The problem with prehistory is that there’s so much of it, and for much of the time, so little evidence to tell us what was going on. Nevertheless, archaeologists have become adept at interpreting what information we do have and theorising over what it all might mean.
In the book to accompany the eponymous BBC Two TV series, Neil Oliver brings together some of the archaeologists’ ideas in a very readable account of the human presence in the British Isles from the first arrival of people up to the end of prehistory, with a chapter on the Roman occupation to conclude.
The book’s format is traditionally chronological, yet also geographical. Oliver weaves in what he saw on his televised journey around the country’s key prehistoric sites, often in the company of the archaeologists who have been researching them.
He also describes some of the experiences he enjoyed (or endured) for the series, such as spending a day and night “in the Mesolithic” on the Hebridean island of Coll.
He talks about how he skinned a rabbit there, made fire and tried – without luck – to spear a fish; and how all of this was accompanied by an unfamiliar animal odour, from the fresh deer skin he slept under, that permeated everything. Asides like this make for good reading, and helpfully break up the discussion of the progression from Paleolithic arrivals, through Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, Neolithic farmers, and then onto the metal working Bronze and Iron Ages.
Though an archaeologist himself before he turned television presenter, Oliver might baulk at such bald use of archaeological periodic nomenclature as I’ve just outlined. He isn’t entirely complimentary about the habit of his colleagues to categorise the past.
“Rather in the manner of awkward teenage boys with their music collections, archaeologists are committed to making lists, putting things in order,” he notes at one point.
He follows and uses those lists and categories in his narrative, however, because you need such constructs if you’re going to have a chance to make sense of such a long period of time. But Oliver enlivens things by occasionally opining on the atmosphere of the prehistoric sites he’s visited, a habit he admits archaeologists are generally uncomfortable with.
At times, he allows his personal views perhaps to stretch the evidence a little too far – “smelling” guilt among early Bronze Age metal-makers over what they were taking from nature, for example. That aside, this book covers a lot of ground and introduces a lot of complicated ideas in a friendly and approachable fashion.
It adds up to a good guide to the current state of thought about British prehistory, touching on some of the latest research – though some more discussion on the important contribution of wetland archaeology to the story would have been welcome.
No doubt it will soon be out of date as new discoveries, theories and techniques arise, but for now it’s a fine introduction, and an excellent encouragement to get out and see some of the places under discussion.
David Musgrove is editor of BBC History Magazine and the author of 100 Places that Made Britain (BBC Books, 2011)
Britain's prehistoric stone circles