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43 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Surrounded by our Ancient Past
I'm already a fan of the author, having read some of his earlier work, including 'A History of Scotland', which I thoroughly enjoyed. I find his enthusiasm as a broadcaster and archaeologist fully engaging. This book goes back into the ancient history of the British Isles. When he says ancient he means it. Fossil records of pre-neaderthal man have been found in Wales...
Published on 14 Sep 2011 by Donald Scott

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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars reads as he speaks
the text reads as the presenter speaks and this can become wearing after a while. Found that during one chapter it then wandered off through the ages into Scottish history, I had to re-read twice and then check I hadn't accidently hit his History of Scotland by mistake which was also on my kindle, still confused by that passage as it ends as abruply as it started and then...
Published 19 months ago by debbiem


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43 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Surrounded by our Ancient Past, 14 Sep 2011
By 
Donald Scott (Scotland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: A History of Ancient Britain (Hardcover)
I'm already a fan of the author, having read some of his earlier work, including 'A History of Scotland', which I thoroughly enjoyed. I find his enthusiasm as a broadcaster and archaeologist fully engaging. This book goes back into the ancient history of the British Isles. When he says ancient he means it. Fossil records of pre-neaderthal man have been found in Wales dating back to before the last Ice Age. Our early British ancestors, Homo Erectus, began to use stone tools at some point around 1 million years ago. The earliest hominid remains, of Homo heidelbergensis, were discovered in Britain date back 500,000 years, being found in Boxgrove, West Sussex in 1993. These time scales are mind boggling, and I think put into perspective just how our species has developed a DNA of tenacity and adaptability. Oliver explores the life and experiences of our early ancestors, using geography and psychology as major factors influencing the way they lived and developed.

We think times are hard today with recession, global warming and EEC banking meltdown in the news everyday. If nothing else this work helps keep things in perspective. Compared to our early predecessors we've got it easy. This is a very well researched work, full of thought provoking material. Including the fact that we were once linked to continental Europe along Dogger Bank, (an old Dutch word for a cod fishing boat), before a huge Norwegian Tsunami flooded the East coast of the British Isles with vast volumes of water. Almost unbelievable to think of the devastation this event caused to those caught up in the catastrophe.

This book is a wonderful contribution to the history of the British Isles from Deep Time to the Middle Ages. Definitely one of my favourite books from this year.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Big Surprise, 21 Jan 2013
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I ordered the book for my granddaughter having previously purchased a copy for myself to read on a long flight.
Obviously I had not finished reading it by touch-down but found much of the pre-history gripping. What I was taught in school during the 30s/40s had not even been discovered and I became painfully aware of my complete lack of knowledge about my my mother country.
I liked the way the author led painlessly from one era to another. The vastness of the early millennial periods is quite literally staggering.
norman.g@iburst.co.za.

British readers will find their sense of pride as they discover what their forefathers managed to do with a mere modicum of equipment.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not as Good as the TV Series, 2 April 2012
By 
Nicholas Casley (Plymouth, Devon, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: A History of Ancient Britain (Hardcover)
Like the TV series, Neil Oliver's book is not a general sweeping history of ancient Britain as such. Rather, he illustrates the ages by moving from insightful example to insightful example. The eight chapters of the book mirror those of the TV series, but I feel Oliver made a mistake here, for each episode lasted an exhausting hour; reading each chapter took far longer. As well as the use of imperial measurements (with no metric equivalents - this is the twenty-first century!), the book suffers from a lack of any maps and too few illustrations.

Oliver starts with the Big Bang, moving swiftly onto the origins of humans and of their unique relationship with time: "This urge to keep track is part service to the future and part vanity ... memory ... remembering ... history ... these are uniquely human." What follows is a replay of the TV series but with a great deal more flesh on the bones and told in a slightly different order within each chapter. There are clever and sometimes witty common threads running through the text, for example linking the narrative of Stone Age man's presence in Britain with the acceptance of geological and ancient-historical realities by our nineteenth-century forbears.

Oliver peppers his text with personal observations and experiences, which adds to the sense of his conversational style. The book is well-written, sometimes beautifully so. When he is in full flow, sometimes whole paragraphs are worth quoting, so full of profound insight are they and so wonderfully written, for example the first few pages of the chapter on `Bronze' where the author addresses issues of population and renewal. But also sometimes Oliver's text is strangely tedious, and awkward links are made, such as that to Bronze Age boats via seemingly-inappropriate references to Dark Age Scotland.

Indeed, links between paragraphs are often too radical and contrived (such as the first few pages of `Invasion'). It's as if he written on one item, and then on another, but seeks to make a join with the minimum of glue. Or rather he has a specific written description of an encounter with archaeology - in this case the Stirling torcs - and he clumsily slots this into the middle of his discussion about cross-channel relations between pre-Roman Britain and Gaul.

But Oliver has a knack of using short soundbites that surprise the reader with profound truths: for instance, that the introduction of agriculture may have transformed prehistoric man's relationship with the land in more ways than one - the hunter-gatherer belonged to the land, but the land belonged to the farmer. Another example: "It is strange to think the first people to spend the time inside permanent buildings in Britain were the dead."

Oliver likens archaeology to salvaging the Mary Celeste. But whereas the TV series begged so many questions, the book allows space for some answers and some explanatory details. But there is still much fog in this book that demands more light. There is much speculation of course: could not the throwing `sticks' carved onto the stone in Table des Marchands at Carnac rather be corn in the breeze? And there is no reason why hunting and gathering landscapes could not have existed side by side in the Neolithic with farmed landscapes (they did in Norman England). And could the "extremely unusual deformity" of the bones of the feet of both the Amesbury archer (from the Alps) AND his younger English companion be of ritual rather than genetic origin?

Unfortunately, sometimes Oliver's empathy with the ancient world betrays modern stereotypes. I had to re-read the following sentence about the Poltallach necklace to ensure I had read it right: "Such delicate finery was surely intended for a woman." And sometimes he (or rather his editor) commits offences of omission: when describing the "enormous rock-cut chamber" at the heart of the largest prehistoric copper mine in the world, he fails to inform us of its actual size! There are also some (embarrassing) errors: Krakatoa is WEST of Java; Bristol is omitted from the list of the eleven principal cities of Britain; and Birmingham has not been a busy urban centre for at least a thousand years.

There is no bibliography as such; rather, a string of haphazard references to various items raised in each chapter. Many of these are websites. Unfortunately not everything is covered, for I wanted to pursue the points he raises about DNA and language. There is also nothing, for example, on the Colchester circus.

In summary, I learned a lot from reading this book, for example that stone circles are virtually unknown outside Britain. But in truth, the book is not as good as the TV series. Beyond the engaging passages about philosophy and time, the contents jump too haphazardly from stage to stage and from site to site - and none of this with the illustrative support that the TV series can provide.
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Like poetry, but easier to understand, 27 Sep 2011
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This review is from: A History of Ancient Britain (Hardcover)
My reading of this book did not start out well, as I encountered that howler which movie buffs will recognize, the placing of the volcano Krakatoa as being east of Java. I worried that maybe the book had not been fact-checked. Then the text made so many references to the work of Sir Barry Cunliffe and Francis Pryor that I thought, why not just read (in my case, re-read) what they have written. But gradually it became clear what this book is --- a comprehensive survey of Britain's prehistory and the Roman period along with a very personalised and engaging interpretation of it all. The writing is at its best when trying to get into the minds of ancient people. The descriptions of how handaxes were made and how they feel in the hand, and what it's like to smelt metal from ore, are particularly good. That is in the tradition, but not the format, of Steven Mithen's book After the Ice. Neil Oliver's word pictures are excellent, but there are also two sections of high-quality photos not referenced in the text which show some of the places and things described. That is, after the author wrote the text, an editor stuck in some separate pictures. So I suggest that, like a child does with a new book, look at all the pictures before you start reading, and find the relevant photo when the text jogs your memory. Much of the action in prehistoric and Roman Britain took place in the south of the island, but unlike some other books, this one is balanced with lots of information about Scotland too. I was delighted that after the author described a rare fragment of 1,800 year old fabric, he digressed to note that Scottish clan tartans are not ancient, authentic, or from the Highlands, and they were not even designed by Scotsmen. (They were an Edinburgh marketing ploy in the 1820s.) Well done true Scotsman Neil Oliver for telling it like it is. No footnotes, but a useful bibliography which actually includes lots of URLs, and for good sources too --- only one is for a Wikipedia entry (on "British language"). So I certainly recommend this book as an up-to-date, thorough, and inexpensive survey and interpretation of prehistoric and Roman Britain. The Amazon listing for this book does not currently have a "look inside" feature, so I confess I looked through the book and bought my copy at Waterstone's.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars reads as he speaks, 16 Dec 2012
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the text reads as the presenter speaks and this can become wearing after a while. Found that during one chapter it then wandered off through the ages into Scottish history, I had to re-read twice and then check I hadn't accidently hit his History of Scotland by mistake which was also on my kindle, still confused by that passage as it ends as abruply as it started and then carries on with the rest of the history. Hence only three stars as I feel it should have been more tightly edited.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A slightly flawed masterpiece, 30 Jun 2012
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P. Bolwell (Hastings, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: A History of Ancient Britain (Hardcover)
This is the book I have been waiting for! The antecedents of the British people is a subject that has long fascinated me and at last we have a proper, full-length yet approachable and easily-understood study of the subject.

A word of warning however: I know nothing about Neil Oliver (I gather from comments in his "introduction" that this book is a spin-off from a television series which I did not see). He says he is an archaeologist, and for all I know a very good one: we non-specialists have to take him on trust so far as that goes. I was disturbed however to discover that when he strays from his particular field of expertise, he is surprisingly prone to rather basic errors of fact.

For example, who on earth told Neil Oliver that before the inter-planetary collision that formed the moon, the earth's orbit around the sun would have been circular rather than elliptical? As any A-level physics student knows, all planetary orbits are, must be, and always have been elliptical: remember Kepler's First Law of Motion? (see me afterwards, Oliver!) Also, it is absolutely not true that the crescent moon is caused by the earth's shadow falling on it. That cannot possibly be the case in fact since the new moon only appears when the moon is closer to the sun than we are! Oh and by the way, Krakatoa was actually west of Java, not east (don't rely too much on Hollywood to teach you teh facts of geography!)

These are minor quibbles in what was otherwise a fascinating and informative book, which is particularly good at really getting under the skin of the people who lived in ancient Britain and imagining their world and the kind of society they lived in. To adopt the rather over-used cliche, the author really does "bring the past to life". However I confess it always makes me uneasy when the only facts in a book which I am able to check, or which I know something about already, are demonstrably wrong. It would be good to see another archaeologist do a review of the book as regards its archaeological reliability.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly Excellent !, 23 April 2013
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Why surprisingly ? Being a keen follower of Neil on 'Coast', I had not expected such a seriously scholarly, yet surprisingly readable tome as this is ! It seemed to go on for ever, and I enjoyed almost every page of it. So why was I surprised ? I had simply not expected that Neil was as thoroughly knowledgeable as he obviously is; my mistake. He has gone up hugely in my estimation. I was a Neil fan before; but now I guess I must be a groupie !!
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Philosophy or History, 15 Feb 2013
This book seems a strange mix of the author's personal views and philosophical ramblings, particularly in the early chapters where there is less concrete archaeological material to describe. It becomes tedious at times and detracts from the interesting factual content. Hence the 3 star rating.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A well written history of Humans by somone who knows how to convey knowledge in an exciting and interesting manner., 3 July 2014
This review is from: A History of Ancient Britain (Hardcover)
This book is even better than "A history of Scotland" in terms of his infectious enthusiasm and vast knowledge of the subject shining through even brighter.
This is really world history, viewed and analysed from a well placed rock in Scotland.
He manages to not bog the reader down in minute technical detail meant for his fellow archeologists. Instead one is invited to take part in his fascination with everything from stone tools to roman villas and the mere fact that we're are here at all, and all the things that had to happen exactely so, for that to be the case.
Mr. Oliver livens matters up with personal anectdotes and funny, well timed remarks that makes what he is talking about come to life.
One can't help but notice that he's very fascinated with pre-history. How it has shaped all things and all peoples that have come and gone since. And that the physical world we live in is inescapable insofar as it will always dictate what resources we have access to, and what will be important to us; be it bronze or clean water, seeing as we now have come dangerously close to overpopulating this planet of ours.
He manages not to say too much about current events, but gives his opinion, tentatively, about how recent historic events have influenced the UK and Scotland in particular, and how they might impact on society in future. However, he doesn't pretend to have a crystal ball and states that the present is not to be commented on by an historian, for obvious reasons.

Mr. Oliver is a teacher. He has that rare ability to convey knowledge in an exciting and constructive manner, and draw people in. There is no higher praise to be had from me.

On an organizational note there ought to have been a map of the UK in the book seeing as how some of us are somewhat geographically challenged. And perhaps also a timeline of sorts, to make the concept of deep time a bit more tangible.
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5.0 out of 5 stars wonderful concise book., 1 Jun 2014
bought the book and thoroughly enjoyed it, read it cover to cover in four days. excellent and very concise, everything well explained.
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A History of Ancient Britain by Neil Oliver (Hardcover - 15 Sep 2011)
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