There was a gold buckle engraved with intricately interwoven snakes and beasts – a piece so extraordinary that the British Museum’s keeper of Medieval antiquities almost collapsed upon seeing it; jewelled shoulder clasps and belt fittings; a wonderful, ornate helmet with a full face-mask – the haunting visage of some ancient hero seeming to gaze out across the centuries.
What the discovery meant
Brown’s find literally caused the history books to be rewritten. The ship and its contents were, it transpired, from the Dark Ages, and the discovery illuminated those four centuries between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Vikings, about which so little was known. The Anglo-Saxons who ruled over England’s various kingdoms during this time had been thought a crude and backward people – primitive almost – but here were exquisitely made items of great beauty. This was a society that valued skill, craft and art, and that traded with Europe and beyond.
And these relics of a sophisticated, lost civilisation turned up just as our own was being threatened with obliteration by the Nazis. The lead archaeologist gave a speech to visitors to the site, and had to shout to be heard above the roar of a Spitfire.
When author and journalist John Preston, whose book about the disgraced British politician Jeremy Thorpe, A Very English Scandal, was recently adapted into a hit TV series, discovered that Piggott, his aunt, had been involved in the excavation, he researched the story and immediately recognised what a rich seam it provided for a novelist. The Dig was published to acclaim in 2007. Robert Harris called it “a real literary treasure”, and Ian McEwan proclaimed it “very fine, engrossing, exquisitely original”.
Producer Ellie Wood, who has previously worked on a number of TV adaptations including Decline and Fall, Bleak House and The Line of Beauty, says she wanted to make a film version as soon as she read the manuscript of the novel in 2006, before it was even published.