Likely Stories: The Dig by Preston Evans

Jun 16, 2016

Amusing tale of the discovery of one of the largest buried ships from the Anglo-Saxon period.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

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 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 the end of high school, 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 Evening Standard.  He lives in London.  His novel has lots of dated Briticisms; the characters act and speak with some reserve, and the humor is typically dry.  The owner of the land, Mrs. Pretty, wanted to investigate some mounds.  She contacted a local archaeologist, who agreed to begin a survey of the site.  She introduces 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  a young boy, as Preston 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 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 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.  The ship was found shortly before the outbreak of World War II, and 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, with imagination.  5 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read my new book blog at RabbitReaderBlog.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!