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Review – Ancestors: The Prehistory of Britain in Seven Burials

Updated: Oct 11, 2021

This is the latest book by Prof. Alice Roberts who is the Chair of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham, but she’s probably more well-known through her appearances on BBC 4’s Digging for Britain. The aim of the book is really there in the title, telling the story of prehistoric Britain through the use of just seven examples of burial. Of course, there’s more to it than that, but it’s an interesting conceit and provides a sturdy framework for the book.

The prehistory of Britain is a long story, and is wholly reliant on archaeology. Or is it? The first chapter points the way, with the story of the discovery of a burial in a cave in southwest Wales. The Red Lady of Paviland, is perhaps, familiar to all archaeology undergraduates. Its most singular claim to fame is that it is actually the burial of…. and Prof. Roberts unravels the tale of discovery and dating that as taken place over the years. Suffice to say that the most recent dating has given us the oldest date. You’ll have to read the book to find out how old ‘she’ is.

Burials can always tell us a whole range things about the past, and not just about the dead. They also tell us of the living, including how they treated the dead. One of the most famous prehistoric burials in Britain features and individual we’ve come to call ‘Cheddar Man‘ who was alive during the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age some 10,000 years ago. He’s not the main reason why Cheddar Gorge is included here I think, its other, ‘darker’ reasons and despite the confirmation gruesome nature of earlier discoveries, these are not sensationalized here.

Prof. Roberts adeptly weaves in a range of sources to fill in the background details for each of the burials, including climate studies, deep sea cores and archaeological evidence from continental Europe and beyond. Each burial and chapter tackles a different period and provides the reader with a short but well-informed account of each. There are even new things for archaeologists to to note too! The are of course some aspects that miss out in this approach, but that is is understandable given the scope of the subject.

It isn’t a complete story of Britain, as for hundreds of thousands of years Britain (in all its various shapes and forms) was beneath vast ice sheets and the were no humans of any kind living here. For many thousands of years no-one was living here when there ere no ice sheets. It is however, a concise and enjoyable way to get to know some of the prehistory and story of the land and its people.

You can buy the book in bookshops now!


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