Ancestors: A prehistory of Britain in seven burials, by Alice Roberts

Portrait of TV Doctor Alice Roberts
Dave Stevens, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of my favourite tv moments was when we saw Alice Roberts approach an eminent palaeontologist on site. He dropped what he was doing. ‘Hello, Alice’ he said warmly, walking towards the camera, extending her a hand to shake. ‘OI’M Doctor Alice’, she replied. I was dying for him to say, ‘Yes. I know. That’s why I said, “Hello, Alice”.’

In this, her latest book, Dr Alice (that annoying, babyish nomenclature which was at one time confined to Middle Eastern students in our universities and now seems to be everywhere) turns her attention to some iconic British sites – including Paviland, Cheddar, Amesbury and Pontnewydd – and some iconic British archaeologists, including Augustus Henry Lane Fox, later Pitt Rivers.

Pitt Rivers died in 1900 and was cremated – very unusual for the time. Adrian Green, director of Salisbury Museum, shows Alice Pitt Rivers’ casket with his cremated ashes in and tells Alice that Pitt Rivers ‘was very particular about it [cremation]. There are stories that he used to argue with his wife, Alice, about it. Even in church. But she’s buried outside – and he’s in here, with this memorial’. He goes on to say ‘… she outlived him by ten years’.
‘And didn’t join him here, in the casket?’ [No, Alice, you’ve just been told that].
‘No, she’s out there, and he’s in here. She was buried. He was cremated’. [Thinks: ‘This is the second or possibly third time I’ve had to tell you that’].
‘I’m so intrigued that he dared to do that. To be cremated’. [I think we are going round in circles now … ]

Pitt Rivers, we are told more than once, was a racist, misogynist, colonialist ******* (insert your own insult) by virtue of the times he lived in. But, Alice then generously concedes, we should perhaps allow the thought that not absolutely everything he said was wrong. Thanks for that – I never thought that to begin with. I think you were the one implying that.

After her survey of the sites she has chosen, complete with updates, Alice gets distinctly finger-wagging. Do NOT, she sternly admonishes, try and claim these people as your own. They belong to everybody. The past belongs to everybody, also. The word ‘ancestors’, she tells us, just means ‘those who went before’. But, surely, there has to be more to where you place your attention than that, as – in archaeological terms – *everyone* went before. It is, in that sense, a meaningless concept.

We are told that race does not exist; it makes no biological sense, she says, except for those determined to be racist. So if you see a Chinese person or an African one, you’re just not seeing it, ok? But hang on – how can you even be racist, if race doesn’t exist? And didn’t Dr Alice, a few pages back, defending the Cheddar Man reconstruction (created, she says, by ‘wonderful Dutch palaeoartists’), just say that his genetic profile said he would have had ‘dark to “dark to black”’ skin? (Istr, on the other hand, the scientist who did the original research saying that we are a long way from being able to predict skin colour where prehistoric DNA is concerned). By the way – that thing about paler skin being an advantage in northern climes – you can forget that. Alice says it is ‘much more complicated’ than that. She says Cheddar Man shows us that. Talk about circular reasoning.

As if you didn’t know, we are also told there are many genders as well. Mirrors may be an indication of female attributes, but then again they may not, Alice tells us ; yet iron age mirrors are, she confides, mainly found in ‘female’ graves. Huh? What’s a female, then? Having told us not to be sexist, she then dubs one grave ‘the xx King, as I like to call him’. Sorry, did you just assume his gender?

Prone to bizarre analogies, at one point she compares a Neolithic mortuary practice of sweeping bones further into a tomb (to make way for new ones) to passengers moving along the platform at a Birmingham railway station in response to an overhead announcement. At another, we are treated to a discursion about all the metal things on her desk, to show how used we are to metal today. This leads on to a comment about how Alice was once wrong about the etymology of the word ‘ferrule’. Okaay.

She can be very patronising. ‘Wow! That’s a lot of anatomy!’ she says, having detailed how heavy archery can affect the shoulder joint.

Cambridge professor Graeme Barker is interviewed by Alice over the phone. He’s speaking about Shanidar, a cave in Iraqi Kurdistan which contained Neanderthal remains. Controversy had raged over whether the bodies had been deliberately placed there or had died under a rockfall. ‘The bones we’ve most recently excavated were placed in a shallow scoop that’s partly a water channel, but partly definitely cut – by someone’, says Graeme. This, Alice tells us, ‘suggested that the grave itself had been deliberately dug out and prepared’. You don’t say.

At the start of the book, she tells us in breathless tones how fantastic it is that science is giving us all this new information, as she sits in the Crick Institute with her new friends, researchers Tom and Pooja, but then says this work is ongoing and hasn’t reported yet – so we never get to hear what these amazing new facts are. I do understand that this type of undertaking can take years – but why make such a song and dance about it until you have something of major import to say? She is blown away by Pooja’s intention to study disease in ancient populations – as if this has never happened before. In fact, she frequently seems to find standard archaeological parlance perplexing, relating in a giggly manner complete with exclamation mark how another professor was ultra-cautious about Neanderthal burial, choosing only to say to her that ‘Some Neanderthals buried some of their dead some of the time’. This is in fact a perfect archaeological summary, an object lesson in how not to push the evidence too far, and I’m not quite sure why Alice seems to find it so risible.

The Amesbury Archer
Richard Avery, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Elsewhere, she tells us in tones of wonder about foraminifera (amoeba-like ocean-dwelling organisms) and their use as climate proxies (they respond to oxygen isotopes and can therefore, among other things, give some indication of oceanic temperature changes), without mentioning any of the limitations of this approach (many proxies are not as well calibrated or as well understood as one might suppose). I remember thinking as I went through it that, in another chapter, she seems to be labouring under a misapprehension about post-processual archaeology as well, but tbh I can’t be arsed to go back and check. At one stage, she suggests that western progress might be simply a matter of luck, of ‘living on top of fossil fuels’. Where that theory falls down is that the Arabs were ‘sitting on top of’ oil for centuries, and didn’t manage to extract it until the West sent people over to show them how.

Of course, covid gets a look-in. ‘In 2020, the need to memorialise lives lost and collectively make sense of grief suddenly came into very sharp focus with the unleashing of a global coronavirus pandemic. In the weeks leading up to lockdown in the UK, the government was holding meetings with religious leaders and humanist groups to consider the response to an inevitable sharp rise in mortality. Crematoria were urged to prepare to double their capacity – and, tragically, they needed to’.

Where is it, then, this doubling of the cremation rate?

This, it struck me, is the thing with Alice Roberts. She is a sort of sjw passive conduit – she has privileged access, writes down what she is told, then embellishes it with it a bit of ‘when I visited this magnificent building’ and ‘the field looked beautiful in the sunshine’ and ‘here is my opinion on something’. We are treated to reminiscences about when she dissected corpses to teach her anatomy students, how the train to Salisbury is always quicker than she expects, how her husband Dave surveyed Paviland cave by hand and knows it ‘in perhaps more detail than anyone alive’, whether or not burial should be abandoned for ‘resomation’ (composting bodies), Alice’s view on life after death (it doesn’t exist). Sprinkle on some identity politics, and there you go. I didn’t spot any startling deductions or any penetratingly original archaeological analysis. Here’s the thing – is this book supposed to be about archaeology, or about Alice Roberts?

Fair enough, you may say. She’s just doing what she does – she’s a tv presenter, an interested party bringing experts to us. Personally, I’d rather listen to the experts themselves, if that’s ok. They tend (not always, but tend) to be less politically skewed.

A serious defect in this work is the lack of maps or diagrams. There are sporadic illustrations, but mainly just of skeletons or objects. We are encouraged, however, to ‘picture’ the ancients, whether bent double in anguished mourning for their fallen colleagues, attending ritual events or spotting movement in the landscape, seeking their dinner. All a bit New Age and airy-fairy.

A ho-hum book which may be worth picking up if you have no knowledge of any of these well-documented sites. Might pass the time on a train journey.


© foxoles 2022