An extraordinary exploration of the ancestry of Britain through seven burial sites. By using new advances in genetics and taking us through important archaeological discoveries, Professor Alice Roberts helps us better understand life today. 'This is a terrific, timely and transporting book - taking us heart, body and mind beyond history, to the fascinating truth of the prehistoric past and the present' Bettany Hughes We often think of Britain springing from nowhere with the arrival of the Romans. But in Ancestors, pre-eminent archaeologist, broadcaster and academic Professor Alice Roberts explores what we can learn about the very earliest Britons, from burial sites and by using new technology to analyse ancient DNA. Told through seven fascinating burial sites, this groundbreaking prehistory of Britain teaches us more about ourselves and our history: how people came and went and how we came to be on this island. It explores forgotten journeys and memories of migrations long ago, written into genes and preserved in the ground for thousands of years. This is a book about belonging: about walking in ancient places, in the footsteps of the ancestors. It explores our interconnected global ancestry, and the human experience that binds us all together. It's about reaching back in time, to find ourselves, and our place in the world.
As well as a detailed consideration of the specific excavations chosen, Alice Roberts digresses occasionally with “quite interesting” facts and also onto contemporary issues (immigration, gender identity, religion and the Covid-19 pandemic), before bringing matters back to the archaeology. This can appear to be trying to bring extraneous issues to the reader’s attention, but Roberts does usually convincingly show how these current issues relate to the past, either directly or from our interpretation of the past. I did find it a bit annoying though, and it will date the book.
There is also a long second chapter about the “Red Lady” excavated at Paviland Cave, which I had read about at least twice before, but it is the major early burial, so Roberts probably had no choice but to discuss this burial.
I also formed the impression that this was not the polished book that Roberts might have hoped to complete, as some of the genome research has been delayed by prioritising Covid-19 work, and reports for other excavations have not yet been completed. However, this does not detract from the book, and makes one appreciate all the more that archaeology is a developing subject and not static.
This is my first book by Roberts, and I had not realised that she was a TV personality (although I had seen her in BBC programmes on the Celts and Stonehenge), so she does play to this expectation in her writing some of the time. This did work for me, as it made the book more personal and engaging, especially her trips to Salisbury Museum and discussion of Lane Fox Pitt Rivers (there is material for another book there!).
Overall, I enjoyed this book for the details of new excavations and the Salisbury Museum segments. I wouldn’t recommend it for your first British archaeology book (I read Britain Begins by Barry Cunliffe about five years ago and would recommend that), but it is good general book to read if you want to explore further.