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