Britain Begins

Miles Russell on an authoritative account of the origins of Britain and Ireland, from 10,000 BC to the Norman Conquest

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Reviewed by: Miles Russell
Author: Barry Cunliffe
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £30

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Attempts to synthesise, interpret and present the distant past are certainly not new; a veritable battery of books and articles produced in recent years have attempted to do just that. Most of these works have, to a greater or lesser degree, suffered from a specific period bias, examining particular blocks of the past, such as ‘Roman’ or ‘Saxon Britain’, with no concern as to the inherent artificiality of such fixed and apparently impenetrable parcels of time. Prehistorians end their studies with the Roman invasion in AD 43; Romanists with the collapse of central government in AD 410. Studying the past within such rigidly enforced barriers can mean that it is easy to miss context and association, the patterns of society being lost in the process. Not so with this new book by Barry Cunliffe, emeritus professor of European archaeology at the University of Oxford.

Britain Begins has an ambitious goal: to present “the story of the origins of the British and Irish peoples from around 10,000 BC to the eve of the Norman conquest”. It is the latest offering from what must be one of the more prolific academic publishing careers, Cunliffe’s work spanning six decades and covering all aspects of the British and northern European prehistoric and early classical past. Here Cunliffe draws upon his considerable experience and expertise to present a single grand narrative, explaining the nature of British society from the hunter-gatherer bands that followed the last great ice age to the fledgling development of monarchy and the first unified national identities.

In any work with such an immense chronological and geographical sweep, there is the danger of simplifying the dataset and ‘flattening out’ regional, cultural or topographic distinction but, to his credit, Cunliffe steers a masterful course through more than 11 millennia of human development, setting his arguments out clearly, and neatly distinguishing archaeological fact from theory and conjecture. It is good to see the entirety of the British Isles being considered in equal measure, for too often authors have made grand claims to be considering ‘Britain’ and the ‘British’, when they really mean ‘England’ and the ‘English’.

Chapters are set down in a lucid and engaging style, never too simplistic for an academic audience nor too highbrow or alienating. Of course, it is impossible, within such synthesis, to cite specific references for all of the artefacts and sites discussed, which can at times be a little irritating, but an authoritative summary of key works is supplied at the end.

Chapter one is, for me, the most interesting, outlining British origin myths: their nature, intent and impact. “If hard information is lacking,” Cunliffe observes, “imagination takes over and myths are created”. This is, of course, still true today, the writings of modern archaeologists, historians and cultural commentators being just as bogged down in the belief systems of their own contemporary world as those of the medieval chroniclers and earliest antiquarian investigators.

Cunliffe discusses the first men to speculate upon the British past, Greek historian Herodotus and the Romans Julius Caesar and Tacitus, together with the impact that their resolutely Mediterranean mindset had upon later homegrown myth-makers, such as Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Later chapters examine the creation of ‘Britain’ in geological and geographic terms, the arrival of our first recognisably human ancestors, the varied attempts to understand the biological nature of ‘the British’ and all the migrations that have infused the gene pool of Britain – from the arrival of developed hunter-gatherer societies to the impact of Scandinavian culture. Contrary to the more isolationist stance taken by some politicians today, Cunliffe observes that the British “have always been a mongrel race, and we are stronger for it”.

As Cunliffe notes in his preface, that essential points of the ‘established’ narrative of Britain will undoubtedly change as new sites are found and examined and new discoveries are made is exactly as it should be: that is the joy of archaeology. “Next year,” Cunliffe observes, “the story will have changed. Herein lies the excitement of the subject.” Amen to that.

This beautifully produced and informative work of synthesis and interpretation will provide an ideal starting point for those interested in the British past and a useful point of re-engagement for those who feel that they are already over-familiar with the basic narrative.

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Miles Russell is the co-author of UnRoman Britain: Exposing the Great Myth of Britannia (History Press, 2010)