Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Dig - John Preston

I only recently discovered John Preston’s 2007 novel The Dig via the movie version of the same title being so prominently featured on Netflix right now. I knew almost nothing about England’s famous 1939 Sutton Hoo excavation, but as I’ve always had an interest in archaeology, the movie immediately caught my attention. I ended up so thoroughly enjoying the film that I decided to track down a copy of the book it is based upon to learn more about the dig and the people involved. Surprisingly, because in my experience it so seldom happens this way, the movie version of The Dig left me with a better feel for what the dig must have been like for those who experienced it than the book managed to do. 


The Sutton Hoo site is home to thirteen ancient burial mounds, but the book and film focus on the initial excavation of only the first of them. England was, of course, on the brink of war with Germany in 1939, so the discovery of a burial chamber dating back to the late sixth century, came at a precarious time. If the finds were going to excavated and safeguarded from the perils of open warfare with a neighboring country, time was of the essence and someone was going to have to step on toes to get it all done in time. There were also rather petty jealousies between the regional museum and the British Museum in London that had to be negotiated, although the national museum was always likely to be the winner in any dispute over which museum should permanently house the finds. 


Preston’s novel focuses on some of the key people in the story: Edith Pretty, on whose property the burial mounds were located; Basil Brown, the proficient “amateur” archaeologist originally hired by Pretty to begin the excavation; Peggy Piggott, a freshly-minted professional archeologist who accompanied her husband to the dig; and Robert Pretty, the little boy who saw the whole thing as the greatest adventure of his young life. With the exception of the little boy - who only serves as narrator for the novel’s short epilogue - the main characters are given long sections of the book to narrate what they personally experience as the dig proceeds over much of 1939. 


Those looking for much detail about the finds and the burials are likely to be disappointed as The Dig is more a character study than an accounting of the archeological finds and conclusions. What the novel does well - and what the film does even better - is give a feel for the period and exploration methods of the day. Preston uses the characters to humanize the efforts required and to portray how it all comes together in the end despite the factional rivalries. Edith Pretty, owner of the property, deservedly comes across as the real heroine of the piece because of her insistence, in the first place, that the mounds be explored. Basil Brown is the story’s underdog because of the way that his initial work on the mound is denigrated by those who come later to the project, and Peggy Piggott, being a female archeologist, is treated much the same as Brown. 

Bottom Line: Novels based on true events often leave the reader wanting to know more, and The Dig is certainly one of those. Just as the film led me to the novel, the combination of the two makes me want to read much more about the Sutton Hoo excavations and what was ultimately discovered there. I do suggest that both the film and the book be experienced if that is possible because they supplement each other well. My only reservation about the film is that, even though I understand it was done for dramatic effect, I do think the film focuses too much on the supposed sex life of Peggy Piggott. I suppose that is the kind of thing that is unavoidable when a movie is based on a novel that is based upon a true story.




Please do click on these artifact pictures because they are spectacular at full size. 

14 comments:

  1. I've had a few bad experiences with fictionalized versions of true events - not a fan even though this sounds really interesting.

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    1. I'm OK with historical fiction, and quite enjoy it, really, as long as the historical facts don't stray from the truth. If the fiction comes from obviously created side-plots or fictional characters, then I'm OK with it. I find it sometimes to be a really good way to get a feel for the past than reading a history book, etc.

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  2. We saw the film several weeks ago and absolutely loved it. Such a quiet, atmospheric film and very well acted. I'd had no idea it was based on a book until after I'd seen the film. I did click on the pics... fantastic! Makes me wonder who was buried there... I suppose they have no real idea.

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    1. I wondered if you had seen it, Cath. I liked it a whole lot and thought it was very nicely produced. The book is a good bit different in that the Peggy Piggott character receives a lot less time, especially when it comes to her personal life.

      The theory is that a king who died in 625 A.D. was burried in the tomb. Apparently, he was king of that part of the world, but there were multiple kings ruling adjacent areas at the same time. I forgot his name...starts with the letter "R."

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  3. The Dig seems to be all over Netflix lately, but I hadn't paid much attention to what it's actually about. We'll have to give it a try!

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    1. I hope you enjoy it, JoAnn. It's nice to see they are still making movies for adults these days.

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  4. Sutton Hoo has always fascinated me, and I want to see the film! This is a little unusual as I almost always want the book first. :)

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    1. I've been watching more movies than I normally do because of all the shut-in time we've had, and I've had about half-a-dozen movies lead me to books lately. It's usually the other way around for me, too. The book version of The Dig is not bad at all, but for me the movie made a deeper impression, even in the character development.

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  5. Tom saw this and liked it a lot. I have a reading quirk, and it is that I don't care for fictionalized versions of real events or especially real people. I have read some, but I come away wanting to know 'the truth' if there is such a thing!

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    1. I do enjoy historical fiction, Nan, because of the way it often gives me a better understanding of the circumstances and mood of the day when the actual events took place. I do tend to balk when fictional characters are thrown into key points in historical events, though, to the point that they actually become key elements of what really happened.

      Strangely enough, I often enjoy seeing real-life figures put into entirely fictional situations or mixes that we all know never really happened. The books like that which stay true to the nature of the real-life characters are amusing in a weird sort of way to me.

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  6. I've heard really good things about this movie. And it's a book, too? Sutton Hoo is so fascinating. Can't wait to see and read more about it.

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    1. This is one of those rare cases where I think both the book and the movie are better for the other's existence. They tell the same story but the difference in what each chose to emphasize adds to the total experience. I'm looking for a good nonfiction book on Sutton Hoo right now so that I can learn more about it.

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  7. You're right. Watching the film makes you want to read more about Sutton Hoo. I have to see if I can fit that in.

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    1. I'm assuming you mean nonfiction...do, please, let me know if you find something particularly good. Thanks.

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