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Book Review


Barry Cunliffe, Britain Begins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xi + 553. $29.95 (hardcover)


     There is something to be said for a book that can draw a reader into its world without bringing humans into the picture until the first 100 pages have passed. Barry Cunliffe's Britain Begins does precisely that and is a master work by an accomplished writer, archeologist and historian. Covering the period from the geological formation of the British Isles through the age of the Vikings, Cunliffe traces the patterns and significant changes that these thousands of years brought to the British Isles, employing a vast array of pictures, maps and diagrams to support his analysis. Combining an obviously deep understanding and experience in archeology with a clear view of the story Cunliffe wants to tell, Britain Begins beautifully navigates the path of the history of human society in Britain, balancing detail and exegesis with a deft hand.

     Cunliffe opens his book unexpectedly, summarizing the myths and legends that were used across European history to provide an explanation for the ancestry of the British people. In the first chapter, titled "In the Beginning: Myths and Ancestors," Cunliffe summarizes the origin myths that the British and others used to explain (and perhaps rationalize) the Island's long rise to greatness. There are three such myths: a grandson of Aeneas (Britto), who flees to Britain; a descendant of one of the tribes of Israel (also called Britto) and, finally, Brutus, an invented character that combines the Roman and Jewish traditions into one figure. This opening provides a nice counter-point to the remaining work, which details the non-mythical evolution of life, society and human culture in Britain.

     In the following chapters, "Britain Emerges: the Stage is Set" (chapter two, "Interlude: Enter the Actors" (chapter three), and "Settlement Begins" (chapter four), Cunliffe explores the geological and natural foundations that supported the first presence of humans in the British Isles. Opening with a quote from the twelfth-century writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth, that "Britain is the best of islands," these chapters (and the ones that follow) explore why humans continually sought out Britain as a favored space to make their home. Here, as in the rest of the book, Monmouth primarily relies of archeological evidence (supplemented by a few textual sources) to reveal the picture of society and culture during the period under study. In the next set of chapters, "New People, New Ideas" (chapter five), "Mobilizing Materials: A New Connectivity" (chapter six), "Interlude: Talking to Each Other" (chapter seven), and "The Productive Land in the Age of Warriors" (chapter eight), Britain Begins examines the Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Bronze Age periods in Britain. As noted below, Cunliffe uses his thematic approach here to great effect, clearly laying out the dynamics of what would become, by the end of these periods, a rich, complex and inter-connected network of societies.

     Moving onto more familiar ground (for historians, at least), the next set of chapters, especially ("Episodes of Conflict" (chapter nine), examine the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age and the Celtic/Gaelic culture that underlay that technological shift in metalworking. Cunliffe pauses in Chapter ten, "Interlude: Approaching the Gods," to explore that most interesting facet of pre-Roman Britain, the Druids and their associated beliefs. As with the rest of this work, Cunliffe provides the reader with a snapshot of the features of this belief system. Cunliffe ends his work with the remaining set of chapters, "Integration: The Roman Episode" (chapter eleven), "'Its Red and Savage Tongue'" (chapter twelve), and "The Age of the Northmen" (chapter thirteen). These chapters detail the familiar story of the evolution of British society as the Gaelic peoples inhabiting the Island suffered from and came to terms with a succession of invaders from mainland and Scandinavian Europe.

     Cunliffe's writing is clear and crisp, aided by the use of several themes that arc through the work. One such theme is "an understanding of the networks of connections that bind Britain to the neighboring continent" (64). Throughout the work, Cunliffe shows how elements of continental European culture are transmitted to and thus influence the evolution of life in Britain. For example, tools are a common source of information used by Cunliffe to reveal features of the various British societies that evolve on the Island. In Chapter five, "New People, New Ideas," Cunliffe uses the evidence of a particular stone axe (made of a jadeite found only in the Italian Piedmont) to show how Neolithic Britain had clear trade and contact with continental Europe, as these jadeite axes were found along specific trade routes from western Europe to Ireland and Iberia to Scotland (168-69). As with many other such goods examined by Cunliffe, the river networks and seaways of Europe and Britain provide the routes for these connections. Other such themes informing Cunliffe's work are "the innate mobility of human-kind" and the importance of social structures designed "to encourage and reward such mobility" (490). Using these themes allows Cunliffe (and the reader) to coherently navigate the rich and varied material evidence of the thousands of years of human history covered in this book.

     As with all works of this scale, there are moments where a different approach might have made for an easier journey through this work. Cunliffe spends time on certain subjects that feel neither necessary nor relevant to the narrative he's creating. For example, in a few places in his work, Cunliffe reviews DNA evidence, an obviously valuable data set concerning the evolution of the British people. However, Cunliffe admits he is a non-specialist in the "Enter the Actors" chapter and, though he spends some six pages detailing the scientific background of DNA studies, writes "[s]ufficient (perhaps too much) has been said to show that the study of genetics . . . has limitations" (91). The decision to present the science of DNA seems rather unconnected to Cunliffe's goal and bogs the reader in a side-line that turns out to be of limited value. To be fair, these reactions might be explained by the fact that I am a historian reading a book written by an archeologist with all that difference implies. To ameliorate these shortcomings, Cunliffe has included a " Guide to Further Reading," a thirty-three page annotated bibliography of works exploring the topics raised in Britain Begins, organized by the book's chapter subjects. The Guide is an invaluable resource and wonderfully supports the text, focusing as it does on current research in the various fields.

     Cunliffe writes in his Preface that "[i]t is part of the human condition that we feel the need to visualize a past" (v). With Britain Begins, Cunliffe has brought the landscape of the early archeology and history of Britain into clear and crisp view. Because the book examines each chapter's subject in very fine detail, it may not be of easy use in the classroom by students at the secondary or undergraduate levels. However, as a teacher of British history, the book contains wealth of explanatory data information that will enrich and enliven lectures dealing with this part of the Island's history. The usefulness of the text for a teacher is further supported by Cunliffe's use of overarching themes, as noted above. Recent scholarship in world history seeks to reorient the narratives of world history around 'global phenomena,' common or shared experiences that exist beyond the nation state and are shared human experiences. Cunliffe's thematic approach aligns with that scholarship. In sum, those curious about the origins of life, and the features of that life, in Britain could find few books better to satiate that interest than Britain Begins.

Thomas Rushford is an Associate Professor of History at Northern Virginia Community College, teaching classes in European and World History. He can be reached at


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