A History of Ancient Britain

Pre-Roman Britain is a bit of a mystery (to me, at least). Last year, I picked up A History of Ancient Britain by Neil Oliver. Apparently, there was a TV series, which I didn’t realise until sometime after I read the book. I completely missed the BBC logo on the front cover.

From the time of the retreat of the ice sheet that had covered Britain – or the piece of land that would come to be what we know as Britain – roughly 10000 years ago to the arrival of the Romans, Oliver looks at the archaeological finds that tell us something about how people lived during this time.

There’s Cheddar Man, the earliest complete skeleton found in Britain and about 9000 years old, who would have lived in an environment similar to ours. There are the many stone circles and barrows and structures that may have been temples, mausoleums or houses that line up with the rising and setting of the sun. There are tools which show sophisticated technology, and the remains of mining tunnels where people burrowed for tin and copper. There are decorative and symbolic objects that tell us that people had surplus wealth, but we can only speculate what these things meant.

Then there’s the boat. The oldest known seagoing boat in the world was found in Dover in 1992. It’s about 3500 years old. Reading about it in A History of Ancient Britain inspired a trip to the Dover Museum to see it in real life. The Museum is much like any small town museum: some interesting things and a high dose of oddness. The Bronze Age Boat Gallery is amazing. The boat is in a sealed glass cabinet to ensure it doesn’t disintegrate and it surrounded by documentation about it’s construction and the project to reconstruct it using tools and techniques available to people of the time. Definitely worth the trip. It’s one of those magical museum experiences where the sense of time collapses and you can feel the overlay of the past on the present.

Neil Oliver has an engaging writing style and the book is very accessible. Interspersed with the historical facts are vignettes about the archaeologists and researchers Oliver met while filming for his various TV series (somehow I still didn’t cotton on to the fact that there was a TV series of this book, which I only discovered while looking for a cover image for this post, but in hindsight, it all makes sense now). There are also a few flights of fancy about what life might have been like for people living in Britain thousands of years ago. They are clearly signposted as imagination and help to bring it vividly to life.

I enjoyed this immensely and would highly recommend it.

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