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  • Writer's picturePaul Jameson

Book Review: A History of Ancient Britain (By Neil Oliver)

I might have mentioned I’m beginning a Masters in Celtic Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David. I’m very excited; nervous too given the strange state of my brain and mental health since whenever. It’ll be a challenge, quite different to what it might have been before the breakdowns, but one I hope to enjoy.

Already it’s got me doing things.

  • Talking on the phone

  • Sorting out online enrolment and IT access

  • Taking mug shots of myself (for the ID Card you understand)

  • Sorting out Finance with Student Finance England

  • Participating in an online seminar.

I have noticed I get tired quickly though, and juggling more than one or two simple tasks is exhausting. Likewise, reading takes its toll, so I’m hoping practice will improve my ability to digest and absorb information again. Fingers crossed, given so much will be centred on this. To ease myself in – so to speak and given a book review is one of the early course tasks – I decided I should read a broad overview of Ancient History to see how, where, why and when the Celts fitted in to the lineage of Ancient Britain.

I chose to read (found in the local library at Sandy):

A History of Ancient Britain

by Neil Oliver

Unfortunately my choice is not 'academically suitable' and so instead I'm now reading Barry Cunliffe's Britain Begins. Rather than let my first attempt at an academic review go to waste, I figured I'd let it loose as a blog post.

So, if you're interested in books on Ancient History, here are my thoughts:

Assessment Task One: Book Review Formatted for and published as a Studia Celtica book review:

Neil Oliver, A History of Ancient Britain (Hachette: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2011; Paperback Edition, Orion Books: Phoenix, 2012). Pp. Xvii + 452. UK£ 8.99/CA$16.99. ISBN 978-0-7538-2886-1

Neil Oliver is an archaeologist, historian, television presenter and journalist, well known in Britain for involvement in BBC television programmes such as ‘Coast’, ‘The Celts’ and ‘A History of Ancient Britain’. This multi-disciplinary book compliments the latter BBC series. It’s an ambitious, broad-brush overview of a vast timeline that stretches from a pre-history of ice and stone, and transitions through nomadic hunter-gatherers to the advent of more settled agrarian communities; considering along the way the evolution of society, religious thought, trade, metallurgy, rise of the Celts and coming of Roman occupation. Themes explored are complimented by first-hand experience of archaeological sites and finds, access to experts in the field, detailed descriptions of burial sites, ancient monuments, artefacts and belongings, and time is given to more recent theories based on scientific studies, such as DNA analysis and linguistic family. Academic debate is evaluated, new thoughts and proposals being put forward by Oliver that are interesting and at times contentious. It makes for a fascinating read.

To encompass half a million years of human habitation, Oliver has divided the book into broad themes to identify with evolutionary stages in the development of firstly the geography and geology of the British Isles, followed by that of mankind and society. Thus we are presented with a long age of land formation in ‘Ice’, a coming of Mesolithic Hunters and Neolithic Farmers detailed in ‘Ancestors’ and ‘Cosmology’, followed by an analysis of the impact of metal on Britannia in ‘Bronze’, ‘Iron’ and ‘Warriors’. Finally the coming of Rome and its impact on an existing social order is considered in ‘Invasion’ and ‘Romans’. It’s a breakdown that makes sense and is easy to follow, each theme accompanied by a bibliography that enables readers to engage in additional research and reading. However, as Oliver points out, themes are arbitrary lines drawn in the sands of time to aid in academic categorisation. In reality, life is more complicated, less structured.

So it is that after unimaginably long eras of ice and water carving Britannia out of rock and raising mountains, sinking valleys, Oliver introduces us to the Red Lady of Paviland; an 1822 archaeological discovery of an ancient grave site on the Gower Peninsular, South Wales. The way Oliver tackles this discovery comes to typify how he tackles all archaeological finds, events and sites detailed in the book. With a real sense of wonder, sensitivity and lyrical turn of phrase, he considers a history of an archaeological discovery; the mistakes or issues associated with original interpretations, before bringing to bear his experience and the expertise of contemporary academics in archaeology, history and social evolution to further interpret evidence in light of new, more recent findings, thoughts and argument. In doing, he paints a vivid picture in a reader’s eye that humanises what might have been and makes for an engaging read:

In the case of the Red Lady of Paviland, she is a man, not Roman in age as originally interpreted by William Buckland in 1822, but rather some 33,000 years old. Indeed the Red Lady of Paviland is the oldest ceremonial burial in Western Europe; he being a Homo neanderthalensis of the Old Stone Age period.

It’s fascinating, more so for how Oliver narrates the tale; and it’s his writing style that is one of the strengths of the book. He uses it to humanise finds, engage readers in historical and archaeological interpretation, paints a picture of the geography and society that existed in different times, and considers how the life of an ancient individual might have been influenced and impacted upon against a broader backdrop of long-term societal change and evolution. It provides for a rare insight. In this way Oliver takes readers on an epic archaeological journey through Ancient Britain.

Nor does Oliver shy from complex thought or contentious debate in the writing. This is seen in a consideration of religion and belief. Oliver accepts Megalithic Hunters and Neolithic farmers, the onset of settlement and agriculture, originated in the East, migrating its way westward to Britain. This conforms to traditional nineteenth century models for the spread of civilisation. However, he goes on to engage readers in a consideration of academic thought that was developed in the 1960s and is being built on to this day; proposals that the flow of ideas, religious belief, knowledge and culture isn’t simply a one-directional event. Rather, it’s a much more complex and multi-directional communicative process. Oliver proposes that rather than Britannia being solely a recipient on a periphery of life, the isles were potentially central to the development of religious thought and belief in an emerging European Celtic culture. He argues that, in all feasibility, religious thought and practice flowed out of the west and into the east.

In support of this proposal, Oliver visits archaeology that is spread the length and breadth of Britain, including Avebury, Stonehenge, and majestic Neolithic monuments far to the north in Orkney. He considers a complexity and majesty of the build, their importance in the scheme of Europe, and the meaning to peoples across time. He advances on to cite writings of Rome that identify their fear of a druidic priesthood centred on the Isle of Anglesey in Wales. In an effort to forever end what Romans saw as a threat to their way of religious life and thought, they not only took military action but went on to subsume many of the Pagan Gods and celebrations into the Christian calendar. It’s an interesting proposal, attractive and well argued by Oliver.

Besides the spread of religious thought and belief, the book details many other areas of scholarly debate and interest. It considers the impact of agriculture and trade on society, evidences rich mineral wealth with visits to pre-historic mining operations in Wales, and explores an industrialisation of agriculture, trade and mining in a pre-historic Britain more advanced than many might imagine. We are introduced to the effects of a growing population, moves to control resources and an emergence of hill forts, towns, slavery, wealth and warfare. He considers the rise of the warrior elite, the birth of Celtic tribes and formation of kingdoms; supplemented at all times by a consideration of existing archaeology. Indeed, with a sense of regret Oliver finally introduces the coming of Rome. The Empire brings with it luxuries, fashion, writing and administration, ‘modern’ ways that see much of Britannia – though not all – leave behind the realms of pre-history and forsake its liminal edge at the end of the world.

Although an excellent book, there were two points that might be considered weaknesses.

The first is selfish on my part; it being I’d have loved more exploration of and details about the intricacies of the Celts, the invasion of Rome and its eventual withdrawal. This is because I find Oliver’s writing so engaging, but I recognise that in a general book it's not the place for such encounters.

The second is from an academic standing. Oliver can, on occasion, become so involved in events that in an effort to appeal to imagination his writing flirts with fancy. It might even be accused of fantasy. An example encountered is in his portrayal of perceived emotional loss by nomadic hunters at the advent of agriculture. Although engaging writing, we can’t assume to know the emotions of others today let alone thousands of years ago. Thankfully this is rare, and Oliver’s writing remains a great strength of the book.

Indeed, A History of Ancient Britain is an excellent read, engaging, accessible and of value to a wide audience. It will entertain casual readers with passing interests in archaeology, history and the pre-history of these isles, and engage aficionados with more focussed interests in Britannia, the Celts or Rome. I’d highly recommend the book as a general reading exercise for students at undergraduate or postgraduate levels, in disciplines such as archaeology, history and ancient studies; any that might benefit from a broad overview of the pre-history of Ancient Britain, a context of events in societal evolution, an appreciation of the wealth of archaeological finds in this country, and an insight into the debates that exist relative to the British Isles, its ancient peoples, and her Celtic tribes. It really is an informative, engaging read.

Try it.


About Paul:

Paul suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). This involves a range of visual and auditory hallucinations, among other strange challenges; he channels this into his fiction and uses writing as a road to recovery.


If there's a topic you'd like me to consider in a blog, a book you think I really need to read and review, or a TV Series you think I'd enjoy (and you'd like me to include it in my blog) drop me a line and let me know.

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