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“Graves are like time capsules – little microcosms of prehistoric culture”: Alice Roberts on what bones and burials can tell us about early Britain

Alice Roberts speaks to Ellie Cawthorne about her book Ancestors, which explores the story of prehistoric Britain through seven burials – and reveals what cutting-edge science can tell us about the ancient past

Alice Roberts, author of Ancestors: A Prehistory of Britain in Seven Burials

What kind of things might you find in a prehistoric grave, and what could they reveal about the past?

Prehistory is intensely interesting to me because the only way that we can approach it is through archaeology. You are left to piece together the story through traces left in the ground – the material objects of ancient cultures, remnants of constructions and buildings, and the remains of our own ancestors.

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There’s an often forensic process that goes on when you’re trying to reconstruct what life was like in the prehistoric era, and burial sites represent a treasure trove of information. Graves such as that of the [early Bronze Age] Amesbury Archer or the “Red Lady of Paviland” [actually a young man who died 33-34,000 years ago] are absolutely stuffed with cultural artefacts. They essentially act as time capsules – little microcosms of the culture of the time.

As well as the objects we find in graves, we’re able to extract ever more information from the bones themselves. For me, as a biological anthropologist, it’s been astonishing how the science around this has developed over the past 20 to 30 years.

What kind of information can we glean from bones?

If I’m presented with a skeleton, I can tell quite a lot just by looking at the bones with the naked eye. I have a background as a medical doctor and before I started learning the business of osteoarchaeology, I would have thought: “It’s just a skeleton. How much can you really tell? You can’t ask it about symptoms, you can’t do blood tests.” But I was astonished at how much you could work out. First, bone responds to disease. Some infections, such as syphilis and tuberculosis, affect bone in very distinctive ways. Osteoarthritis is also easy to identify from tiny holes on the surface of a joint.

Next you can look at teeth. People suffered from dental disease in the past, just as we do today, but most prehistoric people actually had much better teeth than ours because they didn’t have such a starchy, sugary diet. They didn’t brush their teeth as fastidiously as we do, but their teeth are nevertheless usually in surprisingly good condition.

Employing radiography techniques, such as using X-rays, allows us to uncover more clues – hidden features of the bones. And with a micro CT [computed tomography] scanner we’re able to slice up the bones virtually, allowing us to analyse them without incurring any damage.

Then there are chemical techniques that allow us to analyse the ratios of different elements in bones and teeth. Our bodies are built from what we consume, so we are essentially made out of our surroundings. That means that the signatures of the landscapes in which we grew up are written into our bodies – particularly into teeth, because tooth enamel is laid down in childhood.

For instance, your body is constantly incorporating different stable isotopes of oxygen and strontium in various ratios. We can analyse isotopes in ancient human remains, and see how these elemental ratios match those found in the geology of places in Britain or farther afield. This can be really useful for telling where somebody grew up, for instance, or where they spent the last decade of their life.

Finally, we can extract DNA from ancient bones and sequence it. That technology has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years.

Alice Roberts is the author of Ancestors: A Prehistory of Britain in Seven Burials (Simon & Schuster, 2021)

Cover of Ancestors by Alice Roberts

What can we learn about ancient bodies from DNA studies?

The human genome was fully sequenced in 2003. Since then we’ve developed the ability to extract DNA from very ancient bones, and to work out how to combine separate fragments of DNA into a complete genome. By doing that, we’re able to look for rare variants that might give us clues indicating when particular groups of people moved in or out of Britain. Sometimes we’re able to reconstruct more detailed information about individuals, too. One of the prehistoric skeletons I discuss in the book is known as Cheddar Man, who was discovered in Somerset in 1903, and lived around 10,000 years ago. By analysing his genome, geneticists have revealed that he probably had an unusual combination of dark skin and bright blue eyes. Being able to work that out from just a skeleton is utterly extraordinary.

DNA can also reveal information about kinship and relationships between individuals. That’s been quite profound when it comes to looking at the communal burials found inside Neolithic chamber tombs, for instance. One theory about these chamber tombs is that they were intended to anonymise the dead, and therefore contain people from across the whole community. Another theory is that they effectively acted as family vaults – and some recent genetic analyses provide hints that this may indeed have been the case. For example, it’s been revealed that two bodies buried together in a Neolithic monument at Primrose Grange in County Sligo, Ireland are those of a father and his daughter.

Elsewhere in Ireland, DNA analysis of a man buried at Newgrange Stone Age tomb in the Boyne valley has revealed that he was the son of an incestuous union between either a parent and a child or two siblings. So we’re finding out some quite extraordinary details, some of which may not even have been public knowledge at the time of those people’s deaths.

Does genetic science have the potential to settle some major archaeological debates?

Genetic science is not a panacea. It’s not as though DNA technology somehow supersedes archaeology – in fact, it could actually leave us with more questions than answers. But it does provide important strands of new evidence with the potential to answer some big questions, especially about mobility and migration. We should view it more as a tool for archaeologists to use – one that will hopefully help us see the picture more clearly.

Genetics can certainly be disruptive. In fact, it’s probably as disruptive as radiocarbon dating was when that emerged, from the late 1940s – suddenly, archaeologists were able to pin absolute dates on organic material. I think you can see a similar effect playing out with DNA analysis at the moment.

There have been some instances of geneticists treading on archaeologists’ toes. There’s been a perception by some archaeologists that geneticists have waded into long-standing archaeological debates and simply said: “You’ve been arguing about this for ages. Well, now we’ve got the answer.” Not surprisingly, archaeologists have responded: “Hang on a minute – first you need to learn a bit about archaeology and the kinds of questions we’re asking.”

But we’ve got to capitalise on the power of genetics to help us solve archaeological conundrums. In the book, I talk about a cutting-edge new project called 1,000 Ancient British Genomes, led by Swedish geneticist Pontus Skoglund of the Francis Crick Institute. This is a brilliant example of the power of collaboration between geneticists and archaeologists. Skoglund is engaging with archaeologists up and down the UK, asking them to identify questions that genetics might be able to help solve.

Your book is as much about the development of archaeological thinking as about the discoveries themselves. Which archaeologists most intrigue you?

One of the people I became quite obsessed with is Augustus Pitt-Rivers (1827–1900). He’s best known as a collector, but he also came up with some really interesting ideas about how cultures change and evolve over time, and how these transitions happened. Pitt-Rivers was very influenced by 19th-century evolutionary theory and biology, and wondered how these ideas could apply to culture. He also started to think about whether the origins of new cultures might be linked to the movement of people.

For instance, Bronze Age people in Britain obviously had a different culture from the Neolithic people who preceded them. But where did they pick up this culture from? Pitt-Rivers suggested that there had effectively been a population replacement – that Bronze Age culture was actually brought in by a whole load of new people. He tried to back up this theory by measuring skulls, arguing that there were detectable differences between the shapes of Neolithic and Bronze Age skulls. He was trying to use the study of skulls in a similar way to how we would now use DNA studies.

What’s astonishing is that DNA evidence now emerging suggests that Pitt-Rivers may have been right – that a lot of people may have arrived in Britain during the Bronze Age, largely replacing Neolithic populations. Those earlier people didn’t completely disappear, but there was a really profound turnover of population. It’s really interesting to think about the contact between these two groups, and about the ways in which their different cultures may have merged.

How did the preconceptions of archaeologists in the past influence their understanding of the discoveries they made?

Archaeology is a very introspective, self-aware discipline, which I think is extremely useful. We’ve long been aware that every archaeologist always has ideas from their own time in the back of their mind whenever they approach a set of observations.

That can impact ideas about gender, for example. Take Iron Age chariot burials: not all of them contain men – we know that some, such as the site at Wetwang in East Yorkshire, definitely contain women. I think that in the past antiquarians would have very quickly jumped to a conclusion that the body was male, based on the style of the burial or perhaps artefacts that were buried with the body. This is similar to what Reverend William Buckland (1784–1856) did when he discovered the oldest skeleton yet found in Britain, on the Gower peninsula in south Wales, which he called the “Red Lady of Paviland”. The remains are clearly male, but Buckland didn’t think it could possibly be a man because the individual was buried with what looked to him like ivory jewellery. As a 19th-century antiquarian, he couldn’t stomach the idea that a man might be buried with jewellery.

And these ideas still persist. When we find an Iron Age burial with a sword, there’s often an assumption that it’s a man. Or if a mirror is excavated from a burial, there’s an assumption that the remains are that of a woman. In the book, I talk about the need to avoid seeing discoveries through our own current cultural lens – to accept that there may have been many more diverse identities in the past than perhaps we understand today, for example. We think that our society and culture is normal in the way that it defines two genders, but perhaps in the past there was a much more diverse approach to identity. Certainly, if you find an Iron Age burial with both a sword and a mirror (and one such site has been excavated), that might be telling us something quite interesting about ancient identities.

I think that new scientific technologies encourage us to move away from our current preconceptions – to look at the evidence in isolation to begin with and then to build up a bigger picture.

One of the burials you discuss is that of the Amesbury Archer, found in Wiltshire and dating to around 2,300 BC. What does his grave tell us about the early Bronze Age?

It’s a stunning discovery – the most richly furnished Copper Age burial yet found in Britain. This man was buried with almost 100 objects in his timber-lined grave, so he was certainly high status or special in some way. All sorts of things were buried with him: lots of flints and arrowheads, and stone items that we presume are wrist guards for archery – hence his name – as well as copper knives and five bell-shaped beakers. There were also gold ornaments, thought to be hair wraps or possibly earrings – the oldest gold found in Britain.

Because the Amesbury Archer was found only about three miles from Stonehenge, some have suggested that he may have had a link with that site. That may be true, but we’ll never be able to prove it. You can also speculate about who he was – his position in that society: are we looking at some kind of Bronze Age shaman or magician? And, connected with that idea, what did people think of those who first developed the ability to extract metal out of stone? It must have been amazing to see a completely new material being produced.

What I find particularly interesting about the Amesbury Archer is that analysis of the stable isotopes in his remains shows that he wasn’t a local – in fact, he grew up in or near the Alps. Graves such as his show just how far these connections stretched, and the distances that people were travelling. There’s this popular idea that in the ancient past people never travelled farther than the next village, but now we have evidence of some, such as the Amesbury Archer, travelling hundreds of miles in a lifetime.

Another of the discoveries you discuss is the Pocklington chariot burial in East Yorkshire. Why was that such an exciting find?

That burial, found in 2017, is absolutely spectacular. I was lucky enough to visit it with the team that discovered it. We don’t see many Iron Age burials across most of Britain, but in Yorkshire several very characteristic chariot burials have been found. These belonged to the Arras culture, which had connections to the near continent and possibly brought this very distinctive funerary style with them.

That Pocklington grave contains the body of a man buried within a chariot. In other similar burials, the chariots tend to have been dismantled before being put in the grave – flatpacked, essentially. This one, though, was standing up and intact, with the man placed inside in a crouching position.

Along with the grave, there’s evidence of a funeral feast. You get the impression that this funeral was a great spectacle, intended to show off the status of the deceased individual but also that of the surviving family. There are animal bones in the grave, including a rack of ribs, so it looks as if dishes from the feast were being shared with the deceased individual.

The other utterly extraordinary thing is that two pony skeletons were found standing up in the grave. That was just unbelievable. We spent quite a long time scratching our heads, wondering how on earth they got those ponies in there upright. Did they winch dead animals into the grave and then somehow support them, maybe piling up the soil underneath to hold them in a standing position? Or were the ponies led into the grave and then killed? I don’t know if we’ll ever quite get to the bottom of how it was achieved, but obviously it was extremely important to the design of the grave to have the chariot looking as though it was ready to depart, taking the dead man off, possibly to the afterlife. That is, of course, if they believed in the afterlife – we don’t know!

Do you think we learn anything about ourselves by looking at prehistoric Britain?

I think that exploring prehistory shows us just how multicultural Britain has always been. What we’ve seen is that many different groups of people have crossed the North Sea and the Channel in both directions over time, and that those cultures all enriched the others.

Although I write a lot about the power of genetics, I don’t think we should be trying to trace direct genetic links between us and people in the ancient past because, once you get back into prehistory, these connections aren’t terribly meaningful. You don’t need to have a direct genetic link with the Red Lady of Paviland or the Amesbury Archer to think about what the lives of these individuals might have been like. I’m aiming for an egalitarian approach to ancestry in the landscape. The “ancestors” I look at in the book belong to everybody.

Alice Roberts is the author of Ancestors: A Prehistory of Britain in Seven Burials (Simon & Schuster, 2021). Buy it now on Amazon, Waterstones or Bookshop.org

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This article was first published in the July 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine