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The Dig by John Preston

The Dig (2007)

by John Preston

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1992059,063 (3.69)22
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Historical fiction account of the archeological findings at Sutton Hoo, England, just before the start of WWII.
Well written, with description of excavation and findings in dig. ( )
  sogamonk | Jul 8, 2017 |
This is a neatly written little novel about the discovery and excavation of an Anglo Saxon ship burial in Suffolk in 1939. While understated narration is nice, honestly I think something should happen in a novel. I don't get enough of any characters' story or decisions to figure out what the author is getting at. ( )
  kaitanya64 | Jan 3, 2017 |
The Dig operates on two layers, the surface story about the discovery of Sutton Hoo, and a subtle layer of deep time peeking through the surface. I am a lover of Medieval history and found the book to be engaging - even though little is said about 7th England, it still feels present like the dead in a graveyard. Small details such as when the silver bowl is uncovered and the sun glints from its edge - Preston doesn't say "for the first time 1500 years", but it suggests the same sun at the same place years ago, time collapsed into the present. The literary allusions are subtle but if you look for them, like carefully sweeping away the surface layer for treasure, the book rewards. This sense of shifting history is all the more pronounced as the dig took place in 1939 at the start of WWII, we are stepping back in time twice. Although not entirely accurate, Preston takes some leeway with inconsequential details, this is a wonderfully well done retelling of the real people and events surrounding one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time. ( )
  Stbalbach | Jun 16, 2016 |
This is a fictionalized account of the excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial in southern England on the outbreak of World War II. It's told from the perspective of 3 characters: the landowner, Edith Pretty; Basil Brown, the first, amateur archaeologist to begin the dig; and Peggy Piggott, a young woman who's just been married to an archaeologist who is called in to help once the professionals take over. Peggy's perspective chapter was absolutely wonderful, but the rest didn't fit together well for me. Her reflections on the finding of the beautiful artifacts, war, nature, and the human dimension are sublime, as well as her understated one-day platonic relationship with another hanger-on of the dig. These are rendered beautifully and I got a great sense of Peggy as a person (also, the only character to whom the author has a personal relationship). The other characters were very dull, to me, and their chapters really only served to set up the context of the dig. The middle section was delightful, but I found some of the rest of this novel slow going. ( )
  sansmerci | Jun 7, 2016 |
When I was in about fourth grade, my mother gave me a 12-month subscription to the then new Random House series, All About Books. I loved All about Dinosaurs, Rocks, Rockets, The Planets, but my favorite was All About Archaeology. The idea of digging up ancient ruins fascinated me to no end. A few years later, I came across the book Gods, Graves, and Scholars by C.W. Ceram. From that day forward, I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist. I read everything I could find. I even researched colleges which had a program. But as I neared college, my plans changed, and becoming a digger faded. However, it never disappeared altogether.

When I found The Dig by John Preston, I returned to those heady days ancient Egypt, classic Greece and Troy. My graduate work at Baylor involved some study of Anglo-Saxon and Danish sites in England. I marveled at the metal work, pottery, masks, helmets, and swords found in England. I pulled a book off my shelves by Angela Care Evans, entitled The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial. I was able to see pictures – not only of the characters, but photos of many of the items described in the actual excavation. Preston’s novel is a fictionalized account of the discovery of one of the largest buried Danish ships ever found. This interesting story combined two of my favorite subjects: archaeology and English history.

John Preston is a former arts editor of the Sunday Telegraph and The Evening Standard. He lives in London. His novel has lots of dated Briticisms, since the ship was found shortly before the outbreak of World War II. The characters act and speak with some reserve, and the humor is typically dry. The owner of the land she wanted to investigate, introduces a local archaeologist, who has agreed to begin a survey of the site, to her young son, Robbie. Preston writes, “‘Robbie, […] this is Mr. Brown.’ // Mr. Brown stood up. His head came through the smoke cloud [from his pipe]. // ‘This is my son, Robert.’ […] ‘Hello there, young man.’ // Robert said nothing; he just kept staring up at him. // ‘Mr. Brown is an archaeologist,’ [she] explained. ‘He is going to have a look inside the mounds’” (11). For a moment I imagined myself as young Robert.

Preston has brought me back to the days of peering over the shoulder of Howard Carter as he broke the seals in a burial chamber and saw, for the first time in over 2,000 years, “Wonderful things” to quote Carter.

Of course, nothing like the Sutton Hoo site could be kept secret for very long, and the curator of a local museum began calling in experts from the British Museum. Brown did not want to bring anyone else into the find, but then, neither did the curator. Faster than you can say, “What ho chap. Have you got something by George?” experts from all over descended on the site. A squabble over who owned the treasures buried there arose, which took a few years to resolve. Fortunately, the courts held the property owner had first claim to everything found there. When WWII broke out, work had to be stopped at the dig for the duration, but quickly resumed after VE Day.

The Dig by John Preston is neither a big book, nor an important one. But it does demonstrate the magic one can experience from reading. It also shows how a book can take you anywhere, anytime, anyway with imagination. 5 stars

--Jim, 4/20/16 ( )
  rmckeown | May 30, 2016 |
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In the long hot summer of 1939 Britain is preparing for war. But on a riverside farm in Suffolk there is excitement of another kind. Mrs Pretty, the widowed farmer, has had her hunch proved correct that the strange mounds on her land hold buried treasure.… (more)

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