Britain Begins

Author: Barry Cunliffe

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Copyrighted: 2013

ISBN: 978-0-19-960933-8

Pages: 553 pages


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.

Table of Contents (plus my own notes):

Chapter 01: In the Beginning-Myth and Ancestors (It is a survey of what the classical writers said about Britain and Ireland which then moves on to the writers of the Christian Era like Bede.  It then moves forward into the 17th, 18th and 19th century, setting the scene on what these writers thought the history of Britain was.)

Chapter 02: Britain Emerges-The Stage is Set (Similar to his previous two books, Cunliffe uses this chapter to set the stage by going through the geographical appearance of Britain and what the land has to offer in minerals and topography.  The chapter also talks about the relationship of the sea and land and how Britain became an Island as well as the early humans.  Cunliffe also talks about what was said about the shape of Britain by the classical writers and the connections that are made via the oceans and seas between Britain and the continent.)

Chapter 03: Interlude-Enter the Actors (This chapter talks about all the different ways that people have classified the Britons and the Irish. Starting with craniology, the facial features, DNA and finally food.)

Chapter 04: Settlement Begins, 10000 – 4200 BC  (A chapter about the first settlers and settlements in Britain and Ireland.  Cunliffe talks about the communities themselves and what they left behind as evidence, how they behaved socially and even about DNA evidence.)

Chapter 05: New People, New Ideas, 42000 – 3000 BC (The chapter talks about the Neolithic package and its arrival to Britain and Ireland.  It talks about how it may have arrived and what it meant for the people who experienced it.  It also talks about all the megalith in Britain and Ireland and the DNA of that period.)

Chapter 06: Mobilising Materials-A New Connectivity, 3000 – 1500 BC  (This chapter is all about the movement and connectivity between the main land Europe and Britain and Ireland. This means people and commodities as well as cultural influences.)

Chapter 07: Interlude-Talking to Each Other (Chapter seven is called an interlude, and it is the longest explanation of the “Celtic from the West” offered to date.)

Chapter 08: The Productive Land in the Age of Warriors, 1500 – 800 BC (It is about an increase in population thanks to improved climate and agriculture and the rise of the Warrior elite.)

Chapter 09: Episodes of Conflict, 800 – 60 BC (Cunliffe talks about the shift from Bronze to Iron and how that happened, he talks about how the La Tene culture spread to Britain and Ireland and he talks about the hilforts and the a little at the very end of the chapter about the four seats of kingship in Ireland.)

Chapter 10: Interlude-Approaching the Gods (This chapter deals a little with religion. Basically the emphasis was on what Caesar and other classical writers wrote about the Druids and sacrifices, especially human sacrifices. In one paragraph at the end of the chapter talks about how the Gods of the Celts could be divided into two broad categories where the females were basically land deities associated with springs, river, and land, and the males were sky deities. Then he adds in one sentence where he pairs up An Dagda and An Morrigan.)

Chapter 11: Integration-The Roman Episode, 60 BC – AD 350 (The chapter talks about the period Between 60 BCE 350 CE. It talked about the Roman invasion of Britain, the periods of turbulence afterwards and the Romanization of Britain. It also talked about the interactions between Roman Gaul and Britain as well as Ireland and how it was affected by the addition of Britain to Rome.)

Chapter 12: “Its Red and Savage Tongue”, AD 350 – 650 (A discussion of the fall of Rome, and its withdrawal from Britain. The raids on Britain by the Saxons, Angles, Jutes, Irish and Picts, and the chaos of the period between 350 – 650 CE. Interspersed in the chapter are writings by Bede, Gildas, and Zosimos and archeological evidence.)

Chapter 13: The Age of the Northmen AD 600 – 1100 (The Vikings are here, all the dynamics of the kingdoms in Britain and the contribution of the Vikings to both Britain and Ireland.)

Chapter 14: Of Myths and Realities-An Epilogue (A two page round up of the book.)


The book is beautifully illustrated, there are great maps and and even more fun, a long list of further readings divided by chapters.

Now that that is out of the way, I’m of two minds about this book.  On the one hand it offers good, up to date solid information on the history of Britain and Ireland and if you have never read a book on the history and prehistory of the region then this is the best place to start.  On the other hand if you have read, Europe Between the Oceans and Facing the Ocean then you’ve pretty much read this book.  The only difference here is he focuses on Britain and Ireland and includes DNA data, and some classical and medieval writings.  The one major difference in this book is that while in his previous two books he gave us the Celtic from the West theory as if it was a well known fact to everyone here he actually took a chapter to explain it (Chapter 07).

I guess my advice would be if you didn’t get the previously mentioned books and want a book on this specific region then this is a great book to get, but if you have either one then take the time to check it out of the library and see if you think it is worth it to buy your own copy or just photocopy the relevant sections that you are interested in.