74 of 75 people found the following review helpful
on 5 November 2012
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.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 5 December 2013
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.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 21 February 2014
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.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
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!
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
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!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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.
on 11 May 2015
The last settlement of Britain began around 3800 BC after the last ice age. DNA tests show that the blood of those first settlers still runs in our veins. But that was followed by wave after wave of immigration. We are (pace UKIP) a nation of immigrants.
Though this book is aimed at the general reader, there is a considerable amount of technical information in here. At times it is not an easy read. Professor Cunliffe details the methods we have available for the pre-historic period, both in terms of the DNA record and in the archaeological record. He is punctilious in identifying where speculation is taking over from simple interpretation. For example, if a new method for dealing with the dead occurs (e.g. burying or cremation rather than exposing the body), is this because a new people has moved in or because trade contacts have introduced new practices, or is it because of a new wave of immigration.
As the text moves into historical times with the Roman invasion, there are still uncertainties, though it seems almost certain that Saxons were present in Britain prior to the Romans. The history I was taught of the Britons being driven to the Western enclaves (and becoming the Welsh) by the Anglo-Saxon invasion is almost certainly incomplete at best.
The book finishes with the Norman conquest, where the old English elite was replaced, without widespread changes to the bulk of the population.
I found this a rewarding read, though definitely not an easy one in places.