Britain Begins is the title of Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe’s latest book from Oxford University Press. In theory it costs thirty quid, but you could probably get it for closer to twenty. Either way, it’s unbelievably good value for money, with some 500 pages and hundreds of excellent plans, drawings and monochrome photos. And of course it’s produced to Oxford University Press’s exacting and very high standards. The author is the acknowledged leading authority on the Iron Age.
Even so, all of this sounds rather daunting: a mega-volume by a mega-archaeology star. But please don’t be put off. For a start, the book is very well and clearly written. It’s also completely jargon-free. Rather like the author himself, it’s very learned, very well-informed but always very approachable. But it’s not a particularly easy read: it won’t drift over you, like, say an Ian Rankin novel. You’ll have to concentrate, especially if you’re still new to archaeology, but I can assure you, it’ll be well worth the effort. Well worth it.
The book begins with a brief review of early archaeology. The main story begins when the Ice Ages ended, around ten thousand years ago, then Barry takes us on a quite stunning ride through the ages, starting with the hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic, then the first farmers (Neolithic), then the Bronze, next the Iron Age and then the Roman ‘Episode’ – a chapter title which reminds us that Britain was only a part of the Roman Empire for some three and a half centuries. Thus far our journey has taken eleven chapters. Then the story resumes with an account of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Britain, followed by the arrival of the Northmen (the Vikings), who included, of course, the Normans (their name is derived from the words North and Man).
Barry has had a long interest in Britain’s links to the continental mainland. His view is anything but insular – seeing regular contacts being maintained in the South-West, Wales, Ireland and South-Western Scotland, with the Atlantic approaches – areas such as Spain, Portugal, land around the Bay of Biscay, Brittany and Normandy. Eastern areas of Britain and large parts of Scotland were in regular contact with people all around the North Sea basin, and further north, into Scandinavia. But these contacts didn’t just come and go. They were remarkably consistent and have played a major role in the way that British culture – or rather cultures – developed. Today we British are still remarkably diverse; although this isn’t at all apparent if you happen to have been born and brought-up in the homogeneous south-east – for which one can blame the influence of London.
I think it’s the author’s clear vision of a Britain whose past is remarkably complex and unexpected that I find so inspiring. There isn’t a hint of complacency, nor of nationalism. I can’t recommend this book enough. But a word of warning: if you do decide to get it for yourself, don’t open the parcel until after Christmas, because your partner and/or your children won’t appreciate it if, during the tinsel festivities, your mind is permanently stuck in the Mesolithic…