The last Ice Age, which came to an end about 12,000 years ago, swept the bands of hunter gatherers from the face of the land that was to become Britain and Ireland, but as the ice sheets retreated and the climate improved so human groups spread slowly northwards, re-colonizing the land that had been laid waste. From that time onwards Britain and Ireland have been continuously inhabited and the resident population has increased from a few hundreds to more than 60 million.
Britain Begins is nothing less than the story of the origins of the British and the Irish peoples, from around 10,000BC to the eve of the Norman Conquest. Using the most up to date archaeological evidence together with new work on DNA and other scientific techniques which help us to trace the origins and movements of these early settlers, Barry Cunliffe offers a rich narrative account of the first islanders - who they were, where they came from, and how they interacted one with another.
Underlying this narrative throughout is the story of the sea, which allowed the islanders and their continental neighbours to be in constant contact. The story told by the archaeological evidence, in later periods augmented by historical texts, satisfies our need to know who we are and where we come from. But before the development of the discipline of archaeology, people used what scraps there were, gleaned from Biblical and classical texts, to create a largely mythological origin for the British.
Britain Begins also explores the development of these early myths, which show our ancestors attempting to understand their origins. And, as Cunliffe shows, today's archaeologists are driven by the same desire to understand the past - the only real difference is that we have vastly more evidence to work with.
1: In the Beginning: Myths and Ancestors
2: Britain Emerges: the Stage is Set
3: Interlude: Enter the Actors
4: Settlement Begins 10,000 - 4200 BC
5: New People, New Ideas 4200 - 3000 BC
6: Mobilizing materials: a New Connectivity 3000 - 1500 BC
7: Interlude: Talking to Each Other
8: The Productive Land in The Age of Warriors 1500 - 800 BC
9: Episodes of Conflict 800 - 60 BC
10: Interlude: Approaching the Gods
11: Integration: the Roman Episode 60 BC - AD 350
12: 'Its Red and Savage Tongue', AD 350 - 650
13: The Age of the Northmen AD 600 - 1100
14: Of Myths and Realities: an epilogue
A Guide to Further Reading
Barry Cunliffe taught archaeology in the Universities of Bristol and Southampton and was Professor of European Archaeology at the University of Oxford from 1972 to 2008, thereafter becoming Emeritus Professor. He has excavated widely in Britain (Fishbourne, Bath, Danebury, Hengistbury Head, Brading) and in the Channel Islands, Brittany, and Spain, and has been President of the Council for British Archaeology and of the Society of Antiquaries, Governor of the Museum of London, and a Trustee of the British Museum. He is currently a Commissioner of English Heritage. His many publications include The Ancient Celts, Facing the Ocean, and The Druids: A Very Short Introduction. He received a knighthood in 2006.
"the best available synthesis of research on the early peopling of these islands [...] with marvellous maps and illustrations"
- Stephen Howe, The Independent, 08-12-2012
"When it comes to hard facts, Cunliffe has the data, and the often dramatically beautiful or startling photographs to give them life. His whole account must create a renewed respect for our British and Irish ancestors."
- Tom Shippey, the Guardian, Saturday 08-12-2012
"Cunliffe steers a masterful course thorugh more than 11 millennia of human development [...] This beautifully produced and informative work of synthesis and interpretation will provide an ideal starting point for those interested in the British past and a useful point of re-engagement for those who feel that they are already over-familiar with the basic narrative."
– BBC History Magazine
"Barry Cunliffe's account is handsomely produced and impeccable in its scholarship, the nearest thing we have to a definitive account of Britain's story from the end of the ice Age to the Norman Conquest."
– The Scotsman
"Sweeping from the end of the last Ice Age to the eve of the Norman Conquest, this book contains a vast amount of information, accessibly presented. It is an enjoyable journey, and one that never loses sight of the wider picture."
– Current Archaeology