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64 of 64 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Archaeology and DNA too --- I love it
Another beautifully produced, glossy book by Oxford University Press, in which the renowned Emeritus Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe surveys the state of knowledge of prehistoric Britain, as well as later periods up to 1100 AD in which I personally am less interested.

I pre-ordered the book, and when it arrived I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it...
Published 20 months ago by James Honeychuck

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A pleasing introduction to dip in and out of.
This heavy paperback covers an awful lot of history that is difficult to get one's head around. It covers the period from 10,000 years BC to the precise year 1066 (The most well-known date in English history.) However I wouldn't recommend it as a book to be read from beginning to end, as a one-star reviewer has done. It is not meant to be read like that. It is the sort of...
Published 8 months ago by Sally Zigmond


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64 of 64 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Archaeology and DNA too --- I love it, 5 Nov 2012
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This review is from: Britain Begins (Hardcover)
Another beautifully produced, glossy book by Oxford University Press, in which the renowned Emeritus Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe surveys the state of knowledge of prehistoric Britain, as well as later periods up to 1100 AD in which I personally am less interested.

I pre-ordered the book, and when it arrived I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it addresses Ireland as well. No prehistory of Britain could do otherwise. But the need to avoid the politically incorrect term "British Isles" does make titling difficult, such as with Bryan Sykes's "Blood of the Isles," which is about the DNA of Britain and Ireland. Anyway, the alliterative title "Britain Begins" does not do justice to the coverage of Ireland in this book.

At least one eminent archaeologist has scoffed at the idea that DNA studies are of much use in studying prehistory. So I was delighted to see that Prof. Cunliffe considers DNA findings in at least 17 places in the book. Skeptics will be satisfied to see that he does not believe everything he reads about DNA. To my knowledge, this book sets a precedent in at least considering DNA studies as part of a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the past.

This author's analysis of where on the Continent the people of these islands originated is the clearest I have seen anywhere. I finally think I have it straight in my own mind.

The section on the origin and spread of the Celtic languages is a concise summary of work published previously in the book Celtic from the West, which Prof. Cunliffe co-edited, and enhanced here by a brilliant new map depicting a model of that spread.

The book has no footnotes or bibliography. Instead, there is a guide to further reading for each chapter, a kind of narrative annotated bibliography such as you would get from a professor surveying the literature for students in a graduate seminar. Very effective, both for the general reader and for readers who have many of those books on a nearby shelf.

I was worried to find three "lapse of concentration" mistakes in the first part of the book: annual rainfall in the west of Britain is over 100cm, not 100mm (p.63); the Scottish Mesolithic began in the seventh millennium BC, not the seventh century BC (p.117); and Rhyl is not in south Wales (p.44), it is on the north coast. But no such mistakes are to be seen once the author hits his stride with the Neolithic era.

I won't even try to comment on the last 200 pages on the historic era which in Britain begins with the arrival of the Romans. This book is worth twice the price just for the prehistory sections.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A pleasing introduction to dip in and out of., 8 Nov 2013
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Sally Zigmond (Yorkshire, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Britain Begins (Paperback)
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This heavy paperback covers an awful lot of history that is difficult to get one's head around. It covers the period from 10,000 years BC to the precise year 1066 (The most well-known date in English history.) However I wouldn't recommend it as a book to be read from beginning to end, as a one-star reviewer has done. It is not meant to be read like that. It is the sort of book one dips in and out of using the index. You want to know about the diversification of tribes, languages and DNA types into the British Isles, then look them up. If you want to learn about the impact of the various ice-ages and when the British Isles were separated from the European mainline, then ditto. (And there's plenty more of interest such as topics including climate change to pottery, burial types and religious observances.)

So, this is an excellent and comprehensive overview. I was pleased to see a large section giving further detailed reading of the topics covered. So having got a taster, you'd be best advised to concentrate on the topics that appeal to you more.

As I said, 'Britain Begins' is a good basic guide and a jumping off point but not a cover-to-cover read. Besides, it's far too heavy to read in bed!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Britain Begins, 5 Dec 2013
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Charliecat (Oxfordshire, UK) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Britain Begins (Paperback)
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Sir Barry Cunliffe is a renowned archaeologist and Emeritius Professour at the University of Oxford. He has produced a host of excellent books regarding the ancient peoples of the British and Irish isles. Britain Begins is a stunningly produced and enthralling book. Moving through 11 millennia of history: from the very earliest prehistory of these islands to the pivotal year which every school child knows; 1066.
Lavishly illustrated with maps, diagrams and photographs of archaeological sites and finds Britain Begins is a fascinating and erudite introduction to the beginnings of Britain and Ireland. It's a shame that the title doesn't reflect the inclusion of Ireland but Ireland is included and no history of these islands would be complete without it so don't be put off by the title.
This is not the sort if book which you can read straight through. Many of the ideas are extremely complex and it would be far too much information to take in in one straight read through. I think the reader would get more out of the book if they read single sections or chapters at a time or the bits which interest you most. The book starts with a chapter on the myths and legends of the British Isles from Herodotus, Tacitus and Caesar and then moves on to the earliest settlers after the last ice age and then every age in between in chronological order until 1066. Cunliffe also includes interludes about physical characteristics and DNA, language and religion which really add something extra to the information. A fascinating and beautiful book and well worth buying if you are interested in the beginnings of Britain and Ireland and the people who occupied these ancient isles.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 'The islanders have always been a mongrel race and we are the stronger for it', 27 Nov 2013
By 
Sebastian Palmer "sebuteo" (Cambridge, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Britain Begins (Paperback)
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Wow! This book is a fascinating and exciting compendium of diverse facts, beautifully illustrated, telling the most incredible story. Cunliffe writes with great clarity and engaging straightforwardness, weaving together various strands of scientific deduction sufficient to put Sherlock in the shade. What science there is here is, on the whole, easy enough to follow. Certainly this isn't too drily technical a read. Indeed, throughout the book we often touch upon moments connecting us with our forebears, a very early and poignant instance of this being the discovery of Mesolithic footprints in the littoral muds of Formby point.

Covering 11,000 years, from the retreat of the ice around 10,000 BC (when these lands were still connected to the European continent), to the arrival of the Normans in 1066, Cunliffe tells how the people of these islands grew from bands of a few hundred hunter-gatherers to a mixed population of around two million. Before embarking on this epic tale he sets out what we used to tell ourselves was our history, from the first mentions of these lands in ancient Greek and Roman texts, through to indigenous writers like Geoffrey of Monmouth, examining how myth and fact interwove, before beginning on the journey to the more complex and nuanced understanding we have now.

More than half of the book is given over to the period prior to these islands entering into the written record, which Cunliffe describes as formerly belonging to 'shadowy pseudo-history'. It's quite moving reading Geoffrey of Monmouth, who belongs to this earlier semi-mythical phase, saying 'Britain, the best of islands... provides in unfailing plenty everything that is suited to the use of human beings', and then having Cunliffe, the modern post-enlightenment scholar concur, stating that indeed, 'The British Isles ... occupy a very favoured position in the world', and explaining why this is so (geology & climate).

At around 500 pages, with a very substantial 'further reading' section at the back, this is a serious book. But despite the books size, as Cunliffe concedes, his scope is so huge that it remains a very general and brisk overview of a huge subject. Chapters often conclude with summarising statements, which is helpful, and there are three 'interlude' chapters, dealing with such topics as language and religion. As he says in his preface, 'An archaeologist writing of the past must be constantly aware that the past is, in truth, unknowable. The best we can do is to offer approximations based on the fragments of hard evidence that we have to hand, ever conscious that we are interpreters. Like the myth-makers of the distant past, we are creating stories about our origins and our ancestors conditioned by the world in which we live'.

Unsurprisingly the nearest lands have been those to most consistently stock our genetic banks, with arrivals coming from land masses we now know as Spain, France, the Low Countries, Germany and Scandinavia, and in the Roman period an even wider ranging area. The first 9,000 years of this story are couched more in terms of generalities and theories, drawing primarily on the longer standing practice of antiquarianism, or what evolved into archaeology as we now know it, but also other associated areas, some of which, like our growing knowledge of genetics, are much more modern developments. The parts dealing with the last millennia become more like the kind of history many of us will know from school or general reading, with tales of kings and queens, war and invasion.

The 'innate mobility of humankind ... inherent in our genetic makeup' is a continuing theme throughout, existing in constant tension with the domesticating aspect of human culture, as waves of invaders and colonists seek first to find new territories and then to live in them. Throughout this continual ebb and flow human and material traffic continues, leaving behind trails of artefacts and monuments, from grand buildings to everyday waste. Rather like the amazing detective work of Darwin, this is a tale concerned with origins, and it's amazing what we can deduce from a close examination of the world around us, and how much that world can still tell us of our past.

As a generally interested reader of history I found this an extraordinary, fascinating, and very compelling read, fabulously supplemented by a rich array of graphic material. Loved it!
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Yet Another Cunliffe Masterpiece, 4 Nov 2012
By 
Colin Martin "cooly1uk" (Oban, Argyll) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Britain Begins (Hardcover)
Barry Cunliffe is surely one of Britain's finest ever historians and he doesn't disapoint here. As with his previous books 'Europe Between the Oceans' and 'Facing the Ocean' he has produced a fantastic review of the archaeology and history, this time of early Britain.

It's scholarly yet simple and full of illustrations, diagrams and maps. It works on all levels for history readers, whether you are a beginner or an expert. You will find this book addictive and thoroughly absorbing.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly but oh so readable, 21 Feb 2014
By 
P. L. Tickell - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Britain Begins (Paperback)
This is a tour de force: an overview of British Prehistory and how our knowledge of it has been advanced by science over the last 2 decades. It is a joy to read. It does not talk down to the reader but is, nevertheless, an interesting and detailed account of what we know and how it might be interpreted. Cunliffe freely admits that his theories may be "debunked" by future discoveries and advances in knowledge, just as the theories of the past have been altered but he argues the case for his ideas as a way forward.
A book for the intelligent lay person certainly but I wouldn't mind betting that this detailed summary would be useful to many an archaeological student or professional also.
Highly recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, 19 Dec 2013
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Basement Cat (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Britain Begins (Paperback)
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This is a fascinating book, covering the early origins of our country, almost up until the Norman Conquest in 1066. This is not an easy read, by any means, there is just so much information to absorb, but the many maps, photographs and drawings certainly help. I have not found that this is book which I have wanted to read from the beginning to the end so far, but rather, by looking through the index, I've found bits about interesting subjects, such as Doggerland, and read those in isolation. There is just so much incredible information within these pages - much more is known about our very early history than I had realised, and some of it has inspired me to investigate further into a period in history I had largely ignored until I got this book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A pot-boiler? But worth having., 9 Oct 2013
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This review is from: Britain Begins (Hardcover)
I looked forward to this latest book by Barry Cunliffe but regrettably was rather disappointed. There is, of course, nothing to quarrel about in the facts he presents, but I anticipated something new, a new perspective or insight, the sort of thing the author has taught us to expect of him.
Britain Begins gives the impression of a series of writings, perhaps penned at different times, stylistically even by different hands, that have been strung together, at times somewhat déjà vu. Then it is not quite clear who it is intended for - for instance he explains what an "ard" is but leaves "Bayesian statistics" and "wormian bones" unexplained and we are given dire warnings, National Geographic style, about what may happen to us if we don’t mend our environmental ways. The proof reading was lamentable: apart from purely linguistic considerations, we find things like “the sea-level sank 150 kilometres (surely metres?) below its present level”. My reservations, then, are mostly questions of edition – rather a shame coming from OUP.
The Guide to Further Reading is invaluable.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars epic sweep makes this an essential read, 29 April 2013
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S. McHugh "book addict" (Liverpool, GB) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Britain Begins (Kindle Edition)
Most archaeological books have a gaze that is too narrow to reveal much either in time or in space to the reader. Cunliffe's Britain Begins puts context and therefore meaning to the rubbish: the buried rings and brooches, the thrown away as useless, the gifts to the gods below the waters. This walk through the serried centuries before the First Millenium AD gives a panoramic view of the reoccupation of these islands as the ice withdrew, to the arrival of the first farmers cultures spreading across Europe by the Mediterranean shore and by the Danube-Rhine valleys, to the vast trading network of the Beaker Culture which erupted from Iberia and spread the very European celebration of Booze, Boasting and Binge-eating across the happy converts of the continent, to the Roman Conquest and its aftermath, with a fine impartial discussion of the DNA evidence of the variously interpreted results of Anglo-Saxon genocide or possibly apartheid or acculturation that did for the Celtic-speaking or Latin-speaking Romano-British.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars British Prehistory and Beyond, 1 April 2013
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This review is from: Britain Begins (Hardcover)
I really enjoyed this tour of prehistoric Britain and Beyond. As a novice to archaeology and the prehistory of the British Isles this was the book I needed. It described matters in simple terms although I did at times dip into my dictionary of archaelogy. It is beautifully illustrated. I shal refer back to in the future.
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Britain Begins
Britain Begins by Barry Cunliffe (Paperback - 18 July 2013)
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