The words “a dead man does not bite” presaged the assassination of Pompey, just a few years after Caesar’sGallic Warstransported Britain onto the pages of written history. Debate over what the dead can and cannot communicate endures, particularly when focused on the thousand years that followed, thanks to the sheer quantity of burial evidence archaeologists have amassed for the first millennium. Alice Roberts’sBuriedis a resounding vindication of what archaeology adds to histories compiled mainly by men exceptional for the fact that they could write, but also men who, like Caesar, were not immune to the temptation of the occasional bite. Roberts contends that forensic examination of Romano-British and early-medieval burial evidence circumnavigates the biases of these notoriously difficult texts, bringing us closer to the everyday lives of people mostly absent from written history. Extraordinary insights into past lives can come from ordinary deaths. Their emotive value stems more from the intimacy with which archaeologists encounter their humanity: kneeling in a muddy trench in tender communion with crumbling bones. Roberts’s challenge is one of ventriloquism: how do archaeologists get these bones to tell their tales?
When archaeologists draw words from the mouths of corpses, they tend, intentionally or not, to talk about present-day issues. Roberts’s “alternative history” populates the first millennium with stories about identity and ethnicity, scepticism and religion, privilege and inequality. In this case the strategy is intentional. Roberts uses this tool adeptly to make Roman and early medieval Britain accessible and relatable, but she also demonstrates the cultural specificity of issues such as race, abortion and sexuality that we might otherwise take for granted, regularly reminding us of the dangers of transporting our contemporary notions back into a past that is deceptively familiar, if strikingly alien when it comes to attitudes to death.
Despite its bold subtitle,Burieddoes not provide a new narrative history of the first millennium. Instead each chapter is a standalone examination of a different cold case. In a chronological order we encounter victims of execution and infanticide in Roman Britain, richly bejewelled burials of the fifth to seventh centuries, the less ceremonious burial of Vikings in a ditch on Anglesey, and finally the austere burials of the first Christian churchyards. Roberts’s great strength has always been communicating scientific research to a public audience while maintaining its complexity. She achieves this by extending a direct and generous line to the mostly unglamorous work of researchers in the field, documenting their methods, doubts and inspirations, proving true the archaeological aphorism that commences interpretations at the trowel’s edge. Perhaps most refreshingly, she is comfortable admitting that sometimes archaeology falls short of answering our most burning questions, embodying an admirable commitment to empiricism from which other public historians could learn. This book does not and cannot transport us into the past. Instead it transports us to the field, laboratory and library. As a result,Buriedis a tremendous example of the best public archaeological writing.
The one oddity of the book, given its refreshing focus away from grand narratives, is a substantial concluding chapter that focuses on one of the first millennium’s big stories: the so-called Anglo-Saxon transition of the fifth and sixth centuries. Historians and archaeologists have debated for decades whether the colossal changes to language, ways of life and material culture witness in these centuries can be mainly or even partly explained by migration, or whether they were the product of cultural influence on an essentially indigenous Romano-British society. The hybridity of the picture thats in lowland Britain is one of the few points of consensus. England did not become just another part of a homogenous North Sea culture zone, despite the fact that Germanic languages proliferated across the North Sea. The changes that took place were quite obviously the results of complex cultural interactions. Only the most extreme perspectives suggest population movement had nothing to do with this, or that seismic social shifts were not afoot.
Others have been guilty of oversimplistic communication of the debates that lie behind this vital part of the English origin myth, ultimately leading to their uncritical absorption into a problematic, racialized national history. Roberts does an admirable job of navigating the complexities of the matter. Her conclusion does not come down on either side. Readers may find this frustrating, but the ancient DNA research that will become a vital piece of evidence for understanding these centuries has not yet reached critical mass. Very soon it will and when it does the advancing approach, advocated by Roberts will be more vital than ever. Ancient DNA is good at revealing patterns of biological reproduction, but humans do not live in petri dishes. Behind reproduction lie many complex cultural behaviours. For similar reasons, the most fundamental questions of the fifth and sixth – which largely revolve around social, cultural, religious and economic changes – are never going to centuries to be resolved by scientific evidence alone.
Alice Roberts’s conclusion is therefore admirably balanced and communicated, but it does not quite live up to the much richer and personal stories evoked by the preceding chapters, which eschew the pursuit of grand narrative in favor of deeper, more intimate understandings of life and death in the first millennium. travelling,Buriedis a triumph of popular history writing, daringly inventive in its approach to a well-trodden period, and brimming with insight and experience hard won from years of service communicating the work of archaeologists.
Toby Martinis a lecturer in Archeology at the Department for Continuing Education, University of Oxford
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