“The Dig,” a beautifully understated novel by British author John Preston, is based on the discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasure in 1939 England.

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“The Dig”

by John Preston

Other Press, 261 pp., $16.95

John Preston’s novel “The Dig” is based on true events in East Anglia in 1939, when England had its collective breath taken away by the discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasure. The disinterment of an entire ship, unearthed from a seventh-century burial ground and laden with gold ornaments, weapons and other artifacts, changed the way the English viewed their forebears.

Author John Preston is a British writer, editor and critic who never seems compelled to say a lot when a modest number of words will do (and I mean that as a compliment). He constructs his story from the vantage point of several characters.

Edith Pretty is an English widow who owns the land where the treasure is buried. Basil Brown is a local self-taught archaeologist, hired by Edith, who makes the initial discovery. Edith’s young son Robert follows the hunt with mounting excitement, and several competing archaeologists and museum bureaucrats converge on the site once they realize what is at stake.

“The Dig” has a feeling of hush about it, in part because the reader knows the turmoil of war that the country and these characters are about to be plunged into. There’s the restraint with which the English express themselves, even when some cutthroat museum politics are involved. And there’s the sense of awe and wonder that unfolds as the ground gives up its secrets. Archaeologist Peggy Piggott recalls watching three exquisite pieces of gold being gently extracted from the earth:

“All of them were so beautiful. So delicate and yet so pristine. They were like emissaries from another world, undimmed by the mass of centuries that had passed since they had been last seen. Or rather, it was if all those centuries had counted for nothing. Time had simply flown by between then and now.”

This novel will be catnip for viewers of “Time Team” and “Detectorists.” Fans of stories told with economy and grace will love it, too.