Britain Begins

Barry Cunliffe

Oxford University Press 2012
A book review by Danny Yee © 2021
Britain Begins is an accessible but quite probing account of Britain, from the end of the last ice age down to the Norman Conquest; it is primarily archaeological in approach but draws on history and other disciplines, from geology to linguistics.

Cunliffe moves backwards and forwards between details and "the big picture", linking individual sites and artefacts to broader patterns of settlement and trade. This is supported by an excellent assortment of maps, diagrams and photographs, mostly of landscapes and sites and artefacts.

"A button of Whitby jet has been found in an Armorican grave, and it is a distinct possibility that the amber items found in Armorica at the time arrived via Wessex. One notable aspect of the distribution of Whitby jet is the way it spread up the east coast of Britain as far as the Orkney Islands, demonstrating the vitality of east coast cabotage."
"Figure 12.4. In the late fourth century the defences of a number of the towns of Britain were strengthened with forward-projecting bastions and wide, shallow ditches to keep would-be attackers within the optimum killing range of defenders manning the walls and towers."

This is all worked into an engaging account. Cunliffe acknowledges the challenges of inferring social structures and personal motivations from material culture, but is prepared to speculate and conjecture a little, occasionally telling little stories or painting pictures.

"The feasting probably took place in the residences of the elite perhaps in the large circular houses found in the ring forts of Ireland and the eastern parts of Britain. One can imagine the cauldron hanging from the roof apex over a centrally placed hearth, with the guests sitting around telling tales of past deeds, drinking, and boasting, the atmosphere becoming increasingly aggressive as the evening progressed."

The last quarter of Britain Begins, dealing with the Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods, is perhaps less compelling. Cunliffe tries to keep the focus on the "longue durĂ©e" and broader changes, but even a skeletal historical narrative takes up a lot of space. Another weakness is that, published in 2012, Britain Begins lacks input from the last decade's work in paleogenomics. And here Cunliffe seems to have got the wrong end of the stick in a few places — in arguing for an Anatolian origin for Indo-European, for example, and in downplaying the extent of demographic replacement at the Neolithic transition. But these are minor quibbles.

October 2021

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%T Britain Begins
%A Cunliffe, Barry
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2012
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN-13 9780199679454
%P 553pp