. A lovely read and a keeper. Thank you for reminding me of it – I may just have to re-read it sooner rather than later.

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    1. Envious you’ve seen some of the archaeology in progress there, Annabel, if I had been there I’d have been hard pressed not to leave down into the trenches and do some trowelling myself! Having done much past digging (Neolithic gateway, Plantagenet earthworks, a Roman villa and an early medieval church site) I’m afraid I’d be a fish out of water now when all digs have to have a tightly constrained business plan — and quite rightly too, when excavation is at heart a destructive process.

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  5. Sounds fascinating and as if it’s been done very well. I’m always ambivalent about archaeology since it tends to destroy as much as it preserves, and especially digging up dead people seems disrespectful no matter how long it is since they died. In fact, one of the reasons I shall be cremated is because of my undying terror of Tony Robinson’s great-grandson digging up my femur and waving it about on BBC HoloVision one day while explaining how it proves I ate too much chocolate in life… 😉

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    1. I have respect for human remains, having helped excavate a few graves — though most of the skeletons had been dissolved by the acid soil — but I’m not unduly sentimental about them. I even stored part of a skull at home, along with the few finds from that dig, until specialists could examine them for the final dig report.

      As I’m irreligious I’d have no compunction about giving my body to science, or having a post mortem, but I’m conscious that family might be distressed. As for cremation, I worry about the energy it would involve and the pollution that would result. I think death is one of the great taboos in our present attitudes and that some very muddled attitudes about relics muddy the ethics of the treatment of human remains. Far more important is one’s reputation, and I think Preston gives the memory of the main characters their due in this novel.

      As for a future archaeologist excavating me, we’ll, I’d not be around to worry about that!

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      1. Hmm… I rather think that the views of the dead should be considered more important than the views of the archaeologist myself, however long ago they died. After all, if we dig up fresh corpses we call it body-snatching and send people to jail. My sister opted to donate her body to medical science and we as a family were fine with it – we simply held a memorial rather than a funeral. But that was her choice. My other sister chose to be buried, and I’d hope people of the future would allow her to stay buried. But I’m well aware that we in the don’t-dig-up-the-dead lobby have lost the argument, so I shall ensure my body does not become fodder for the archaeologists of the future… 😉

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        1. This is an issue that’ll never be resolved, I feel, one where what can be seen as cold-blooded rational arguments will never trump personal emotions (and I write as one who has strong emotional reactions to many other issues, which rational arguments can’t touch).

          And if archaeologists and other scientists don’t always agree among them themselves about the ethics of the treatment of human remains after exhumation, then there’s little hope of much rapprochement with religionists, neo-pagans (who claim to speak for those from past millennia), discrete communities with their own practices (such as ritual cannibalism of dead relatives), and those who have sincere ethical concerns. So you’ll appreciate I don’t want to enter into an argument here, and we may have to agree to disagree!

          As one with historical leanings I also know that Christians in Medieval and later Europe have not been averse to digging up graveyards and consigning bones to the charnel house in order to make room for new burials, despite the avowed belief in the resurrection of the dead. You won’t find many ancient churchyards in the UK with graves much predating the late 18th or early 19th century, for example.

          But at least Raedwald, or whoever was buried in the Sutton Hoo ship, didn’t suffer the indignity of being exhumed for display — the nature of the soil ensured nothing recoverable remained!

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  6. I remember being somewhat bewitched by Sutton Hoo when we did it at school, which makes this sound like a fabulous book. Hadn’t heard of it until now, so thank you. 🙂

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  7. I’m glad you liked this, I absolutely loved it when I read it a few years ago and I think of it very fondly. It’s such a small, quiet read and yet as you say perfectly conjures up a time – the gardener peddling off to Ipswich in such excitement and then the arrival of the ‘big boys’. It is beautifully crafted and the ending has such an air of fairness about it, I recommend it to everyone!

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    1. I’m glad you concur, Jane, it is a little understated gem of a historical novel. I sort of wish I’d come across it sooner, but am pleased that I’ve read it in a year and at a time when people’s minds are focused on the causes and consequences of the start of the last world war. All those little details, such as the gardener on his bike, bring a necessary humanity into this momentous historical discovery.

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