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The Dig is a novel by John Preston, published May 2007, set in the context of the 1939 Anglo-Saxon ship burial excavation at Sutton Hoomarker, Suffolk, Englandmarker. The novel has been widely reviewed as ‘an account of the excavation at Sutton Hoo in 1939’. The sleevenote advertises it as 'a brilliantly realized account of the most famous archaeological dig in Britain in modern times.' However the account in the book differs in various ways from the real events of the Sutton Hoo excavations.

A wireless serial drama based upon Preston's fictionalized account was broadcast on UK BBC Radio 4 commencing 15 September 2008.

Nature of the work

John Preston has for many years been chief television critic for The Sunday Telegraph newspaper. He is also the nephew of one of the excavators, Mrs Peggy Piggott, (wife of Stuart Piggott, afterwards Edinburgh Professor of Archaeology) later known to the archaeological world as Margaret Guido, but born Cecily Margaret Preston (1912-1994). However, by his own account the author only became aware of the story surrounding the excavation three years ago (i.e. c. 2004) and therefore the content is not derived directly from Mrs Piggott’s narration.

The novel is the first account of these events in which the role of Mrs Piggott is particularly emphasised. Although she did not lead the excavation, she was the first of the excavators to discover gold items in the burial chamber within the ship, and therefore was at the forefront of it. The effect of the wonderful discovery on her, in particular, forms an important thread in this version of the story. She becomes the narrator of the chamber excavation part of the story, pp 119-202.

Another telling of the controversy and personalities surrounding the discovery, based on unpublished letters and Ipswich Museum MS documentation, was published by Robert Markham (2002) in an illustrated and readable form.

Altered information

As a form of historical novel, this work draws on recorded information about real archaeology, real people and real events. However some facts have been deliberately altered to suit the author's literary purpose, as he has freely admitted. In a Note at the end, he states that ‘Certain changes have been made for dramatic effect.’ Soon after he adds, ‘Any mistakes, of course, are entirely my own’(p233). The gap between record, deliberate alteration and mistake is therefore difficult to identify. The story is told through more than one authorial person, so that at each stage it is that person's knowledge of the affairs described which is being represented. This enables the author to present data very selectively.

These changes affect the chronology and topography of the excavation, the archaeological methods, the state of knowledge of the excavators at the time, the identity and contents of the various burial mounds, and (to some extent) the character and motivations of the real people involved. Some caution is therefore needed in accepting the historical canvas.

The major alterations in the historical framework occur in the first half of the book. The real excavations took place over two seasons, 1938 and 1939. In 1938 (20 June-9 August) three mounds (and an indeterminate feature) were opened, and in 1939 (8 May-3 September) the mound containing the famous undisturbed ship-burial was explored. In this novel the two seasons are merged into one, made to commence in April 1939 and to end at the outbreak of War (3 September 1939). Of the three 1938 mounds the excavation of the first is described in the novel (pp15-18, 23-24, 29-32). The second in the novel is probably meant for the third of 1938, a disturbed cremation burial: a dramatic episode of a landslide in the novel (pp34-36) is possibly transposed from other phases of the excavation not described.

The second mound explored in 1938 (known as Mound 2), which contained a disturbed burial which had included a ship, is not described but is 'merged' with the famous ship-mound ('Mound 1') excavated in 1939. Hence the real excavation of Mound 2 is suppressed, and the preparations for the real 1939 excavation is omitted. (Some glassware found in the former is, in the novel, transposed to the latter (e.g. p 61). Hence the novel cannot portray what was learnt by the experience and findings of the 1938 dig, and how that helped the 1939 discovery to unfold in the way that it did.

The most obvious example is that the Suffolk excavators found and researched the iron ship-rivets from Mound 2 in 1938 and were therefore ready to recognise them as soon as they appeared in the following year. They had also realised that the objects being found were of early Anglo-Saxon date during 1938. Hence in the novel the important realisation that there is a ship in the ground comes as a complete surprise to them, (p65-68), and the credit for recognizing the early Anglo-Saxon date of the find is given to the 'professional' archaeologists who take over from them (pp 141-143). Basil Brown had recognised this in 1938. 'I can now return to my original theory of last year' he wrote on Tuesday July 18 1939.

Charles Phillips's explanation of the whetstone as a 'sceptre' (pp 163-5) (while it is being excavated) is rather anachronistic because although that idea did occur early, it was not closely argued until many years later. Also, some descriptions of the removal of artefacts in the chamber do not tally with the evidence of photographs taken during the excavations: the whetstone was half upright, and was left semi exposed for some time, not as described in pages 163-5: and the purse lid was carefully cleaned down among the other gold items in the surrounding assemblage, and their relationships elucidated by the Piggotts, not prised out as described on pages 150-1. Another time anomaly in the novel is that Peggy and Stuart Piggott are said to interrupt their honeymoon for the dig, (pp. 121-125; 201), when in fact they had been married since November 1936.

The author's statement that factual information has been altered is therefore to be taken seriously, and the reader interested in the real Sutton Hoo should therefore proceed "with caution," while enjoying the author's narrative.

Poetic allusion

In the novel Peggy relates the story of how the English cellist Beatrice Harrison was recorded and broadcast during the 1920s and 1930s playing in her garden to the accompaniment of nightingales singing. The telling (p 171-2) appears to be in homage to the poem 'The Nightingale Broadcasts' by Robert Saxton, which won the Keats-Shelley Prize in 2001. Later, where Saxton has 'a nightingale cadenza, which gargled and trilled from the oak leaves', Peggy's voice tells of their 'long gurgling trills' (p196). Recent interest in this theme appears to originate in the edition of Harrison's autobiography published in 1985.

Previous dramatisation

The playwright Peppy Barlow wrote and produced with Ivan Cutting of the Eastern Angles Theatre Company a play centred upon the characters of Basil Brown, Charles Phillips, Guy Maynard, Reid Moir and Mrs Pretty, taking as its subject the find and controversy. This, 'The Sutton Hoo Mob', has been produced in two separate seasons, 17 Feb to 7 May 1994, and resumed/revised in 2006, at many venues in Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex. (See external link, BBC)


  1. Sleevenote.
  2. see external link below
  3. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Stuart Ernest Piggott.
  4. Author's Note, unnumbered page following 231.
  5. Bruce-Mitford 1975, 100-136.
  6. Bruce-Mitford 1975, 137-229.
  7. Bruce-Mitford 1975, 111-12, 124-5, 131.
  8. Basil Brown 1938 Diaries, July 20/22: 1939 Diaries, 30 May and June 1.
  9. Bruce-Mitford 1975, 101, 104-8, 110-1, 115-123, 127-130, 132-4: Basil Brown Diary 1938.
  10. Bruce-Mitford 1975, 117.
  11. Markham 2002, 13; Brown Diary 1938, July 15: ibid. July 20th.
  12. Brown Diary 1939, 11th May.
  13. Markham 2002, 14: Brown Diary 1938, July 23rd.
  14. Brown Diary 1939.
  15. Kendrick, British Museum Quarterly, XIII, 1939, p128; Phillips 1940, 163-4; Bruce-Mitford 1974, 6-7; Bruce-Mitford 1975, 688ff.
  16. Bruce-Mitford 1975, 189-90, Fig 121-2; 198, Fig 128 (photo by Mrs M Guido (Mrs Piggott)).
  17. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Stuart Piggott.


  • J. Preston, The Dig (Penguin Books/Viking, London 2007). ISBN 978-0-670-91491-3
  • B. Brown, Diaries of the Sutton Hoo Excavations, Transcripts in Public Archives (Suffolk County Council and Ipswich Museum), Volume LXIV.
  • R.L.S. Bruce-Mitford, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology (Gollancz, London 1974). ISBN 0 575 01704 X
  • R.L.S. Bruce-Mitford, The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial (3 Vols in 4), (British Museum, London 1975, 1978, 1983)
  • B. Harrison and P. Cleveland Peck, The cello and the nightingale: the autobiography of Beatrice Harrison (John Murray, London 1985). ISBN 0719542081
  • A.C. Evans, The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial (British Museum, London 1986/9). ISBN 0 7141 0544 9
  • C. Green, Sutton Hoo: The Excavation of a Royal Ship-Burial (London 1963).
  • N.F. Hele, Notes or Jottings about Aldeburgh (London 1870).
  • T.D. Kendrick, Anglo-Saxon Art to AD 900 (Methuen & co, London 1938).
  • R.A.D. Markham, Sutton Hoo through the Rear-View Mirror (Sutton Hoo Society, Woodbridge 2002). ISBN 0-9543453-0-4
  • C.W. Phillips, The Excavation of the Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial, The Antiquaries' Journal 20, no 2 (April 1940), 149-202.
  • C.W. Phillips et al., The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial, Antiquity (March 1940).
  • C.W. Phillips, My Life in Archaeology (Sutton, Gloucester 1987). ISBN 0-86299-362-8
  • S.J. Plunkett, The Suffolk Institute of Archaeology: its Life, Times and Members, Proc. Suffolk Institute of Archaeology 39 Part 2, 165-207. ISSN 0262-6004
  • S.J. Plunkett, 'Basil John Wait Brown' (Oxford DNB).

External links

  • Follow this link "My buried history" for author's home newspaper publicity for this work.
  • Review by Rowland Manthorpe for Observer, May 13 2007 [488275]
  • Review and author interview/justification, East Anglian Daily Times [488276]
  • Dramatic rights in works by John Preston[488277]
  • 'The Nightingale Broadcasts' by Robert Saxton [488278]
  • Penguin readers' group interview [488279]
  • BBC page referring to revival of 'The Sutton Hoo Mob' [488280] and details listing from The Stage [488281]

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