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Throughout his writings, Barry Cunliffe, Professor of European Archaeology at the University of Oxford from 1972 to 2008, has stressed the agency of the sea as instrumental in establishing and sustaining human occupation in Western Europe over 12,000 years or so since the retreat of the last ice sheets (see Facing the Oceans, OUP 2001). In Britain Begins, Cunliffe investigates the shifting populations of Britain through to the Norman Conquest as islanders. Drawing on the latest archaeological results, together with new DNA and other laboratory evidence, the author identifies the first human groups to re-colonize these islands and follows the successive waves of immigrants, their origins and how they related to each other. Underpinning this epic narrative is the sea, which supported transport and communication with the continent of Europe.

The book begins with a famous line from Tacitus's Agricola (10): ‘nowhere does the sea hold wider sway: it carries to and fro in its motion a mass of tidal current and in its ebb and flow it does not stop at the coast but penetrates deep inland’. Over the millennia the sea has both separated and connected Britain to the European continent. Cunliffe consolidates the latest scientific evidence to tell us about Britain of the early Holocene, which was still connected at around 9000 BC to the European landmass via an expanse of low-lying land now named ‘Doggerland’ (after the Dogger Bank). Gradually, with the retreat of the ice sheet, this landscape became submerged by what is now the North Sea at some point around 5800–5400 BC, and it is possible that the Channel-to-North-Sea connection turning Britain into an island, was not fully established until 3800 BC, leaving behind islands of Doggerland that were not submerged until late into prehistory. Recently marine exploration has found traces of the hunter-gatherer populations and game herds that roamed across the forested plain of Doggerland for more than four millennia. Cunliffe invests great care in charting the developing coastline of the British Isles through prehistory, a coastline he is at pains to point out is still subject to change.

A central theme of Cunliffe's thesis is the mobility of human populations and their ability ‘to colonize virtually every ecological niche’. For much of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic eras we see a dynamic relationship between changes to the British landscape, its ecosystem and climatic conditions, and human occupation. The Atlantic seaways were a critical factor in the spread of the first Mesolithic fishing and hunting communities in western Scotland. Archaeological distributions of stone of restricted origin for the making of tools along the Atlantic coast in Scotland demonstrate the early importance of the sea as a ‘corridor of communication’. The sea as an agent of technical and cultural transfer is developed as a core theme of the British Neolithic. The discovery of domesticated animals in Mesolithic contexts in Ireland is explained through the maritime connection between Atlantic France and the British Isles. The spread of Neolithic agriculture and sedentary ‘lifeways’ into western France are explained by influences of central European impressed pottery cultures moving along central European river-ways and along the Mediterranean coastline.

Tracing mobility in early European populations relies increasingly on the study of genetics. Cunliffe traces seven distinct groups as female lineages based on mitochondrial DNA. The definition of these maternal bloodlines, together with paternal clans (haplotypes), creates a history of population movement, including patterns of earliest settlement in Britain and Ireland. The frequency of the genetic haplogroup R1b in Europe, suggests it may have originated in northern Iberia and spread along the Atlantic fringe of Europe at the end of the last Ice Age. In addition, latest advances in strontium-isotope ratios in early populations, which vary according to geology and also the age of the individual, offer an insight into the mobility of early peoples. For instance, strontium-isotope readings in tooth enamel match those of the area where the individual grew up. Variation in these readings in the bone tissue, which is replaced during life, would indicate that a person had migrated during his or her lifetime. The technique is being employed widely to trace the long-distance movement of Bell Beaker populations in third millennium central Europe. DNA and chemical analysis of the appearance of new gene lines reveal the direction and spread of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Britain around 4100–3800 BC, possibly linked to climatic changes favouring the cultivation of cereals. Cunliffe describes the acculturation of Neolithic farmers and coastal Mesolithic populations along the French and Belgian coasts giving rise to ‘multi-skilled communities’ to whom crossing the Channel to establish pioneer farming settlements would have offered no challenge. It is likely that cross-Channel cultural contact in the British Neolithic was frequent. But the evidence is greater for the maintenance of the Atlantic seaways, where at around 3000 BC the people building passage graves in Ireland, North Wales and Orkney were linked through the sharing of knowledge, values and beliefs.

The role of the seaways in maintaining connectivity between prehistoric populations in Britain, Ireland and Western Europe continues as a central strand in Britain Begins. As mobility increased over the course of the Neolithic-Bronze Age interface, more people crossed into southern and eastern Britain, bringing new ideologies, such as the Beaker culture, with them: ‘In this highly mobile world, mastery of the sea became an imperative: shipbuilding technologies improved, and power began to be expressed in terms of the ability to acquire rare raw materials brought from far’. But over the thousand years from 2500 to 1500 BC the nature of that mobility changed from initial exploration, to population movement and settlement, to elite adventuring, and finally to ‘the more mundane world of the trader’.

The Middle and Late Bronze Age between c.1500 and c.800 BC was a time of ‘dramatic change’. Throughout Britain communities shared in a widely available array of elite metalwork, both bronze and gold, produced by specialists and traded over long distances. The first half of the second millennium is a period rich in maritime archaeology. Seven sewn-plank vessels have so far been identified in British estuaries, while evidence on the long-distance bulk trade in metalwork is visible in several offshore finds, generally interpreted as wrecked cargo. The spectacular Langdon Bay find of northern French tools and weapons from beneath the chalk cliffs of Dover is illustrated.

There is much to interest the maritime or coastal archaeologist in the subsequent chapters charting the violent conflicts of the Iron Age, the ‘Roman episode’ and the post-Roman migrations. This is familiar territory but Cunliffe stresses the geopolitical realities of settlement, population movement and cultural change. The author notes that the Channel zone would have been alive with shipping throughout the Roman and immediate post-Roman periods, with Roman freighters and their naval escorts plying between British North Sea ports and the mouth of the Rhine replaced by ‘Saxon pirates’ and the first boat-loads of immigrants from the continental coast-lands. The late 5th and early 6th centuries also saw the intensification of cross-Channel trade between Kent and the early Frankish kingdoms. Cunliffe also gives particular attention to the vital role of the Atlantic sea-lanes in facilitating the spread of Christianity and monasticism into western Britain between the 5th and 7th centuries.

Britain Begins offers a sweeping narrative over 12 millennia of human exploration, migration, colonization and cultural exchange around the archipelago of islands on the fringes of the European continent. The author summarizes: ‘The restless nature of humankind and the ever-present sea created a population for which mobility was a defining characteristic.’ Few archaeologists have the breadth of knowledge or the nerve to write on such a canvas and Sir Barry Cunliffe has created an up-to-the-minute and accessible snapshot of recent advances in excavated data and palaeobiological research for both his profession and the general reader.