Well Read

Prof Alice Roberts talks about her latest book “Buried: An alternative history of the first millennium in Britain”

Buried: An alternative history of the first millennium in Britain (Simon & Schuster, £20, 352pp, hb)

Ten minutes into our video call, Professor Alice Roberts lifts a lock of pink hair and taps a spot just behind her right ear. “That’s the petrous temporal bone, under your skull, right there,” she says. “It shines white on lateral X-rays because it’s the densest bone in the human body. It has to be dense for acoustic reasons, because it houses the workings of the inner ear.”

The biological anthropologist is regularly seen dusting off ancient human skulls on popular archaeology TV shows like Digging for Britain. But she’s particularly keen on the petrous temporal bone because its density helps preserve the DNA that becomes degraded and contaminated by soil microbes in thinner parts of the skeleton.

In her new book, Buried: An Alternative History of Britain in the First Millennium (published on 26 May), she describes the “breathtaking” pace of change in genetic technology in the two decades since the human genome was first sequenced. A human genome can now be deciphered in a day, spilling long-kept secrets of race, sex and appearance. As a scientist committed to unearthing the personal narratives of the dead, Roberts has been fascinated by the “patterns of relatedness” this DNA is revealing. Recent analyses of individuals from Neolithic tombs in the UK and Ireland have shown us a daughter buried in the same tomb as her father, two brothers buried together, and a man whose parents were either siblings or a parent and child, giving us a clearer picture of social structures in those places 5000 years ago.

More controversially, the new technology can also shed light on population movements in the past. One recent revelation has been the changes that came with the appearance of the Beaker culture in Britain and Ireland, with genomic data showing a 90 per cent population turnover in the third millennium BC. As Roberts wrote in an article for New Scientist last year: “This information was met with consternation by some archaeologists. Did a mass of invaders sweep in and take over? Some headlines stoked that idea, suggesting that ‘Dutch hordes’ had killed off the ‘Britons who started Stonehenge’.”

Roberts stresses that: “The language we use is crucial. Archaeologists take ‘migration’ to mean a very deliberate, large-scale movement of people: a forced relocation or a planned invasion. However, to geneticists, it simply means people moving and having children somewhere different. Such a migration could happen over many generations. Differences in concepts and definitions can lead to misunderstanding.”

At a time of rising nationalism around the world, archaeo-genetics is showing us that the racial dynamics of the British population have been fluid for millennia. “History is political – oh yeah!” says Roberts. “Work like mine couldn’t NOT have a modern political context. In approaching how any society works you are inevitably comparing it with your own.”

Buried is the second in a trilogy of books that began last year with Ancestors: The Prehistory of Britain in Seven Burials. In that book, Roberts told the stories of the “Red Lady” of Paviland (who turned out to be a man), “Cheddar Man” (who we now know probably had green eyes and lactose intolerance) and the “Amesbury Archer”, who died more than 4,000 years ago and was buried (along with eighteen exquisitely crafted, flint-headed arrows) a mile or so from Stonehenge. Isotopic analysis of the Amesbury Archer’s teeth reveals that he may have grown up near the Alps. An immigrant, then. And now an exhibit at the Salisbury Museum. Roberts notes that those who now come to view his remains in their carefully lit and labelled museum case are participating in a modern form of “ancestor worship”.

“The burials I described in Ancestors were only approachable through the archaeology,” says Roberts. “With Buried I was looking at the Romans, Anglo-Saxons and the earliest churchyards and I really became aware of the allure of written history they left. The loud voices of those early sources want to take over and superimpose themselves onto bones, so I had to be careful to protect the archaeology.”

Because Roberts began her career as a doctor, she tells me that weighing human narratives against physical evidence is deeply ingrained in her mindset. Born in Bristol in 1973, she’s the daughter of an aeronautical engineer and an English and arts teacher. “I knew I wanted to be a doctor from the age of eleven,” she says, “and I pursued that fairly single-mindedly.” Although science was her main passion, she maintained an interest in the arts; in December 1988 she won the Blue Peter Young Artists competition, appearing with her picture and the presenters on the front cover of the 10 December 1988 edition of Radio Times. “I also did art at A-level, for my own sanity,” she adds, raising her palms at the way “science and humanities cultures were so divided back then. My art lessons clashed with physics, because it hadn’t occurred to the school that anybody in their right mind would be taking both. I had to do my art at lunchtimes!”

She studied medicine in Cardiff (where she met her husband, archaeologist David Stevens) and fell in love with the careful art of dissection. “We did nine hours of dissection a week, which is unheard-of now. It’s been squeezed out by other subjects, like the massive expansion of bimolecular science – which has to be taught, but a good knowledge of anatomy is [also] essential, and I do worry there isn’t enough of it in current medical courses.”

Roberts worked as a junior doctor in South Wales for eighteen months before taking what she thought would be a brief break as an anatomy demonstrator at the University of Bristol. “I did know in advance that there would be an opportunity to look at some archaeological bones,” she smiles, “and that led to a PhD in paleoarchaeology and the bones led to broadcasting.”

Alice Roberts – Photo: Dave Stevens

Roberts first appeared on television in the Time Team Live 2001 episode, working on Anglo-Saxon burials at Breamore, Hampshire. “TV felt weird at first,” she says. “But it helped that I’d done some teaching first and I love interviewing people. I’m not interested in making “illustrated lectures” for the TV. You won’t see me striding through a landscape, delivering my grand theories. I try to get the information out in conversation with experts.”

Some reviews focused – ickily – on her appearance, but Roberts has learned to ignore sexist feedback. “I remember one article described me as ‘a boffin without a beard’. Eugh! I hate the word ‘boffin’ and is it really still surprising that there are academics without a beard? What an antiquated attitude!”

She notes that “archaeology on TV has always pulled in big audiences. It has all the stuff: jeopardy, reality, life, death… But the commissioners also need to be quite brave because they have to green-light programmes with absolutely no idea what we’re going to find.” She’s also glad that Digging for Britain has returned to BBC2 this year after a spell struggling by on a tiny budget for BBC4. “We didn’t leave BBC2 because viewing figures dropped,” she says. “We were doing very well. The commissioners…” she shrugs, “I dunno, I think they fell out of love with archaeology. When we went back to BBC2 they didn’t even trail the programme, but we still got exceptional viewing figures – 2.5million on a weekday evening. Brilliant!”

One of the joys of Roberts’ TV programmes is the respect with which she treats the dead. “There has been a tendency to look back and assume “life was cheap and meaningless” back then. It’s an attitude that can also come out in contemporary societies too. But that’s not true, is it?” Equally, as President of the charity Humanists UK, she rejects the “strange reverence” with which some historians approach the beliefs of the past. “I mean, for a start, the only people writing the early histories were in religious institutions, so they probably were religious. Or if they weren’t, they couldn’t write that they weren’t…”

In Buried, she returns to the Breamore burials which featured in her first TV programme to speculate about the imminent DNA analysis, which may well prove the deceased were plague victims. She also examines Anglo-Saxon “burial bling” and “deviant burials” in which people were interred facing down or with their heads placed “disturbingly” between their legs. She argues that there may always been some people who embrace supernatural explanations for the world around them and others who take a more rational approach. Investigating the Roman “pipe burials” at Caerleon, Monmouthshire, Roberts speculates about the mourners who inserted lead pipes into the graves of their cremated dead. Were they pouring down tributes? If so, did they believe the deceased knew what they were doing or was it just a comforting ritual?

“Was it a solemn affair,” she wonders, “the paterfamilias pouring a cup of blood or wine into his father’s grave while the children were desperate for it all to be over? Or was it more joyful – was merriment permitted? Someone raising a glass, another cracking a joke, while yet another tells one of those family stories that become richer with every telling, binding the clan in the fabric of stories that tie us together.”

“Hopefully, I’m very clear about where the evidence stops and where the speculation begins,” she tells me. “We have to guard against the opinion of one archaeologist at one point in time becoming ‘the answer’. At Yewden Roman Villa in Hambleden, Hampshire, an archaeologist called Alfred Heneage Cocks [who reported his findings in 1921] assumed that the disposal of newborn infant bodies was ‘probably nefarious and they were probably getting rid of these bodies at night.’ Well, really?! Can we just back up a bit?” Roberts speculates about the possibility of a Roman abortion clinic, or obstetrics centre. She also reminds us that while the disposal of babies’ bodies beneath walls might have struck Cocks as an unnatural act of furtive disposal, it may well have been considered a means of keeping them close, like the garden burials some choose today.

When it comes to post-mortem plans for her own body, Roberts tells me she will “probably leave it to medical science because I have learned so much from the amazing generosity of so many people who have done that.” Then grins. “But in a more flippant way I’d like to be buried in a Bronze Age cist. A stone-lined burial, in a crouched position, in a lovely little pot that someone’s made for me. So that one day archaeologists will scratch their heads over the weird, four-thousand-year gap between the earliest and latest examples of this burial.”

Those archaeologists will be able to use her petrous temporal bone to create Roberts’ biological profile. Or maybe they’ll be less invasive and leave the skull intact. “We’ve also managed to get DNA from the auditory ossicles, the three little ear bones,” says Roberts. “They’ll often just tumble out if you rattle a skull. You don’t even have to use a drill!”

Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail

Arts & Culture

1 Comment. Leave new

  • Sue Ashford
    May 11, 2022 4:46 pm

    Great article about what sounds a fascinating book about a still growing and fascinating field of human directed inquiry.

    Reply

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