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Britain Begins by Barry Cunliffe
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Britain Begins

by Barry Cunliffe

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An extremely readable overview of the history of Britain for the general reader who wants a rigorous introduction, without getting bogged down in footnotes and citations. It has relevant illustrations and useful maps setting out sites of particular interest mentioned in the text.
To use Barry Cunliffe's words:
This book attempts to do two things: first, to give an account of how past writers have tried to understand the peoples of these islands and where they have come from, and then to offer a narrative of the first 12,000 years or so of the British and Irish based on current understandings. Any such narrative must, of course, be highly selective. This is not an archaeology of early Britain and Ireland.
Around 12,000 years ago, as the ice-sheets receded and temperatures began to rise, bands of hunter-gatherers started to populate the lands later to become the British Isles. The narrative outlined in the book has stressed the innate mobility of humankind, a mobility that is inherent in our genetic make-up.
Mobility may be motivated largely by instinct, but it is controlled within a social structure designed to encourage and reward it. Mobility may also be forced by demographic pressure. A community that has reached the holding capacity of its territory will encourage migration, usually by a section of its young. In more extreme cases populations may be driven from their lands by marauding neighbours or by environmental factors.

Cunliffe has an excellent prose style, so this is an easy read. He also has knowledge and experience, lightly worn, to know when to provide detailed examples and when to "pull back" and provide an interpretation of the longue duree.
I found the brief process of noting past generations interpretation of the archaeological records before setting out the details and basis of current understanding to be very useful. Occasionally Cunliffe will take a larger European view, but this is always relevant to subsequent developments in Britain. There are also three"interlude" chapters where Cunliffe examines issues outside of the chronological framework the chapters otherwise follow.
Cunliffe also peppers his narrative with interesting and humorous facts, retaining your interest by varying his delivery.
There is also an excellent guide to further reading at the end, as good books lead to others.

I read this book in two sessions, reading the first four chapters, which made me read more widely, in particular The Making of the Middle Sea about the populating of the Mediterranean and books about the Celts to tie in with an exhibition at the British Museum, before completing the book. ( )
  CarltonC | Jan 24, 2016 |
Another wonderful book from historian Barry Cunliffe, who can meld archaelogy and history into a fascinating tale better than any other writer I know. This book traces the history of the British Isles from the earliest human habitation up to the Norman Conquest. Most of the book, therefore, is based on archaelogical records rather than on written ones; it presents these so clearly that one can envision them, and shows how they suggest a pattern of history. There are a lot of unknowns, Cunliffe makes very clear, but there are also strong probabilities. Absolutely fascinating, and an engaging read as well ( )
  annbury | Jul 13, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0199609330, Hardcover)

The ancient Celts believed they were descended from Father Dis (Dis Pater), a god of the dead who resided in the west where the sun set. Today, ideas of our prehistoric origins are more likely based on ocean core samples, radio-carbon dating, and archeological artifacts. But as Barry Cunliffe reminds us in Britain Begins, an archaeologist writing of the past must be constantly aware that the past is, in truth, unknowable. Like the myth-making Celts, we too create stories about our origins, based on what we know today.

Cunliffe here offers readers a vision of both worlds, looking at new myths and old, as he tells the fascinating story of the origins of the British and the Irish, from around 10,000 BC 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, Cunliffe offers a rich narrative account of the first islanders--who they were, where they came from, and how they interacted with one another. Underlying this narrative is the story of the sea, and Cunliffe paints a fascinating picture of early ships and sails and of the surprising sophistication of early navigation. The story told by the archaeological evidence is enhanced by historical texts, such as Julius Caesar's well-known if rather murky vision of Britain. Equally interesting, Cunliffe looks at the ideas of Britain's origins formed by our long-ago ancestors themselves, when they used what scraps there were, gleaned from Biblical and classical texts, to create a largely mythological origin for the British.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:45 -0400)

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 withanother. 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.… (more)

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