Book Reviews

Review Rating

With the October 2004 review, we began rating the books on the basis of one to four trowels; 
one trowel= don’t bother, to four trowels= run right out to your local book store and buy the hard cover!

Back to all reviews

The Dig by John Preston

Reviewed on: February 1, 2021


Other Press:  New York City
2007 (PB)

The Dig is a wonderfully conceived, elegantly written semi-fictional rendering of the 1939 discovery and unearthing of a 5th or 6th Century Anglo-Saxon ship burial in rural Suffolk, England—which became famed as the Sutton Hoo Dig.

The tale is told from the perspectives of a number of the principal characters in the unfolding drama:  Mrs. Edith Pretty, the widowed owner of Sutton Hoo House, and whose interest in the earthen mounds (barrows) on her property initiated the resulting excavations; Basil Brown, a self-taught archaeologist hired by Mrs. Pretty at the recommendation of the local Ipswich Museum committee; and Peggy Piggott, summoned, along with her husband, Stuart Piggott, by British Museum archaeologist Charles Phillips to participate in the Sutton Hoo excavation—while they are on their honeymoon!  Neither was yet thirty years of age when they joined on to the Sutton Hoo dig, but both had already acquired vast amounts of field experience and were to go on to long careers and almost legendary status among British pre-historians.

The Dig works as a fascinating historical study in so many ways.  It explores the dreams and motivations of the principal characters; it investigates the stresses and strains between and among representatives of the local, and largely amateur members of the archaeological community and the cosmopolitan denizens of the British Museum pre-historian fellowship.  Unlike many works of archaeological fiction, which often gives short shrift to the actual craft of archaeological excavation, The Dig offers a great deal of detail to the painfully exacting processes of excavation—especially the great skill of the “amateur,” Basil Brown.

In addition to the detailed description of the excavation, which ultimately unearths intricate and exquisitely crafted artifacts of gold, silver, jewelry, coinage, and even a stone-carved scepter—all hinting at a possible king’s burial—the narrative also explains, with great clarity, British laws pertaining to the ultimate disposal of the finds such as those unearthed at Sutton Hoo.  Was it the property of Mrs. Pretty, or was it a treasure trove, and therefore property of the State?

As this drama unfolds at Sutton Hoo during the summer months of 1939, a greater drama—that of the war clouds gathering over England and all of Europe, looms in the background.  In a sense, that looming reality lends even greater poignancy to the activities at Sutton Hoo.

Four trowels for The Dig—a fine work of historical fiction based on very real events!

Postscript:  Beginning January 29, 2021, Netflix will begin streaming a film, starring Ralph Fiennis, based on “The Dig.”  I have seen the trailer for the film, and it looks wonderfully done.