The Birth of Modern Britain: A Journey into Britain’s Archaeological Past, 1550 to the Present

Marilyn Palmer enjoys an archaeologist’s explorations of unfamiliar grounds

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Reviewed by: Marilyn Palmer
Author: Francis Pryor
Publisher: HarperPress
Price (RRP): £25


Reviewed by: Marilyn Palmer
Author: Francis Pryor
Publisher: HarperPress
Price (RRP): £25

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In this, the fourth of his quartet of explorations into Britain’s archaeological past, Francis Pryor sets himself a tough challenge by venturing into a world far removed from his renowned expertise as a prehistorian.

In fact, it is that very familiarity with an undocumented past that has made him so enthusiastic about a period where physical survivals can be considered alongside written evidence, to the benefit of both. As he says: “One reason why historical archaeology is so exciting is the creative tension that appears at the moment, often late in the life of a project, when the written record is set against that from the ground.”

Reading the book is like having a lively conversation with its author. Pryor has chosen not to try to present a chronological account of the recent past, but to focus on projects and ideas which give a different perspective on the key debates of the period, such as the origins and consequences of the massive agricultural and industrial changes which took place. In many cases, he had worked as a professional archaeologist on the sites chosen as case studies or knew those who had.

In the chapter on transport, for example, he treats us to a lengthy account of the excavation –in pouring rain – of the Risehill navvy camp, the finds from which indicated that the navvies were by no means the drunken layabouts they are usually thought to have been.

Equally, his account of the excavation and conservation of the Killhope Lead Mining Centre in Weardale reveals how the miners transcended their everyday toil by making ornamental boxes from the spar crystals which glittered in their underground world. 

Pryor’s treatment of the usual themes of agriculture, industry, urbanisation, trade, transport, religion and defence is also enlivened by his comments on how modern archaeological practice has deepened our understanding of the rapid changes that have taken place since 1550.

Formal gardens that were swept away by the fashionable grassy swathes of the 18th century can be revealed by geophysics, particularly ground-penetrating radar. Meanwhile, the creation of computer-generated maps using geographical information software has revealed the complexity of the development of the British landscape in a detail that wouldn’t have been thought possible 20 years ago.

Highly readable though this book is, it is by no means an academic lightweight. Considerable erudition is displayed in the text itself and also in the detailed footnotes. No one person has previously attempted such a journey into Britain’s entire archaeological past, and this book brings the series to a successful – and refreshingly jargon-free – conclusion. 

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Marilyn Palmer is emeritus professor of industrial archaeology, University of Leicester