By John Preston
In the spring of 1939, as war threatens Europe, a wealthy widow decides to excavate a barrow on her farm in Suffolk.
It was something she and her husband, Frank Pretty, had always planned to do. But Frank died in 1934 and the world was changing. This might be her last, best chance.
In the end, that dig unearthed an 80-foot long, 1,400-year-old Anglo-Saxon burial ship and 263 precious objects. It is considered the greatest treasure ever discovered in the United Kingdom and rewrote our understanding of the Dark Ages and the Anglo-Saxons. It is known to history as the Sutton Hoo cache.
This is John Preston’s fictionalized telling of the find, which formed the basis of the Netflix film
of the same name released in February 2021. The film stars Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown, the chief excavator, and Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty.
Preston tells his story from different points of view as the dig proceeds. These include Basil Brown
, an amateur archeologist who began the work in May 1939; Mrs. Edith Prett
y, 56, who owned the land and initiated the excavation; and archeologist Peggy Piggot,
who with her husband archeologist Stuart Piggot,
joined the dig in June 1939 at the invitation of archeologist Charles Phillips
, shown as an arrogant, pompous man associated with the British Museum, who took charge of the excavation in July 1939.
The epilogue is told by Mrs. Pretty’s son, Robert, who had been a child during the excavation. He’s invited back to the dig and is able to tell the people finishing up the dig what happened to the original diggers and people involved in the dig.
Told in a low-key manner and a stately pace, the unveiling of the ship takes center stage. In reality there is no ship; there is only the impression left of the ship after the wood that formed it decayed and disappeared. The metal parts — bolts, helmets, jewelry, coins and other objects — were left behind.
Author John Preston has created a romantic version of this story, complete with meditations on the fleeting nature of human life measured against the enduring survival of this ship, built to honor a king. Mrs. Pretty died at the age of 59 from a stroke just three years after the discovery at Sutton Hoo. Preston entirely invented the character of Rory Lomax, a cousin of Mrs. Pretty’s who took photographs at the site.
If you have seen the movie, it closely resembles the book with more drama and more romance. There are no intimations about Peggy Piggot’s husband’s sexuality in the book nor of any romance between her and the fictitious Rory. Robert, who is portrayed in the movie as a dreamer aspiring to be a pilot or an astronaut, in reality becomes a farmer, and much like his parents, died before the age of 60.
And while Mrs. Pretty promises in both book and movie that Basil Brown, the self-taught, uncredentialed and excellent excavator of Suffolk soil and antiquities, will get credit for his work in all presentations and exhibitions of the discovery as part of her transfer of the find to the nation, he does not. Preston’s book is the spotlight on Brown’s achievements.
This is a beautiful and satisfying story told in a quiet voice.
About the Author: John Preston (1953 – )
John Preston is an English novelist and journalist. He was the arts editor of The Evening Standard and The Sunday Telegraph, where he was also a television critic for 10 years and one of its chief featurE writers.
He started writing THE DIG after he discovered that his aunt (Cecily Margaret Preston Guido, also known as Peggy Piggott) had been one of the key participants
He is the author of three novels in addition to THE DIG.
- GHOSTING (1996), about the world of radio and television in the 1950s
- INK (1999) about the dying days of Fleet Streets importance in Journalism in the 1980s;
- KINGS OF THE ROUNDHOUSE (2006) in strife-torn London in the 1970s.
He also wrote the nonfiction works, A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL
, an account of the Jeremy Thorpe affair of the 1970s which was made into a British television series in 2018; FALL: THE MYSTERY OF ROBERT MAXWELL (2020) and TOUCHING THE MOON (1991), about a trip to the Mountains of the Moon in Uganda.