Ancestors by Alice Roberts review – a story of movement and migration

In 2002, not far from Amesbury in southern Wiltshire and a mile or so from Stonehenge, archaeologists were investigating the site of a new school when they discovered something remarkable. It was the grave of a man, aged between 35 and 45, who died more than 4,000 years ago. Wessex Archaeology conducted the excavation and they labelled his remains as “skeleton 1291”. But to the public he soon became known as the Amesbury Archer.

Among his bones were no fewer than 18 beautifully crafted flint arrowheads. The shafts had long since rotted away, along with the bow. But their positioning suggested they had been cast into the grave after the body had been laid in the wood-lined chamber. Together with two stone wrist guards, or bracers, they formed the largest collection of bronze age archery equipment ever found.

Indeed the grave itself contained nearly a hundred items – including copper knives, gold objects, boars’ tusks and a shale ring – making it the most richly furnished grave from the period that had ever been discovered in Britain. The grave goods and the broken remains of five distinctive pottery beakers with a characteristic upside-down bell shape revealed it to be a Beaker burial. As Alice Roberts writes, the number of items and the care with which the grave had been created shows that “the Archer was a Very, Very Important Person”.

The Amesbury Archer is preserved in Salisbury Museum and, according to Roberts, “our visits to museums, to gaze on such human remains, are a form of ancestor worship”. In her book, Roberts takes seven different prehistoric burials and explores who they may have been and what they reveal about their communities. It requires imagination, as well as scientific expertise, to read the “stories written in stone, pottery, metal and bone”.

Roberts takes us on an evocative and vividly described journey through deep history, from the so-called “Red Lady” discovered in Paviland Cave, Wales, believed to date back more than 30,000 years (“by far the earliest burial found anywhere in Britain”), to Orkney and the tombs of the first farmers (“the most profound revolution that human societies have ever experienced”) dating back some 5,000 years, as well as to the extraordinary iron age chariot burials of Yorkshire , where she cautions against imposing our own ideas of gender on the past: “perhaps the Romans were right to be wary of the formidable females of Britain – wise women, prophetesses, priestesses, Ladies, Queens … they appear charismatic, formidable, powerful even in death.”

Isotopic analysis of the Amesbury Archer’s teeth reveals that he may have grown up near the Alps. Studies of DNA from other Beaker graves in Germany show ancestry from the Eurasian steppe and migration clearly played a major role in establishing Beaker culture. Indeed, in Britain genomes are dramatically different after 2500BC: “Neolithic ancestry is almost completely replaced, in the copper age, by genomes that share ancestry with central Europeans associated with the Beaker complex.”

This forms a central theme in Ancestors. Roberts is fascinated by “the endless movement and migrations – the restlessness – of the past”. Across millennia, generations of people have flowed through regions and continents like water over rock: the landscapes remain, as do the burials – fixed coordinates amid the flux of time.

This is something that a new research project will explore in unprecedented detail. In spring 2019, when Roberts began researching her book, she met a group of scientists at the Crick Institute in London who were involved in “the most ambitious archaeological genetic project that has ever been carried out in Britain”. They intend to fully sequence a thousand ancient genomes, which it is hoped will reveal the connectedness, the shared ancestry, of people across Britain and beyond: “Ancient DNA bears clues to forgotten journeys – memories of migrations long ago, written into genes.”

The scale and the detail of the Thousand Ancient Genomes project, which is collaborating with archaeologists across the UK, could transform our understanding of prehistoric Britain, especially as regards mobility and migrations. Roberts clearly hoped to include findings from this project in her book. Unfortunately, the pandemic intervened, and the Crick Institute suspended work on everything apart from coronavirus testing.

Although Roberts does draw on genomic evidence to show the migration of peoples in prehistory, what is so fascinating about this book is the way it weaves together scientific and cultural interpretation. Detailed archaeology – trowel work – as well as historical imagination are still essential to understanding the past.

At one point Roberts memorably describes excavating Beaker pottery, like that found in the grave of the Amesbury Archer. It was, she writes movingly, “a gorgeous object”, one that allowed her to feel a profound connection across time to those involved in the burial: “Human experience is built of moments – and here were two, linked together across millennia. The moment I lifted the bowl out of the grave, my hands earthy from digging; the moment the potter (the mourner, the parent?) held the bowl in their hands, making that corded pattern, their hands covered in clay.”

This is a detailed and richly imagined account of the deep history of the British landscape, which brings alive those “who have walked here before us”, and speaks powerfully of a sense of connectedness to place that is rooted in common humanity: “we are just the latest human beings to occupy this landscape”.

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