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Horizon’s First Britons

Last week the BBC aired the latest documentary in the Horizon franchise – First Britons. Since then there has been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in discussion groups such as Britarch – a discussion list moderated by the CBA – and it has been interesting to see some of the points raised by the discussants – it has even moved on to include the Celts! For those of you who haven’t seen it, it is essentially an update of the work that has been carried out by archaeologists and scientists over the past five years or so. Many of the sites and projects featured in the programme have been mentioned on these pages already, such as the Teggen landslide which is thought to be the source of a prehistoric tsunami that played a role in creating the islands we are familiar with today, and Bouldnor Cliff where evidence of wheat was found. It was dated to a time some 2,000 years earlier than when archaeologists believe the use of wheat. There is more on that story in Nature.

The geographic range and type of sites covered was enough to produce a picture of changes occurring at both a ‘local’ and global level and allowed the viewer to see the impact of these. For example, Dr Sue Dawson of the University of Dundee has been working on the impact of the Teggen tsunami on the east coast of Scotland, but the ‘source’ of this was the collapse of an enormous ‘ice-dam’ in North America at the end of the last ice age. Whilst this was a sudden event, the more gradual but equally significant rise in sea-levels in the Mesolithic was dramatically documented in the piece on the work of Prof. Martin Bell of University of Reading in the Severn Estuary. Here they had documented the changing landscape from oak dominated woodland to salt marsh and had captured footprints of the people as they moved about their daily lives.

One of the aims of the programme was, I believe, to portray our ancestors as being more skilled and capable than perhaps many people might believe them to have been. Much was made of Mesolithic people’s ability to plan and manage their environment rather than simply react to it. It also referred to the ‘Neolithic revolution’ spreading across Europe and the change in diet from a marine to a terrestrial base. The suggestion they made was that the change to Neolithic ‘culture’ was taken up across Britain in more or less an orderly sequence. However, the evidence from radiocarbon dating has shown this not to be the case, with some of the earliest dates coming from west coast of Ireland and the north of Scotland. They also neglected to mention some of the built structures – there is evidence of house structures now appearing such as the one found at Howick in Northumberland, or of repeated use of sites such as Starr Carr in N. Yorks. There will be more discussion on the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition, if only because there is more to the adoption pottery and agriculture than this programme identified. Agriculture is often seen as being a more effective use of time, but there is a wealth of evidence from ethnographic accounts from around the world that a hunter-gatherer lifestyle involves rather less work! The emphasis on time and productivity then is more a reflection of contemporary concerns around the commodification of labour and the capitalist economy we find ourselves in today.

They say that every age gets the Stonehenge it deserves, and the same can be said of our representations of the past more generally. This documentary was an account of part of the past of these shores, and one which targeted a general viewing audience and for that it should welcomed. It raised a lot of interesting points but also some questions about how we ‘understand’ the past. It should be compared with other general fare such as the recently broadcast ‘reality’ show 10,000 bc which took volunteers ‘into the past’. I don’t think it is perfect, but it stands up as a good effort. It can be seen on the BBC iPlayer until 19th September.


Ian Parker Heath


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