By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

By the Book #33 – The Dig by John Preston

Archaeology teaches us about the past, and about ourselves. So what does a book about archaeology teach us? Let's find out.

Are you one of those people who gets hopelessly excited when they read about a new archaeological find? I am. Whenever I read about a new Grecian urn that has been unearthed, or a home in Pompeii that has recently been excavated, I want to know all about it. Therefore, The Dig by John Preston, a novel that combines facts and fiction about one of the biggest archaeological finds in the United Kingdom ever, made me very happy indeed. Want to know what it’s about? Read on!

The Dig is the novelisation of the real events which took place at the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial excavation in Surrey, England, on the eve of the Second World War. Edith Pretty, a widowed and sickly landowner, hires self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown, because she wants to know what’s inside of the mounds at her lawn. When Brown discovers that there might be remnants of the ancient Anglo-Saxon culture hidden there, his work might have consequences for the entire country.

Let’s take a look at the facts first. Archaeology comes from the Greek words archaia, which means “ancient things”, and logos, which means “theory” or “science”. Quite literally, then, archaeology is the science of ancient things, and through it we find out more about how people lived in the past. The excavation at the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial is seen as one of the most important English finds ever, because hardly anything was known about Anglo-Saxons before it.

Most importantly, archaeologists found that the Anglo-Saxons, the early inhabitants of England before they were called British, had their own rich culture after the Romans left in the fifth century. The treasure that was found inside of the remains of a ship (only its outline was still visible) is thought to belong to King Raedwald, and it consisted of a belt buckle, a shield, a helmet, and beautiful jewellery – amongst other things. Since many of these artefacts were from distant countries, its discovery taught the world much about the Anglo-Saxons’ wealth and trading skills, as well as their culture.

Archaeology is not just about the past, since it can change the way in which we view our own society, too. I always like to think of the Britons as a people who are quite fond of their traditions, and quite proud of their heritage. The Sutton Hoo excavation reinforced the idea that great civilisations have always walked the sacred earth of the United Kingdom; the Anglo-Saxons, with their gold and their rich culture, showed that they were worthy to be part of the ancient British heritage. The British, then, must have been pleased to have descended from such a glorious society. It should come as no surprise that the Sutton Hoo treasure remains one of the most popular exhibition at the British Museum.

Another aspect that archaeology can uncover is the way our current society works, and this is what The Dig is really about. As soon as word was spread that there might be a huge find at Sutton Hoo, national experts took over. Basil Brown was called an amateur archaeologist, despite having been employed at a local museum for years. He simply had not been educated at either Oxford or Cambridge and was therefore considered incompetent. In fact, when the treasure was first available for the public, Brown’s name wasn’t even mentioned. Somehow his fame was buried at Sutton Hoo, and novelists like John Preston finally set the matter right. And Brown was not the only one who didn’t get the credits she deserved, for Peggy Piggott, wife of famous archaeologist Stuart Piggott, was the first person who found gold at the excavation site, but her name was hardly mentioned.

In short, archaeology teaches us so much, both about the past, but also about the present, and is all about facts. Literature, however, is not. While The Dig is based on real events, John Preston changed up dates and combined certain events, for, as he calls it in his author’s note, “dramatic effect”.  The Dig consists of several chapters, each with their own narrator; down-to-earth (if you’ll pardon the pun) Mr Brown, spiritual Mrs Pretty, and inexperienced Peggy Piggott. Each of the characters is used to emphasise a particular aspect of the dig and its consequential events. It should be noted that Peggy Piggott was born Cecily Margaret Preston – and no, that’s not a coincidence. It almost feels like John Preston was determined to give his aunt a voice she had never been allowed to have before.

I like to think that The Dig is a loving tribute to an important historical event that took place ninety years ago. It is a quintessentially English novel with quintessentially English characters, and I loved reading it. Some aspects may have been made up, but I don’t really mind. Archaeology is about discovering who we are through the past, while authors can use those facts as a blueprint for their own work, and through it. Architecture is about digging into the soil, while literature digs into the soul.

What did you think of The Dig? Did you see the Netflix film? If you could be an archaeologist, where would you start digging? Do let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book-related posts!

I bet that neither the Anglo-Saxons burying their ship nor the archaelogists excavating it looked like this…

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