Digging up Britain: A New History in Ten Extraordinary Discoveries by Mike Pitts

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Reviewed by Liz Dexter

“Who are we? Where do we come from? What is Britain, and what does it mean to be British?”

This book opens eerily similarly to Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland, which I reviewed last for Shiny. However here, we’re not looking back 300 or so years to Empire, but many hundreds and then thousands of years to the waves of migration which created our country. 

With his background in both practical archaeology and journalism (not least being editor of British Archaeology magazine for 15 years), Pitts is supremely well-placed to give us this comprehensive but also compellingly fascinating and page-turning survey of British Viking to ancient history / prehistory.

Many of us have watched Time Team and various other TV archaeology shows; many of us have seen or heard of some of the sites discussed here (I was particularly pleased to find the Staffordshire Hoard featured), but how many of us have been able to keep up with the enormous strides that archaeological science has been making over recent decades? Pitts is able to take an admirable long view over most of these sites, showing how knowledge has increased and dates have gone back in time or been refined as often generation after generation of archaeologists have studied, pondered, hypothesised and published. 

The massive finding here is that people have been in Britain for much longer than we originally thought. They’re back to almost a million years now – and while there is not much to go on with the very early stuff, stories can be told, carefully, from evidence, and that evidence can be woven together to provide compelling discoveries and changes in thought. However, we certainly do not know everything yet: 

If we know anything, it is that there is so much more we don’t know. We open a door and see a new world: but all around are a hundred more doors, and we have no idea what lies behind them. We do, however, have the skills to explore further, and to confront more questions. If an outpouring of new data threatens continually to undermine the way we think about the past, this is without doubt the most exciting time to be an archaeologist.

This excitement comes through palpably in his descriptions of the sites and of the people working on them – and of his own work around Stonehenge, treated mid-way through the book. And the excitement carries us through any technical bits that might be daunting – he explains things very well and it’s extremely accessible, although you’d want to have some kind of interest in history and archaeology to get the best out of it. 

The book works backwards through time, starting with a Viking site and ending in the mists of prehistory, parting to show us pre-homo sapiens peoples living their lives and doing their thing. This seemed really logical to me, and worked really well, and the author explains it using the way archaeologists dig down through layers in trenches from newer to older. In each chapter, the careful and methodical recording and preservation of structures and finds is highlighted, with any new technologies that arise in the telling well-explained, and the various experts who are brought in – whether that’s people who know about pollens or people who know about human bones – are celebrated and given their space and story. It was fascinating to me to find out about new arrangements and legislation, too: for example, there’s a Portable Antiquities Scheme nowadays which works with detectorists to understand and record their discoveries in a national database, which has had a huge impact on the amount of data held in England and Wales on small and large finds which would have otherwise been missed by the authorities.

We move from rural Staffordshire and Norfolk to the centre of London, looking at layers of Roman history as we work back – and again, here, new planning legislation allows for the appropriate time for archaeologists to check what’s under new buildings, even if it was thought that we knew everything already. We’re soon in the Bronze Age, finding that every house has its set of bronze household implements, then there’s fascinating DNA evidence of population changes during the Neolithic, with Stonehenge being built by “immigrants” and being a place of spiritual importance for hundreds and hundreds of years. 

Pitts certainly has a mission to rescue the “hunter-gatherers” from their obscurity in children’s books and popular histories, even today:

Our hunter-gatherer past is dismissed as an episode of timeless savagery where nothing happened. In countries where there are hunter-gatherers today (often people pushed into marginal places where anyone else would find it hard to live at all), they can be treated as second-class citizens.

making the point that the hunter-gatherer part of our past accounts for over 99% of human history. Still looking at dismissive attitudes, he takes a very nuanced look at the so-called cannibalism of Gough’s Cave in the Ice Age, acknowledging it’s a difficult topic and looking at the people who have studied it and worked hard to find out what was going on. Pitts pays tribute to the “meticulous and wise” Roger Jacobi here who put together scattered finds from a site that had been excavated and carved out for well over a hundred years. 

John Welch / Gough’s Cave Reflection / CC BY-SA 2.0

At the end of the book, Pitts points out these are only some of the stories that could be told, and reminds us that there’s been a succession of worlds here, each with technologies and characteristics and cultures, just as important as the Victorian era or the Middle Ages, and that the prehistoric footprints at Happisburgh and the deer-hunters’ platforms at Star Carr are equally as important as a medieval cathedral or Roman London. All of us go back to dark-skinned hunter-gatherers who have walked over a land bridge, and he asks us to remember that in a striking finale.

This is the compact paperback edition of a book that originally came out in 2019. It has all the accoutrements you’d expect of an academic / popular science book – black and white illustrations in the text plus colour plates, notes and places to see / books to read on all the sites he treats and a comprehensive index. Although it’s a compact paperback and the margins are quite small, it’s really well-produced and easy to read. I hope it garners the success it deserves. 

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Liz Dexter used to do archaeology and likes to keep up with it without getting her knees muddy. She contributed in her own small way to saving the Staffordshire Hoard for the nation and blogs at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Mike Pitts, Digging up Britain: A New History in Ten Extraordinary Discoveries (Thames & Hudson, 2021). 978-0500296127, 288 pp., col. ill. paperback.

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  1. What a fascinating-sounding book, Liz – so wonderful that there are all these advances in technology so we can understand a little more of the past. i find Stonehenge particularly fascinating as I used to live in that area of the world.

    1. Yes, and great to have an accessible but serious book to tell us all about it. He worked on Stonehenge himself so that section really came alive.

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