Top critical review
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A mixed and infuriating bag
on 23 June 2011
This book doesn't quite do what it claims in its overwrought title. It stops dead at a point about 11,000 years ago when humans gained a permanent foothold in Britain, skips quickly over the development of human life in Britain from 11k ago until the present day, and then jumps to a tired polemic about the dangers of climate change. This is a shame because the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project on which the book is based is fascinating, and the writer is clearly an authority on the subject.
It covers its subject chronologically, which seems fair enough, and it contains a great deal that is not about human life, but about the context in which it was lived. Again, that is fair enough, but the structure and narrative seem confused at times. Sub-sections would have helped enormously, as would a reworking of the text so that we could read about the climatic context, then the more general environmental context in terms of flora and fauna, and then about where and how humans lived in those contexts. Instead, it reads as a series of detailed descriptions of different archaeological digs, and so jumps about all over the place. Pulling out bits of information about how and where people lived, and why they ended up there is not a particularly easy task.
The writing style lurches from clear, dry academic prose that would not be out of place in Nature to weak attempts at a more populist style: anything unexpected, for example, always seems to be "astonishing;" never intriguing or perplexing or surprising.
Someone else here describes this book as a curate's egg, and they're right. It is as if the publisher took an original text that comprised a "mash-up" of academic papers, first topped and tailed it with a brief history of the human archaeology at one end (to give it popular appeal), and a rant about climate change at the other (to give it "relevance"), and then had the author edit it to make it more "accessible."
Of the 250-odd pages, only about half cover the topic; the rest comprise the top/tail chapters and over-extensive biographies of the AHOB team (about forty pages in all).
All that said, it's a useful book to start with. Best to get it from the library, skim through it, and then use the index and reading list to follow up the topic in more depth elsewhere.