This could be the greatest story you’ve never heard of – well, it was for me until the Neflix movie version came out earlier this year. It had a terrific cast including Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes playing Mrs Pretty, owner of Sutton Hoo, and the man (Basil Brown) she hires to investigate the ancient burial mounds on her Suffolk property. The film had much going for it, including costuming that had me longing for the comfort of classic tailoring.
When I came across the book by John Preston – first published in 2007 – I was happy to revisit the story which is just so interesting. Not only did Sutton Hoo offer up a hoard of fantastic Anglo Saxon treasures: a stunning metal helmet, bowls, amulets and jewellery – a quick trip to google will show you – but it was also encased in a ninety foot ship. Of course the ship’s timber had long since rotted to nothing, so how Basil, and the archaeologists who followed, sensitively excavate the site to reveal it is a wonder.
When Basil discovers a coin the site is soon shown to date from around the seventh century AD – so not a Viking hoard, as first thought, but Anglo Saxon. Suddenly people’s opinions of the what were termed the Dark Ages were challenged. The departure of the Romans from Britain didn’t seem to herald a time of barbarism, barren of any artistic sophistication after all, if the stunning artefacts were anything to go by.
And while the reimagining of all this is enthralling enough, the characters are engaging too. We follow several viewpoints, beginning with Edith Pretty, a frail widow in her late fifties who wants to excavate the mounds before her health fails or there’s a German invasion – this is the summer of 1939. She has a young son, who’s at a loose end having lost his governess, so he chums up with Basil. We’re also in the mind of Basil who’s not an academic, but knows his soil. When the British Museum gets involved, he and Mrs Pretty are sidelined.
This creates plenty of tension and intellectual snobbery which brings in some terrific scenes and personality clashes. Also on the dig is newly married Peggy Piggott (apparently a relative of the author’s) who is helping her university professor husband. Already cracks are appearing in their marriage, and things get complicated when Edith’s young cousin, Rory, turns up on his bike with his photographic equipment.
While the film gives you the visuals to imagine the excavation site, the book adds lots of interesting detail – although the author has taken a few factual liberties, as he explains, ‘for dramatic effect’. I would recommend both for anyone who loves history and archaeology, or a cracking good story. Incidentally, John Preston is also the author of A Very English Scandal – another book on my wish list. The Dig gets a comfortable four out five from me.